Coming this week from England to Apple TV+, "Still Up" is a romantic comedy about a pair of London insomniacs who keep in touch through the night by smartphone and laptop. Its underlying construction, that of friends who are possibly destined to be something more, is not new. "When Harry Met Sally…" springs readily to mind, and with protagonists who never share physical space, it's a chip off of "Sleepless in Seattle," not to mention the sleeplessness.
Yet the series feels fresh and authentic, for the writing of creators Steve Burge and Natalie Walter and the performances of stars Antonia Thomas and Craig Roberts, who are so good at being Lisa and Danny, respectively, that one hardly wants to see them play anyone else. Interestingly, the actors are best known here for American series, where they speak with American accents — Thomas from ABC's "The Good Doctor," where she spent four seasons as Dr. Claire Browne, and Roberts as the lead in Amazon Prime's "Red Oaks."
It takes place almost entirely at night, when, for practical or budgetary reasons, most other TV shows are in bed. Dark streets and lighted windows conspire to make a familiar kind of magic; it's a different world when the sun goes down and the workaday world packs it in, quieter, emptier, weirder. Late hours are amenable to talk, whether serious or silly, and talk is the series' stock in trade. "In my midnight confessions," sang the Grass Roots, "when I say all the things that I want to." You love-struck night owls know what I'm talking about.
Danny is agoraphobic, socially anxious, obsessive, something of a hypochondriac and nominally a journalist, that most nominal of television professions. A music writer by preference — there is a possibility of a job at Rolling Stone, and a Velvet Underground reference, but little else to suggest that this is even a field of interest — he is presently stuck writing pieces on "12 Ways to Know Your Dog's Depressed" and "10 Things They Haven't Told You About Vinegar." ("What haven't they told us about vinegar?" asks Lisa. "I don't know," he replies, "I haven't made them up yet.") He doesn't go out but does have some face-to-face intercourse with neighbors Adam (Luke Fetherston), who is helpful, and another, identified as Cat Man (Rich Fulcher, Britcom's favorite American weirdo), who's nosy — but like every other character here, good-hearted.
Lisa is an illustrator, for what that's worth, not without her own fears and indecision and impracticality. She lives with Veggie (Blake Harrison), the Ralph Bellamy of the piece, who considers himself a stepfather to her daughter, Poppy (Bronte Smith). (We don't see much of Poppy, but logically, she would be asleep when the show takes place.) By the rules of the genre, Veggie must be made a little boring, and is. He does something in insurance; is preparing for a "brickathalon" in which competitors run, swim and cycle, "but at the end you have to build a small wall"; and posts "unboxing [videos] for unboxers." (Reviewing a box cutter: "In terms of color, it comes in red, black, silver, green, lime green — doesn't come in purple, which I thought was a shame."). His name may be a little too on the nose.
But Burge and Walter have taken care to write Veggie as kind, sincere and sympathetic and not easy to write off, so that dramatic expectations notwithstanding, it's hard to tell just where they're all headed and with whom. That gets only harder after we meet Amy (Lois Chimimba), Danny's first date in three years.
Veggie is a more centered, better adjusted person than Danny, but people in the movies rarely prefer the well-adjusted to the wild, and that is how we like it. Danny and Lisa are attractive (which is not quite to say attracted) to one another, and to us, in part because of their eccentricities, which they understand on a primal level, and we are clearly meant to regard their relationship as primary. Indeed, the suggestion that one might ever turn away from the other sets up tension, in the characters and viewer alike.
Lisa and Danny are continually in each other's business even as they conduct their own, delivering real time updates, making jokes, asking for advice. (Danny asks Lisa whether he should open all his cupboard doors so that when Amy comes over, "she'll know I'm not concealing any weapons or recording devices.") Lisa is often out of the house and in motion: roaming the aisles of a pharmacy that's open late and where no one seems to be working; on a bus contending with impudent youths; breaking the rules at a sleep clinic; wasted and lost after a bachelorette party. Danny has his home-bound storylines — getting a pizza delivered in a way that won't signal to a neighbor that he's home, trying to get a pigeon out of his flat — and their constant telephonic connections link the A and B stories into a kind of shared C story that forms the actual spine of the series.
The series is more episodic than serial, and fully sitcomedic in its complement of embarrassing situations, but gathers emotional weight as we get to know its people better. And it does slowly bend to an arc. Sweet without being sentimental, sharp but never nasty, "Still Up" entertains questions of fate and timing that in the end make the comedy powerful and moving. Still, though it follows the forms of the rom-com — there will be running — it does so in its own way: Rather than standing in the rain in a crucial moment, say, a character might be attacked by a sprinkler.
How to watch: Apple TV+
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