Tuned In: 'Last Tango in Halifax' offers six well-crafted episodes

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BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. -- Fans of character-driven, serialized, scripted drama be warned: There is not a lot to recommend in the new Fall 2013 TV season. In fact, the best option for fans of these sorts of humanely drawn series is undoubtedly PBS's "Last Tango in Halifax" (8 tonight, WQED-TV), a charming comedy-drama about finding new love late in life and all the complications that come with any coupling.

The six-episode drama series -- it's been renewed for a second season in England and new episodes are in production -- begins when childhood sweethearts Alan (Derek Jacobi, "I, Claudius") and Celia (Anne Reid, "Upstairs, Downstairs") reconnect via Facebook. There's a sweetness to their courtship as viewers see them consider and reconsider their word choice in messages back and forth to one another.

'Last Tango in Halifax'

When: 8 tonight, WQED-TV.

Starring: Derek Jacobi.

Both Alan and Celia are widowed and both bring with them families with complicated lives.

Alan's daughter, Gillian (Nicola Walker, "MI-5"), was widowed under what may be mysterious circumstances. She's a single mom to her rough-and-tumble, motocross-racing son, Raff (Josh Bolt), and she's carrying on secret sexual trysts with a rather rude younger man (Sacha Dhawan, "Outsourced").

Gillian's world -- she runs the family farm and works at a grocery store to make ends meet -- contrasts with that of Celia's daughter, Caroline (Sarah Lancashire, "Coronation Street"), and "Last Tango" frames these differences with the stark juxtaposition of Gillian stalking down a grocery store aisle and Caroline, a school headmistresses, striding down the center aisle of an upper crust school chapel.

As the series begins, Caroline's self-centered husband, John (Tony Gardner, "The Thick Of It"), has left her for another woman, Judith (Ronni Ancona), but comes crawling back after realizing Judith is an alcoholic. This turns out to be a real head-spinner for the usually put-together Caroline, who has embarked on a lesbian relationship with a co-worker.

While it might be easy to think of Alan and Celia as the calm at the center of a dysfunctional family storm, "Last Tango" depicts them as something more than "a cute older couple." After all, they're the ones involved in a car chase in the first episode.

Celia also plays dim at a coffee shop, purposefully misreading a menu item as "Crappucino."

"People bother with you more if they think you're senile," she cheekily tells Alan.

"Last Tango" sometimes traffics in soaped-up, over-the-top drama -- of course the police show up the first time the families meet! -- but these scenes of meaty conflict drive the plot forward and ensure the show doesn't become staid or overly cute.

Created and written by Sally Wainwright ("The Amazing Mrs. Pritchard"), "Last Tango" is at its best in depicting the ways in which families define us and even sometimes imprison us. It shows the impact of an adult child's choices and the issues those choices bring to the surface.

And while their children are often the ones to bring the drama, the Celia-Alan romance ensures uplifting moments.

Last month at a PBS press conference, the show's stars discussed their characters' late-in-life romance, something seldom seen in mainstream, prime-time, youth-obsessed American television.

"One of the great joys of this particular drama is that the bedrock of the drama is a love affair between two older people. Actually, the age is not stressed," Mr. Jacobi said. "It is a love affair between two people who happen to be in their seventies."

Ms. Reid said a story like this is rare because most writers for television are younger.

"They write about their own experience," she said. "Well, until you actually get to 70, you don't know what it's like, and it really isn't very different from being 50, is it, darling?"

"Absolutely not," Mr. Jacobi replied.

For their characters, Mr. Jacobi said coming together late in life presents its own challenges.

"We've led totally different lives. We've had totally different experiences, and we have totally different prejudices," he noted. "We just happen to be two people in our seventies who, way back, could have made it, could have been together. Circumstances directed otherwise. We've now been given a second chance, and we take it with both hands."

"This is a love story, and you fall in love at any age," Ms. Reid said. "Alan is just as sexy to Celia at this time as he was when we were 16. ... Our children are having lots of [problems and] there are lots of consequences to our getting together, lots of arguments, lots of fights."

Mr. Jacobi said the extended family drama is an important part of the show's mix.

"It may say something about us and our relationships -- Celia with her husband, me with my wife -- that we have produced these dysfunctional children," he said. "But they are interestingly dysfunctional."

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Rob Owen writes this Sunday TV column for Scripps Howard News Service. Contact him at: rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook.


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