Remember that night when the number of rounds you bought in the pub was in direct ratio to your self-loathing? When your extroversion increased the smaller you felt? Then you’ll know how Joseph, portrayed by one of the finest actors of our generation, Stephen Graham – freshly resurrected from Line of Duty – is feeling. The Virtues is a slow-paced, high-intensity four-part drama. It centres around this man with nothing left to live for or lose, returning to his home in Ireland to make peace with the demons of his past – drawn from painful experiences of the childhood of writer, director and Graham’s long-time collaborator, Shane Meadows.
Stephen Graham, fresh from 'Line of Duty', is one of the finest actors of our generation.
None of this is explained in the opening episode, which has been hyped to infinity with front page newspaper ads, billboards and a celeb endorsement from the ubiquitous James Corden: "This will be, without question, one of the best things on television this year."
For all the drama and pomp, this hourlong episode is a hushed, clandestine affair with gritty production and zero staged announcements of intention. Like much of Meadows’ work (most famously the film and subsequent TV series This Is England), it feels like we’re watching real life act out from a corner of the room. Only it feels like everything he’s made has been leading up to this point.
Early in the episode we find Joseph at the home of his ex-partner, their beloved son and her new partner as they enjoy a last dinner before the three of them start a new life in Australia without him. Our telly-watching brains might be hard-wired to look for the passive-aggressive power plays, but it’s rooted in realism: it’s a split family, with each adult straining to show that everything is just fine, which makes it all the more devastating when the son mumbles to Joseph while chatting: "It will be nice when we’re there, but I’m gonna still really, really miss you." It’s a gut punch that makes Joseph break down and cry at the table, full of apologies just like any of us would be.
Once he’s said his goodbyes, it’s also enough to drive him, a recovering alcoholic, to the drink. The night is startlingly hollow and realistically depicted, but these moments of human vulnerability are the hallmark of the series; in this instance, they have you squinting away from the screen as much as his retching and vomiting the next day.
It’s a measure of his character that instead of descending further, Joseph picks up his bags and heads for a ferry. Even if the attendant comes across all I, Daniel Blake and refuses to sell him a ticket for the next ferry out. But there’s humour in it somewhere. "I hope your mother loves you," Joseph tells him, faux cordially. "Yeah she does." "Yeah good because I fucking don't," is his superbly limp reply.
And so he waits. And we wait with him. Because unlike certain other programmes rushing at a rate of knots, there’s all the time to breathe in the air of his world and get into his mind a little, accompanied by PJ Harvey’s haunting soundtrack in the background. Before we know it, it’s time to set sail, and by God do we want to go with him.
Emotion invested, the next episode is where it all starts to unravel: the long-lost family, the buried secrets, the hidden past. However it might play out, it’s rooted by astounding perception and compelling acting, which can only make for a turbulent ride. Strap yourselves in now.