Review of The Cleaner on BBC/Britbox: therapy of sorts…

The first season (six half hour episodes) of The Cleaner is perfect for bingeing on a rainy weekend. At times totally wacky, always spectacularly gory, and insistently puerile, this comedy series is enjoyable because each episode features a character whose transformation feels uplifiting, even though the narratives are sometimes hit and miss.

The creator and star, British comedian Greg Davies is the crime scene cleaner Wicky, whose ‘work starts where others pass in horror’ (from episode two). In every stand alone episode, Wicky restores a blood spattered scene of murder or gruesome accidental death to its pre-gore state. But he spends less time cleaning and more time hanging out with the protagonist of each episode over cups of tea, wheelchair races down the street, or bouncing around on space hoppers. And these scenes offer opportunities for each character to lay bare their vulnerabilities, a bit like therapy.

It might be a long bow, but isn’t therapy basically a way to get to the core of our soft underbellies through a contrived relationship with another? In this sense, Wicky’s interactions with the characters offer each a road to either redemption, freedom, salvation, atonement, renewal, love … There’s a healing of sorts, a cleaning up of the mess each character has made of their lives. The Cleaner is a bit like a comedic version of In Treatment, and definitely less up its own arse. And those of us who’ve subjected ourselves to the therapeutic process know that sometimes, the best kind of therapy can feel more combative than embracing.

Which is why the more volatile of Wicky’s interactions are the funniest, and perhaps the most poignant. In episode two for instance, the pompous writer Terence Redford (played by David Mitchell) is condescending and irritable. But the dialogue between Redford and Wicky is so well paced, and delivered with just enough snark that the ending feels like a relief that sweetens its surprise. And you can’t help warming to the irascible Redford just a little.

Each episode is named after a protagonist – 1. The Widow; 2. The Writer; 3. The Neighbour; 4. The Aristocrat; 5. The Influencer; 6. The One. And some narrative arcs feel better crafted than others.

Episode one, The Widow, stars the delightfully dishevelled Helena Bonham Carter as Sheila, who stabs her husband 38 times. When Wicky asks her why she didn’t just leave him, she replies, ‘sunk cost fallacy’, and in that moment, her face seems to collapse in on itself, exposing a lifetime of searing regret. I’m avoiding spoilers, so let’s just say that the emotions in this episode are more complex and satisfying, perhaps because the stakes feel higher (episode two deals with writers’ block; three with a break up for example).

While the narrative arc for Sheila feels intact (I even like the musical interlude and the scatological humour), I don’t quite get the point of the annoying neighbour who keeps intruding with a freshly baked pie. All the other episodes are essentially two-handers with the occasional additional character (like the black cat in episode two). Fewer characters doesn’t necessarily mean easier to write, but the narratives feel more contained and relatable in episodes two, three, and four.

But episode five seems unformed to me. The interaction between the protagonist Hosea (played by Layton Williams), an influencer who’s into 80s kitsch, feels one dimensional and flat. I wonder if it’s because creator Greg Davies doesn’t know enough about gen Z. The whole episode is about the generation gap (Wicky is 50), but if you don’t know enough about what you don’t know, it’s hard to get the narrative right, if you get my drift.

I know nothing about Davies – I’ve seen him a few times on the Graham Norton show. But my suspicion is that Wicky is not actually a character Davies created, but Davies himself. And that might be the major factor constraining the series’ trajectory. We never really get to see Wicky’s transformation throughout the series.

The last episode – The One, is more about Wicky than Maggie (played by Jo Hartley) his old flame. At the end of the episode, Wicky remains clueless as to why Maggie left him 20 years ago, and that annoyed me – I expected more from Wicky. After cleaning up the spilt blood and guts left by the fuck-ups people make, I reckon Wicky’s a lot more insightful than the curry and beer loving ‘fat’ bloke he presents as in the beginning of the series.

Still, I look forward to season two (see below).

Here’s a review published in the Guardian

The Cleaner is a 2021 British comedy series created by Greg Davies, available on Britbox in Australia

22 May 2023 – Addendum: Just watched season two of The Cleaner. All my thoughts above that I had for season one stands, except of course, the episodes are different.

I still yearned to see more of Wicky’s personal arc, and even though there’s a speck of hope that Wicky and Ruth might finally get together in the final scene of the series (sorry, spoiler), we still don’t get to ‘know’ Wicky in season two.

But The Cleaner remains rollicking fun. Not sure I’m as enthused about the prospect of season three as I was about two, after one…?

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