Everyone should be able to appreciate Rev
I’ve waited a long time for this – on Monday, Rev returns to our screens, probably for the last time. It’s one of my very favourite shows, but I’ve always found it hard to summarise its appeal for the benefit of those who haven’t watched it. It’s very frustrating to like something without being able to explain why, so it’s about time I had a proper go here.
First, it’s easiest to say what it isn’t. Rev isn’t really a sitcom, although it is funny, but nor is it a straight drama. It walks a delicate line, portraying the reality of inner-city church life as accurately as any series I’ve seen and allowing the humour to flow naturally from the absurdity of situations that many churchgoers will recognise – the plots and ideas are meticulously researched and typically based on real events, however unlikely that may seem.
Similarly, Rev is neither Christian nor atheist in its outlook – the nearest it gets is in assuming a certain familiarity with the way churches work. Adam Smallbone, the eponymous “Rev”, isn’t charismatic or a hero, and often looks like a prime candidate for the Clergy Project, but he’s also a genuinely sympathetic character, doing his best to make his vocation actually mean something, even if he often suspects it’s all pointless.
The characters can seem crudely sketched at first glance, but look again. Adoha and Colin will be familiar to just about anyone with connections to a city parish, yet both have far more depth than is initially obvious. Archdeacon Robert is very close to a pantomime villain, but even he is both based on reality and surprisingly vulnerable from time to time. Like the rest of the series, they tread a line between gritty realism and amusing caricature, and do it very well.
Mostly, though, I find the portrayal of “Rev” and his wife very thought-provoking, and I say that as someone who knows his share of clergy. They both find themselves defined by his job, even though she’s a solicitor and he’s a pretty normal guy who happened to end up in a dog collar. Maybe it’s his honest, self-doubting train-of-thought prayers, or maybe it’s the thought that this could have been me in a parallel universe, but I really feel for him.
He has the same worries, the same peculiarities and the same weaknesses as any of us, but his job makes it impossible for him to talk openly about them in most situations, and can be unsettling for the viewer. Whatever our beliefs, we all have expectations of the clergy, mostly unjustified, and it’s hard to accept that they’re just normal people. It’s funny to see a vicar getting drunk and flirting outrageously with the school headmistress, but it’s also quite revealing. Under the cassock, there’s a real person.
It’s people with both experience of the church and a healthy lack of respect for it who will get the most out of Rev. Much of the humour is based around religious beliefs and practice, so a degree of familiarity helps, but if you’re likely to be offended by seeing a large plastic (ex-lemonade?) bottle in the vestry labelled “Holy Water”, this probably isn’t for you.
Although the setting and environment are obviously significant, the portrayal of the characters as generally nice but also very flawed doesn’t easily fit into a simplistic dichotomy of for or against religion. They aren’t a political or theological statement, they’re just a reflection on what it’s really like in churches like this – a poignant, thought-provoking depiction of the messy, muddled realities of church life.
If you’re looking for something that makes you feel good about your existing beliefs, whatever they are, Rev isn’t going to be for you. But if you want an amusing yet accurate insight into what really happens in churches, you couldn’t do better. I highly recommend it.