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DVD Review: Fortysomething

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They are both doctors; they both play piano. And that is where the similarity ends. (Except for the fact that they are both played by the gifted Hugh Laurie.) The British series Fortysomething aired in the summer of 2003, a year or so before House made Hugh Laurie a household name in the United States. Acorn Media will release the entire six-episode run on DVD April 8.

I am pretty certain that the release of Fortysomething and the recent releases of All or Nothing at All and Peter's Friends as well as the Australian release of the A Pin for the Butterfly (which by the way plays quite well on my American DVD player) owe much to Mr. Laurie’s huge success with House. It is to the delight of Laurie’s fans everywhere (including myself) that these older gems are finally finding their way to our DVD players.

The six-episode British series stars Laurie as Paul Slippery, a middle-aged physician (general practitioner) going through somewhat of a middle-aged crisis. Paul has three sons, ranging in age from early 20s down to 16; his wife is re-entering the workforce after a lifetime of child-rearing. His kids and wife are increasingly independent of him; his professional partner Ronnie (Peter Capaldi) is stalking his wife. No wonder he’s having a bit of a crisis.

Paul is a bit of an innocent. But he is a bit too easily manipulated by the obvious and sleazy Ronnie Pilfrey. When he allows Pilfrey to hypnotize him in the final episode, I found it jarringly unlikely, even for the naive Paul, and it was the one part of the series that I could not come to terms with. Capaldi grossly overacts an already very strangely written role; and by the end of episode one, his character had completely creeped me out. But maybe that was the point. On the other hand, Paul’s other professional partner is a female South Asian doctor who is intelligent, calm, and a good match for the anxiety ridden and neurotic Paul Slippery.

Laurie does a good job portraying Paul's middle-aged angst and loss of confidence. And he stays very sympathetic in his constant efforts (as silly as they sometimes are) at working it all out, trying to rescue his marriage and his sanity. Throughout the six episodes, Paul is bewildered and unable to really cope well with his changing family dynamics. Nothing seems to be any longer under his control. He tries, ineptly, to make it all work and put it all back together, but real life, his children’s love lives, and his partner Pilfrey conspire to prevent him from managing. By the end, however, in a very sweetly resolved comedy of errors, he and his wife seem to have rediscovered what makes their marriage work.

The pace of Fortysomething is at times too frantic, too much a situation comedy. But it is Paul’s essential sweetness that keeps you watching. Good performances by Anna Chancellor (Four Weddings and a Funeral) as Paul's wife and Sheila Hancock as her practically perfect, purring, and catty boss match Laurie’s fine turn as Paul. Stephen Fry makes a funny cameo appearance in one episode as a fish monger.

I have read that the series did not get a fair chance when it first aired in 2003 in the UK. After less than spectacular first episode ratings, the series was relegated to a show-killing time slot, where it died a quiet death. It’s unfortunate, because it is quite good.

No extras, unfortunately, which is typical of these American releases of British television series. An absolute must for Hugh Laurie fans and fans of slightly quirky romantic comedy.

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About Barbara Barnett

Barbara Barnett is Publisher/Executive Editor of Blogcritics, (blogcritics.org). Her debut novel, called "Anne Rice meets Michael Crichton," The Apothecary's Curse The Apothecary's Curse comes out October 11 from Pyr, an imprint of Prometheus Books. Her book on the TV series House, M.D., Chasing Zebras is a quintessential guide to the themes, characters and episodes of the hit show. Barnett is an accomplished speaker, an annual favorite at MENSA's HalloWEEM convention, where she has spoken to standing room crowds on subjects as diverse as "The Byronic Hero in Pop Culture," "The Many Faces of Sherlock Holmes," "The Hidden History of Science Fiction," and "Our Passion for Disaster (Movies)."
  • Mary Dagmar Davies


    Parkinson: You have just finished “40 something” which you starred in and directed.

    Laurie: Well the direction thing just happened. The director left. Not let me assure you due to anything I did. But he left and someone said ‘Would you like to take over? … so I did.

    Parkinson: And what was that like?

    Laurie: Ever sat on a plan and wondered what it would be like if the hostess came over the speakers saying “Both the Pilots ate the fish … can anyone” Well I had no choice really. I mean don’t worry I would never jump up and offer to fly a plane. Oh I might though. Give it a go.

    Parkinson: And direction?
    Laurie: Well I have a lot more respect for directors now. I realise they are not simply people who run round in silly scarves and do lunch. They do a lot more than that.

    Parkinson: Do they?

    Laurie: Being in charge of a film crew is like being in charge of an eighteen month old baby. I mean individually they are very bright and talented people. But together … Well you take your eyes off them for a minute let yourself think ‘everything is going fine now’ and you look back. [LOOK OF SHOCK] And you think “How did they do that?!!!”

    Parkinson: So fourty something?

    Laurie: Indeed. Well it’s the demographic … the baby boomers are all colliding with that question “what am I here for?” They are doing battle with getting old.

  • Tourmaline

    “After less than spectacular first episode ratings, the series was relegated to a show-killing time slot, where it died a quiet death”

    I think the fact that they didn’t tell anyone they were moving the programme is why it “died a quiet death”. I tuned in for the next episode only to find something else entirely showing, with no indication of what had happened. So, I’m so glad to hear of its DVD release, I’ll finally get to see it!

  • Barbara Barnett

    Thanks Mary for bringing that over. I am really happy that Hugh’s success has resulted in his earlier works being released.

    Tourmaline–I’d read about that and of course you know that happens in US television from time to time, but in the UK, when series are only six episodes in duration, it’s deadly. I’m glad we finally get to see it!

    And to cap it all off–a new HL film on Apri 11–Street Kings!

  • Kit O’Toole

    I’ve seen some “Thirtysomething” episodes already on YouTube. I think that while Laurie gives a typically great performance, the series’ overall pace was, as you noted, too frenetic. I also thought the relationship the father had with his sons was a tad unrealistic–it was almost like he was merely a slightly annoying buddy, not a dad. Still, it’s interesting to see how Laurie continued to develop his craft and richly deserves his current success.

  • 2Lightworker

    Just came on this, Barbara, and am so glad you are reviewing Hugh’s earlier work now available. I had seen FortySomething on PBS and it was just so funny that I laughed out loud often. When it stopped running I decided to buy the DVD’s. Hugh as Dr. Paul Slippery still makes me laugh. I don’t take it all very seriously, so have no quibble with the frenetic pace, unremonstrated adolescents, nor crazy Dr. Pilfrey. I guess it’s in my “Hugh as therapy” section. And after all he’s been through in S 7 as Dr. House, it’s a welcome presence.

  • 40-Something is truly an oldie but goodie from the days just before House, M.D.

  • Eva

    And don’t forget about the lovely Benedict Cumberbatch now famous all over the world as Sherlock Holmes and about the sweet relationship between Woj and Edwin!
    Anyway, this is a good show, funny and not difficult to watch 🙂