Some programmes thrive on constantly treading the line between funny and serious without ever truly identifying which they are – Shameless did it for years before toppling over the edge – while others are content to nail their comedic or dramatic flags to the mast from the outset. However, with Sugartown, it’s impossible to tell if the show is a comedy laced with dramatic events or a drama with moments of light-hearted relief. Unfortunately, whichever one it’s intended to be, it doesn’t quite work.
Sugartown – a fictional, downsized rival to Blackpool – used to boast a fine reputation for dance and confectionary. Unfortunately, as Max Burr (Tom Ellis), who left the cosy little coastal town as a young man and returns to set up a casino named Maxxx’s, says: ‘the rock ain’t rolling anymore’; and the premise of the three-part series is the locals’ attempts to return the town to its former glory and thwart Max’s plans to revolutionise it for the twenty-first century.
With this premise in mind – not to mention the emotional ties between Max and his former sweetheart Emily (Spooks alumni Miranda Raison), who just happens to be engaged to Max’s brother Jason (Shaun Dooley), and the burgeoning romance between bipolar dancer Carmen (Georgia King) and local taxi driver Travis (ha!), played by Rob Kendrick – there’s plenty of scope for drama. Add in supporting roles mildly less grotesque than League Of Gentlemen characters (Sam, played by writer Sally Dexter, and the Mayor of Sugartown, played by Philip Jackson), along with just plain weirdness (Travis’s ‘taxi’ is a rickshaw, complete with illuminated roof sign and mobile number on the back), and you’ve got a lot of potential for comedy.
However, instead of complementing each other, the two contrasting styles rub against each other like un-oiled gears, grating rather than gratifying. There are plenty of amusing lines (‘I can’t fit that square peg into my feminine hole,’ Mayor Ron says at one point, which got us cackling) and engaging exchanges (‘I don’t do civic pride,’ Travis says; ‘I know,’ Carmen replies, ‘you’re pale and interesting – get over yourself!’), but while the dialogue sparkles, the action does not.
The plot feels thinly-spread after one episode – if you excuse the pun, you wonder how many dance-based twists there can be in the remaining two hours – and it is to be hoped there isn’t any recourse to any more of the tired, formulaic sequences that reared their heads a couple of times in this opening instalment.
The trying-on-multiple-wedding-dresses sequence was up well past its bedtime in 1994 when Andie MacDowell did it; adding references to High School Musical, Cheryl Cole and, erm, Gloria Hunniford certainly can’t contemporise it. Furthermore, any dance routine set to ‘Disco Inferno’ by The Trammps is doomed to fail these days – particularly if it’s intended to be amusing. It is, as Sue Johnston’s character says at one point, ‘like panto’ – and that’s about as damning as it gets.
Airs at 10.25pm on Sunday 24th July 2011 on BBC One.