WE ALL know that for which we strive, that which we seek to create and build up: it is strong community, deeper and greater neighbourliness. Next time you find yourself stuck in the thickets of sermon preparation, reaching for this platitude, may I suggest that you self-administer an astringent and sobering dose of Two Doors Down (BBC2, Mondays).
Hell, as J.-P. Sartre genially pointed out, is other people. No doubt on the Left Bank there was rather less of the trotting round next door to borrow a cup of sugar so common over here; if not, I think he would have added that real hell is ghastly neighbours. Like all sitcoms, this one is widely variable, but, at its best, it is magnificent, and, I aver, offers acute moral reflection.
Beth is hospitable and generous, her husband Eric is dull and unimaginative but steady. Her neighbours practically live with them, taking every opportunity to freeload, to take everything they can, and then complain when it is not exactly to their liking. Not for one moment do they think before they speak. Every hurtful or cutting thought is vocalised the minute it enters their minds. They are entirely self-centred, almost unaware of the existence of others except as it affects them.
The seven deadly sins are clearly on view: Christine personifies gluttony, vacuuming up every scrap of food that might be on offer and dropping heavy hints whenever there is not quite as much as she would like. But it is Cathy who really plumbs the depths. She is desperate to be the centre of attention, desperate that every occasion should revolve around her and her alone.
Obsessed with sex, she dresses quite unsuitably for her age, and fixates on trying to turn Beth’s gay son; her jealousy of Michelle, who is half her age, and unassumingly pretty and sympathetic, is palpable. Cathy tries to force Beth’s 30th-wedding-anniversary party into a replay of her own wedding; unable to resist interfering, she manages to engineer two public offers of marriage between the younger couples present.
When these end in distress and heartbreak, she, like all manipulative bullies, is entirely unconcerned, and takes no responsibility for the pain that she has caused. She is such a rich and satisfying comic monster because we can sense, all along, what lies beneath: the noise and desperation to get everyone else drunk is a cover-up, a brittle wafer-thin surface below which lies a chasm of emptiness and an infinite void of need. On this reading, Beth’s put-upon neighbourliness is, for all its discomfort, a genuinely redemptive act of grace; despite its limitations, it is almost Christlike.
It is just possible, I realise, that the sitcom’s creators did not intend to produce so profound a mirror to nature, so moral a plumbing of the depths of human fallenness, as I am describing. Perhaps they simply intend to make us laugh — but never forget: that is a serious business.