Douglas Is Cancelled review – you might hate this show for daring to exist

It is clear within a few minutes of Steven Moffat’s latest venture, Douglas Is Cancelled, that he has set out if not to slaughter every liberal/leftist/wokeist cow (delete according to personal definition – one of the main themes of this drama is that we can no longer depend on words or meaning), then lacerate them.

Douglas, played by Hugh Bonneville, is the older male half of the nation’s favourite TV news couple. His co-presenter on the sofa is Madeline (Karen Gillan), a 30-something hottie there to keep the dads watching. Thus it was, is and apparently evermore shall be.

Keeping a close eye on everything, especially Douglas and Madeline’s precise measure of chemistry and their social media followings, is producer Toby (Ben Miles), having the time of his life as a modern Cromwell, ever alert, ever anticipating problems and trying to stymie them at source to protect his king. He first sees the tweet that lights the fuse for Moffat’s masterfully controlled four-episode explosion of disasters. Or at least it is for the first two episodes available for review. I’m hoping it doesn’t fall apart like his last outing. It is so much more tightly plotted than Inside Man – you can imagine Moffat is far more interested in this endlessly fascinating and fertile subject that strikes so close to home for white male writers of a certain age than he was with the more generic tale of a vicar undone by good intentions.

Douglas, it seems, was overheard making a sexist joke at a wedding. The joke is not repeated – simply described as sexist. He does not remember making it. His friends and colleagues reckon it was probably just one of “his usual”.

Toby solicits an account of events from Douglas. An account. “Then we can move in the direction of honesty … The truth is useful but I prefer something a little more balanced. We’re in news.”

Thus the madness begins. When Madeline retweets the tweet with the message – “Don’t believe this. Not my co-presenter” – it of course goes viral. Douglas thinks this was an unfortunate but well-intentioned mistake. His wife (Alex Kingston), a hurricane of a woman and a fabulously conscience-free newspaper editor, reads it quite differently. “I can’t believe he’s done this! Not my co-presenter!” It is the first of what will become a maelstrom of competing narratives and potent ambiguities that enable Moffat to poke fun at the mess the modern world is in, and point to the profound dangers it brings. There is a beautifully chilling scene between Douglas and his daughter (“And activist!”) Claudia (Madeleine Power, wonderful in her first substantial screen role), who is a gloriously perfect riot of youthful idealism, hypocrisy, pathological certainty and maddening ignorance (“Would you like a list of countries where homosexuality is actually punished by death?” “No” “Why not?” “Because it’s racist”). Father and daughter have a brief moment of connection and Claudia tell him she hopes everything gets sorted – because, she adds, “I really, really don’t want to have to cancel you.”

Douglas is an interrogation of how so much power ended up in the wrong – “wrong”? – hands, and how any kind of order can be maintained when assertion and interpretation are everything and facts and evidence are nothing.

Meanwhile, Toby is busy trying to amass “clear, direct information that reflects the truth without necessarily being it”. And Madeline is looming larger as a potential threat. Whether she is a manipulative careerist, simply sick of the sexism that surrounds her, or motivated by a genuine grievance is the question that builds around her. Gillan’s magnificent performance – in a show stuffed full of them – keeps all the possibilities in play.

Douglas Is Cancelled is not always subtle. There are clunky lines (Sheila likening Claudia’s university to a cult, “but you still have to do their laundry”) and the occasional feeling that Moffat is working down a checklist of sensitive subjects so he can be sure he’s had a dig at them all. But it is overall fast, funny and absolutely furious. Some viewers will love it unreservedly, some will love it all apart from the bits where it takes aim at beliefs they hold dear, some will hate it unreservedly for reasons they can articulate clearly, and some will hate it for daring to exist. The mere presence of jokes about various shibboleths will be counted as support for bigots, fascists and right-wingers by some, and as a welcome return to sanity by others. That’s the point.

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Douglas Is Cancelled aired on ITV1 and is on ITVX now.

The Guardian