Although individual PBS stations have long-carried Britcoms, PBS proper has programmed little from the genre besides "Monty Python's Flying Circus" and the six-episode "Trying Times," a comedy anthology from 1987.
That makes tonight’s premiere of British import “Vicious” (10:30 p.m., WQED-TV) a rarity, possibly the first-ever PBS series with a laugh track.
Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi, who also stars in PBS’s “Last Tango in Halifax” (returning for its second season tonight at 8), play Freddie and Stuart, a gay couple who have been together for 48 years. There’s an odd-couple vibe to “Vicious,” though it’s also a big, broad comedy reminiscent of “Frasier” if Niles and Frasier were a bickering gay couple instead of brothers.
Written and executive produced by “Will & Grace” alum Gary Janetti, “Vicious” offers a decent number of laughs as Freddie and Stuart trade barbs. Freddie particularly likes teasing Stuart about his ancient mother.
“Tell her I said hello,” Freddie says, “and walk toward the light!”
Freddie is an aging, semi-successful actor -- he killed a prostitute on “Coronation Street” and played a villain on one episode of “Dr. Who” -- while fussy Stuart manages their home and social calendar.
In the first two episodes there’s just one bit of British slang that might confuse some American viewers: OAP, which stands for Old Age Pensioner. Otherwise, “Vicious” is fairly relatable, though seeing the two old men leer at their new, young upstairs neighbor, Ash (Iwan Rheon, who plays Ramsay Snow on “Game of Thrones”), may cause discomfort for some -- but it shouldn’t any more than when their elderly friend Violet (Frances de la Tour) hits on Ash.
The fact that “Vicious,” initially titled “Vicious Old Queens,” stars two older men makes it stand out on American television far more than the notion that the guys are a couple. Since “The Golden Girls” ended, older characters are mostly relegated to supporting roles on American TV. This past pilot season, NBC developed “Old Soul,” about a younger woman who cares for elderly clients, but the show was not picked up to series.
“To me that’s what was very interesting about the show, more than the gay angle,” Mr. Janetti said in January after a PBS press conference for “Vicious” at the TV critics winter press tour. “To have a couple of a certain age and what comes with that is history. They’re so intertwined and so co-dependent. They can pull back a petty sleight from 30 or 40 years ago but to still portray them as vital and in the game -- that felt very refreshing to me.”
It is even if this particular form of sitcom is a bit moldy. But Mr. McKellen and Mr. Jacobi attack their roles with gusto; they ensure that “Vicious” is a fun, farcical throwback.
TV writer Rob Owen: email@example.com or 412-263-2582. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook.