BBC Two, 2010 to present, three seasons (series)
19 episodes (including the still-to-air third season)
Where to watch in the US: Series (seasons) 1 and 2 available for free at Hulu.com
The award-winning British comedy Rev. is the brainchild of Tom Hollander, who co-created and stars in the series as The Rev. Adam Smallbone, a parish priest in the Church of England. The setting, the fictional St. Saviour’s in London, is decidedly not Westminster or St. Paul’s. It is a painfully dwindled and decidedly shabby place, buoyed only by its still reasonably well-respected and competitively-sought Parish School.
Adam has his work cut out for him.
The setup is sitcom-straightforward enough. The crumbling parish is populated by quirky characters representing all the urban-ministry standbys: The long-time stalwarts, the homeless and the addicted, the immigrant, the uninterested, the aspiring student-priest, and the not-so-subtly critical Bishop’s envoy.
What makes Rev. of theological interest is not the setup, but the way the series plays out in the context of the grittier side of urban London. British media has a different relationship to its fictional vicars than American media is generally interested in pursuing. While clerical images in our media are dominated by the vapid, the inconsequential, or worse, the predatory and maniacal, Rev.‘s Adam is a full, faithful, and beautifully flawed character.
And he is not alone. Of particular note is Olivia Colman’s turn as Adam’s spouse, Alex, a professional who loves him, respects his vocation, but is not about to allow her marriage or identity to be as fully consumed by the church as her husband often is. She’s smart, witty, and fills out the unique challenges of clerical life (in a parsonage, no less) more sympathetically than I have ever seen before on television.
The church life in Christ is hilarious, sometimes ridiculous, challenging, sad, and ultimately dependent upon a God who must act. Our successes and failures will be many, but the call is still persistent.
Rev. portrays the world of Adam as a constant struggle between his very real sense of vocation and the practical demands of actually running a parish here in the sunset of the institutional church, even in a place where the church has more institutional characteristics. The show consistently portrays him as a man of deep, if complicated, Christian faith. His prayers are not generic, and the theological content of the show comes most frequently in those moments of prayer that only we, the audience, can hear:
How much, if any, of this institutional life actually matters? How do I serve the poor and the interests of a more economically diverse community? How do I fully be myself and this thing called “priest” in an environment increasingly indifferent to the church and its mission? What is the church in this time and place?
Rev. takes a decidedly darker view than its BBC predecessor The Vicar of Dibley, though the laughs are as well-calculated. What gives the show a heart, and I would argue, a head for the ministry, is its refusal to buy into easy answers for its characters or, implicitly, for the faith. And for that, I find myself watching this strange little show with gratitude. Both because I see myself, my spouse, and my congregation in these characters, but also because the show, in the most public venue imaginable, affirms what so many of us know well:
The church life in Christ is hilarious, sometimes ridiculous, challenging, sad, and ultimately dependent upon a God who must act. Our successes and failures will be many, but the call is still persistent. Thus it is at St. Saviour’s for the good reverend. And I for one am glad to see it unfold for others to see as well.