BBC’s ‘Ghosts’ is British humour at its finest

March 12, 2021

Have you ever stumbled onto a show that just makes you smile? A show that is sweet and funny, where you like every character and you always leave an episode feeling a little better? I found BBC’s “Ghosts” on HBO Max and, having been familiar with the cast from the iconic musical sketch comedy “Horrible Histories,” decided to give it a watch. This supernatural sitcom is adorable, amusing and slightly tragic all at once. It also may be my favorite show I’ve watched this year.

Alison (Charlotte Ritchie) and her husband Mike (Kiell Smith-Bynoe) inherit a massive estate in shambles. They plan to keep the house and transform it into a hotel until someone nudges Alison out a second-story window and she nearly dies. When she returns from the hospital, she is greeted by a plethora of new faces—faces that Mike cannot see. Alison’s near-death experience has given her the ability to see ghosts. The show focuses on Alison, Mike and eight of the ghosts who are sentenced to roam the Button House estate.

Many things make this show lovely, but what caused me to fall so in love with it were the characters. The young adorable couple with great chemistry, the abundance of memorable side characters and, most importantly, the fantastic eight lead ghosts, each representing different time periods in English history. I could gush about each character for paragraphs but I would not want to rob readers the experience of watching each character unfold and progress throughout the first two seasons of “Ghosts.” 

Everyone on the show is funny and entertaining, but there is still a palpable tragedy to the majority of them. More than half of the characters we meet are dead and trapped in purgatory, with Alison serving as their only connection to the mortal world. For characters like Pat, the scout leader (Jim Howick), or Captain, the soldier (Ben Willbond), their deaths occurred in modern history and carry a weight of realism because of that. Thomas the poet (Mathew Baynton) and Fanny the former owner of Button House (Martha Howe-Douglas), on the other hand, died centuries ago but in rather heartbreaking ways. Atop the foundation on which these likable, unique characters lie are real personalities, traumas and tragedies. This also makes their relationships so powerful. Fanny and Kitty (Lolly Adefope), the Georgian noblewoman, share a past of wealth and extremely high societal expectations. Robin the Caveman (Lawrence Rickard) and Mary the witch trial victim (Katy Wix) are the two oldest ghosts and therefore connect as outsiders to the modern world. All the central ghosts—and as the show continues, Alison—are close friends with long complex relationships. But as they are all roommates forced together for the foreseeable future, they tend to butt heads, usually because of the actions of Captain or Julien (Simon Farnaby), the ghost of a disgraced member of parliament. The characters are just wonderful. There is no villain nor clear lead ghost, there is no Jim and Pam love arc: everyone gets the focus they deserve. And none of this would be possible without the heart put into the writing and acting in this show.

British humor is an acquired taste. Pacing, delivery, wording and the basic contents of a standard sitcom joke vary massively between British and American television, as any viewer of both “The Office” and “The Office (UK)” can attest. While “Ghosts” is a show that can be enjoyed by all ages, for viewers with no experience in the realm of dry and silly British humor, it can be plodding. With that stipulation made, this show is hilarious, constantly. Some darker undertones and B plots aside, every episode has a dozen laugh-out-loud moments and wonderfully quotable lines like Thomas’s overdramatic “I’m going to go drown myself in the lake” or the closeted Captain’s dismay about “actors lounging about the house … topless, oiled up, kissing each other probably.” 

While there is not a single bad episode of this show, I wanted to mention a few of my favorites. “Gorilla War” is the second episode of the first season and it’s the first time when the character’s personalities and relationships really begin to shine through. Alison can see the ghosts and the ghosts know that they finally have a say in what goes on in their house. The majority of the episode is the ghosts simply trying to annoy Alison into leaving while Alison tries to convince herself they’re all symptoms of her concussion. It’s a wonderfully funny episode that establishes the rest of the show. “The Thomas Thorne Affair” and “Redding Weady” are season two episodes that present deep dives into some of the ghost’s past lives and their ensuing deaths. Characters who often deliver punchlines are given really emotional backgrounds that feel true to the characters, and in between moments of heart-wrenching backstory are standard A plots still filled with many hilarious moments. These episodes are perfect examples of how well comedy and tragedy are intertwined throughout “Ghosts.”

I have watched the entirety of BBC’s “Ghosts” twice in the last week and a half. It has brought me so much joy and comfort and I hope it can give any viewer the same satisfaction. Even if you are not the biggest fan of British sitcoms or you were not planning on watching a feel-good comedy, give “Ghosts” a try.

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