It was the perfect show, coming seemingly out of nowhere but immediately cementing itself in the culture.
It was the sort of television where you wanted to contact all your friends immediately after watching an episode to recap it. It was funny but it also broke your heart.
It felt freakishly true to life. It depicted all the messiness and glory of being in your 20s in a way that you never usually see on commercial television. People took ecstasy and didn’t die. They had casual sex and didn’t get Aids. They made friendships that were bright with the sort of intensity that only lasts until the treachery of marriage and children.
And it only lasted for two glorious seasons.
No, it’s not Fleabag but its precursor from 20 years earlier: British 1990s classic This Life.
The setup is fairly simple. Set in a big London share house, five London 20-something lawyers, with varying degrees of cunning and ambition, try and launch their careers while also doing normal 20-something stuff like getting too drunk and snogging the wrong person and then losing their house keys.
Like in Friends, a lot of the drama centres on the domestic relationships the characters have in their shared accommodation. But This Life makes Friends look extremely tame and conservative in comparison. While Ross’s first wife’s lesbianism was a bit of a joke that signalled that Ross was a cuck, This Life had a bisexual character (Ferdy) and a main character, Warren, happily cruising (pre-Grindr days) “for cock”. While Friends drank coffee, This Life drank too much wine.
A 29 year-old first time writer, Amy Jenkins, was commissioned by the BBC to write the series. It turned out to be the perfect show for the Cool Britannia era, with the best of Britpop – including Blur, Oasis, Manic Street Preachers and Elastica – on the soundtrack. And during the sex scenes, there was bound to be some woozy, sexy trip-hop playing in the background.
In an early episode there’s full frontal male nudity (hello Andrew Lincoln coming out of the shower), fluffy pubic hair and lots of casual sex. But crucially there were also well rounded and complex characters with powerful chemistry. Before Rachel and Ross, before Fleabag and the Hot Priest, there was Anna and Miles.
This Life is also responsible for more than a few people I knew in the 1990s choosing to study law. This is its biggest flaw. Although it was a down-and-dirty show, it also glamourised a profession that in real life can be woefully short on glamour. Set in a law firm and barristers chambers (but with very few actual scenes in the courtroom), you wanted this gang to be your colleagues … in fact you wanted to be in the gang.
Rewatching This Life decades later, it does look very 1990s. It’s not just the music but the fashion and cars. The lighting is too bright and the computers are enormous. People smoke inside and play cards instead of playing on their phones.
But the sharp writing, the care taken with developing all the characters fully (it is truly an ensemble show, there’s no one big star), and effortless performances are worth revisiting. Or, if you are lucky enough, watching for the first time.
This Life is streaming on SBS On Demand.