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Rev: Help My Unbelief

11/04/2014 12:45 BST | Updated 10/06/2014 10:59 BST

I used to believe in Rev.

Rev was the loveable clergyman who struggled with the realities of his profession - and of the profession of his faith. The mild-mannered shepherd who wasn't entirely sure which way to lead a dwindling, wayward flock. I believed in him as a flawed anti-hero who managed to be real.

I was excited about Rev's return: I'd found myself missing the eccentric little priest and the characters surrounding him. The pompous, posh curate. The menacing Archdeacon. His wife, played by Olivia Colman - guardian angel of things worth watching on TV. But oh the horror: subtlety has been replaced by broad comedy - a clichéd 'childbirth in a taxi' opening scene in Episode 1 set the tone, the soapy Archdeacon peering, shuddering, up Ms. Colman's dress, declaiming that he could 'see the head'. The parishioners are reduced from clever sketches to broad cartoons; the plots are beyond belief.

In episode 1, a conversation with the neighbouring Imam led to a joint initiative to clean up the playground; hilarity, depressingly, ensued. There was social commentary: the Muslim community raised much more than the C of E congregation. Tick. There was comedy: the electrics were faulty in St Saviour's church, and the Imam was accidentally electrocuted by mild-mannered Rev. Tick. There was moral satire of a kind: the £350 raised by St Saviour's came from the local churchgoing alcoholic via a drug deal. Tick. The boxes were being ticked as obviously as the St Saviour's collection plates were being left empty.

But it didn't stop there. The two fat ladies arrived: tickety-tick. One of them was Terri from The Thick of It: she and her companion could be defined as the civil service crossed with the Vicar of Dibley, performing some kind of sustainability analysis of local parishes, with the aim of closing down one church. The Imam saves the day, the fat ladies are satisfied, and Terri from The Thick of It shows evidence of a sense of humour through expressing the desire to have a go on the bouncy castle.

To complete the cliché bingo full house, Rev and the Guardian Angel are recast as exhausted parents. They're sleep-deprived, they talk endlessly about poo and nappies, they wonder how to cope. Mrs Rev now has a high-powered corporate legal job, and spends most of her remaining time agonising that this makes her a bad mother.

And, after rather a touching foray into the issue of gay marriage in Episode 2, in the third week it got worse. Rev almost had an affair with the attractive, newly divorced Headmistress (oh the subtlety of her title) of the local primary school. There had always been a frisson; Rev suggested a litter-pick, whereupon the pair had rubbish and food waste cast upon them by some urban sinners in a Citroen Picasso... the sexual tension burst forth like the cascading rubbish, and a kiss ensued. A hard hat was involved, and it made a Freudian reappearance later, as Rev and Mrs Rev attempted to rebuild their sex life. Oh dear God.

A famous artist, meanwhile, had organised a 'pop up' exhibit in St Saviour's, and was willing to settle the parish's debts for the privilege. The exhibit depicted an embrace between a clergyman and a woman; Rev's conscience was pricked; he pushed over the statue and protested, only to find that it was a misunderstanding and the sculpture actually depicted the artist and his deceased wife. Rubbish was thrown from a Citroen Picasso: the art was rubbish. The money-lender was cast from the, er, parish church. Irony by numbers. Watching, I was cringing to the point of medical spasm: a Schadenfreude bypass in the face of awkward, embarrassment overload.

And so it came to pass that Rev slipped into the territory of the bumbling, dithering idiot traditionally depicted by Hugh Grant. Rev used to offer subtlety, humanity - the realism that we're not all types or stereotypes, that rooted on feet of clay stand individual people doing their best to come to terms with things. The beauty of Rev used to lie in the puzzlement of Tom Hollander's expression: a man bewildered by circumstance and people.

I have a theory: Rev has been taken over by Mr Benn. Just as the Shopkeeper used to provide Mr Benn with a costume and a matching adventure, the Scriptwriters now give Rev an issue and he ticks the cliché boxes off as efficiently as if it were a fancy-dress fund-raiser to save St Saviour's. True Rev fans beware: hard hats are needed for this careless plot construction.

Will we ever see that bewilderment again: that genuine puzzlement at the oddity of life? I'll still try to believe, like the person in the back row of an early morning congregation, who isn't quite awake and isn't quite certain that they want to be there.

Yet how happy are those who have seen new Rev, and still believe...