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“Alice and Jack” reviewed

The very first seconds of PBS’ Alice & Jack sets the tone for the story we’re about to see. “Love is the best thing we have,” Jack (Domhnall Gleeson) muses in voiceover, as he and Alice (Andrea Riseborough) gaze sadly at each other in a field. “Maybe after we strip away all the bullshit, it’s the only thing we have.”

PG-13 language notwithstanding, it sounds at first like a statement basic enough to embroider on a pillow to sell alongside live-laugh-love signs at Target. In retrospect, however, it reveals itself as a warning. Love, and more specifically the on-off situationship at its heart, is the only thing this drama cares about. But like anything else, love needs outside nourishment to flourish. In focusing so intently on its romance, Alice & Jack starves it of the authenticity it needs to truly bloom.

Alice & Jack begins with an evening that, to our eyes, might look like just another pleasant date, but that apparently both Jack and Alice experience as so singular that it reorients the very gravity of their lives. After swiping right on a dating app (in 2007, five years before Tinder was invented, but never mind), the future soulmates meet at a bar. She’s flirtatiously prickly, needling him about the “reward calculus” of his unglamorous job in medical research. He’s taken aback but mostly charmed. One scrupulously chaste sexual encounter later — the camera cuts from the pair kissing in her living room to him waking up shirtless in her bed — she’s all but shoving him out the door. She insists she does not want to see him again, even as the sorrow wrinkling her brow suggests otherwise. He follows his gut and texts her anyway. She’s delighted to hear from him, but ghosts him regardless.

Thus begins a push-pull dynamic that will overcome what Alice describes as a “Kremlin-sized collection of red flags” to define the next decade and a half of their lives, as captured by creator Victor Levin (Mad About You) in six hour-long chapters. Riseborough and Gleeson make out about as well as could be expected from two characters we’re barely given a chance to know before they’re thrust into delirious angst. Riseborough belies Alice’s jaded smirk with eyes that seem perpetually on the verge of flooding with tears. Gleeson, a leading man so charming he almost made HBO’s Run work, leans in where she leans away, is guileless where she’s guarded. Their chemistry is solid, if not nearly intense enough to justify an opening chapter so mopey, I half-expected to learn Gleeson was once again playing a Black Mirror bereavement robot.

But it’s difficult to picture any two performers making much of such shallow material. From the moment they meet, Alice and Jack are utterly consumed by their hot-and-cold dynamic, and Alice & Jack, is too. To its credit, the series acknowledges how damaging this can be. Contrary to everyone’s favorite wedding scripture reading, anyone who’s ever been in the throes of love could tell you that it is not always patient or kind. It can compel people to act selfishly, as Jack does when he lies to his wife, Lynn (Aisling Bea), about his true feelings. It can make them demand the objectively unreasonable, as Alice does when she asks Jack to walk her down the aisle at her wedding to another man. It can turn us against our best instincts, as when Jack reluctantly agrees.

But the series lacks the perspective to consider anything outside of this black hole of anguish. Alice has exactly one friend, an assistant (Aimee Lou Wood) who continues to devote her entire life to managing Alice’s personal affairs even after they’ve stopped working together. Jack has exactly one friend, a coworker (Sunil Patel) who exists solely to groan about Jack crawling back to Alice yet again. (In that regard, he’s the most relatable human in this whole thing.) Jack’s relationship with his family revolves around their feelings about his relationship with Alice, such that as a teenager, his daughter Celia (Millie Ashford) has to seek out Alice before she can decide if her father is worth loving. Though the narrative spans multiple decades, we’re offered no sense at all of the world changing around our heroes.

For that matter, we get scant idea of who our heroes are, period. Slow-burn love stories like Hulu’s Normal People or Netflix’s One Day get their glow from people who seem like real people, with preoccupations or desires that might inform the central relationship but exist independently of them. Alice & Jack is only interested in Alice and Jack as a couple. As the years pass, we hear next to nothing about who they were before they met, what they envision for their futures, what they get up to in the months and years when they’re apart. Alice grows less brittle and more open as she ages, but how and why, we’re left to wonder. Jack becomes a minor celebrity in his field, but how that impacts his self-perception or life goals is left unexplored. Their careers only exist as plot points to fuel their bond, anyway. They might as well be two paper dolls being glued together, for all the weight and depth their inner lives get.

Alice & Jack embeds its defense of its failings right in its dialogue. Coming out of a movie, Lynn remarks that it “make[s] emotional, rather than logical sense,” and Jack remarks that all the best things do. But feelings have their own logic, rooted in the histories or psychologies or circumstances of those experiencing them. Alice & Jack shoots for the vertigo of a star-crossed romance, but does too little work to convince us of the relationship’s validity. “It’s exhausting, isn’t it? Being in love?” Alice and Jack sigh late in the series, giddy at the spectacle of their own suffering. It’s hard to disagree that their relationship has been tiring. But I don’t think love has anything to do with it.