‘Last Tango’ Answers ‘What If?’; ‘Sunny’ Always Dark: TV

Look past the lame, dated title of “Last Tango in Halifax,” a six-part British miniseries making its American debut on PBS, and find a sprawling, completely charming tale of two aging pensioners given a second chance at love.

Derek Jacobi and Anne Reid, each as convincing in wonderment as the other, play Alan and Celia, childhood friends from West Yorkshire separated by life (and a just-discovered secret) who reconnect via Facebook after 60 years of wondering “what if.”

Widowed after relatively unhappy marriages, Alan and Celia nervously and eagerly open themselves to the possibility of love in their final years.

“We’re getting married,” they tell their startled, skeptical adult daughters after only one delightful afternoon together.

Written by Sally Wainwright, “Halifax” is no Hallmark Channel tear-jerker (well, not entirely). The impetuous union has unforeseen ramifications for the couple’s soon-to-be-blended families.

As if inspired by the old folks’ example, Celia’s brusque headmistress daughter Caroline (Sarah Lancashire) ditches her pompous, philandering husband and comes out as a lesbian.

Reactions to her announcement vary, to put it mildly.

Abusive Husband

Meanwhile, Alan’s daughter, Gillian (Nicola Walker), a hardscrabble grocery clerk, begins to confront the suicide of her abusive husband 10 years earlier.

Soapy? Certainly, but so is “Downton Abbey,” which “Halifax” rivals in character scope and performances, if not production minutiae and historical sweep.

By the fourth episode, as story lines begin to resolve and sidetrack adventures unfold, “Halifax” loses some focus. One big, late-coming revelation in particular feels misguided, suggesting the miniseries might have made a finer, simpler movie.

But even then the cast stays grounded, with Walker and Lancashire bouncing marvelously off one another’s approaches -- the former all grit and jitters, the latter broader, more expansive if no less poignant.

I’d guess it’s only a matter of time before American producers latch on for a remake -- choose your favorite aging thespians now -- even as this “Last Tango in Halifax” makes a gentle, indelible mark all its own.

“Last Tango in Halifax” airs Sunday, Sept 8 on PBS at 8 p.m. Rating: ****

Sunny Philadelphia

Set to begin its ninth season, “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” TV’s darkest (and once funniest) comedy, is anchoring FX’s new spin-off channel FXX.

That’s some burden for a series well into the self-caricature stage of sitcom-hood, but “Sunny” might be ready for a rebound.

Of the three episodes available for review, two were nearly on par -- or at least within sight -- of “Sunny’s” glory days, before in-jokes and constant recycling set in.

Created and developed by stars Rob McElhenney, Glenn Howerton and Charlie Day (and costarring Danny DeVito and Kaitlin Olson), “Sunny” is the anti-“Cheers,” with tavern-set shenanigans underscoring the deep, sociopathic animosity among five pseudo-pals.

Stand-Up Gal

Some of the show’s original wit (masked, as always, in layers of crudity and not-always-welcome cartoonishness) comes through in the return episode, as the boys’ endless bullying of Olson’s Sweet Dee has taken its long-gestating toll.

In an attempt to return the depressed Dee to fighting form, they encourage her pipe dream of trying stand-up comedy.

The episode sails along, though reaches a bloated punch-line that wouldn’t have been attempted in the series’ best, reality-based seasons.

Better is the third new episode, with the gang setting out to win a local bar award, tired of their watered-down imitators stealing all the kudos.

That’s a not-so-subtle slam against network sitcoms like “New Girl” and “Happy Endings” that have swiped and softened the “Sunny” formula, sometimes to award-nominated success.

“She’s just super cute,” oozes McElhenney’s Mac about a bartender at a popular rival tavern.

“She’s not funny, though,” says Dee.

“She doesn’t need to be,” lands Howerton’s Dennis.

That Bud’s for you, Zooey Deschanel, compliments of your betters.

“It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” airs Wednesday, Sept. 4 on FXX at 10 p.m. New York time. Rating: ***1/2

What the Stars Mean:

***** Fantastic
**** Excellent
*** Good
** So-So
* Poor
(No stars) Avoid

(Greg Evans is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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