'The Lovers' Doesn’t Have a Whole Lot of Love

Johnny Flynn Roisin Gallagher

Johnny Flynn Roisin Gallagher in "The Lovers"

(Photo: Sundance Now)

Warning: This series contains references to PTSD and suicide.

AMC/Sundance’s The Lovers is an odd beast. It’s a rom-com that is neither particularly funny nor particularly romantic. Instead, it employs a dry humor that doesn’t resolve in a good belly laugh so much as a nervous smile, as we get to know the two protagonists, starting with the lightweight media butterfly Seamus (Johnny Flynn). He’s TV star Seamus O’Hannigan (Flynn), living a charmed life in fashionable Islington, which he shares with his actor girlfriend Frankie (Alice Eve). Life is a never-ending series of social media opportunities and smiles, although we’re never quite sure that Seamus is as famous or hounded by the public as he’d like to think. 

Then there’s the severely troubled Janet (Roisin Gallagher), a loose cannon in a dead-end job at a Belfast supermarket run by the long-suffering Philip (Conleth Hill). She is foul-tempered and foul-mouthed and, for some reason, still employed. In her first appearance, she insults security guard Jason (Martin Quinn) for wishing her a good morning. After that, she grabs a candy bar from the shelf, stamps on it, and eats it, claiming it’s damaged merchandise. Philip, longing for peace and contented customers, suggests she takes off the rest of the day. We realize later that he, knowing something of her history, is looking out for her, and the store and the garrulous presence of fellow worker Gemma (Jenn Murray) provide the safety of continuity and community she so badly needs. 

The two find themselves on a crash course towards one another one day, as Seamus encounters an attractive woman outside his BBC office, and obligingly takes her phone for a selfie. It’s too bad that she’s his new producer, Ndidi (Evelyn Miller), although he recovers charmingly. His boss, Tim (Simon Paisley-Day), breaks the news that his show will be filmed in Belfast, and Seamus loses his composure. He does not like the idea of returning to his Irish roots, although it’s a BBC requirement, and he agrees. 

Picture shows: Janet (Roisin Gallagher) and talkative Gemma (Jenn Murray) at work.

 Janet (Roisin Gallagher) and Gemma (Jenn Murray).

© AMC/Sundance

As we inch ever closer to the meet-cute, Janet goes home, and we realize how depressed she is. She lives in east Belfast, an area still fiercely loyalist, with Union Jacks strung around windows, the murals and graffiti dating from the Troubles preserved, and at one point, a union band marches down the street. Outside, Seamus, mic in hand, is sharing his wisdom on the area with Janet’s neighbors and his TV followers, and it’s not long before a group of young men, insulted at being referred to as unemployed, go on the attack. With the filming violently disrupted, Seamus runs off, pursued by the group of toughs, who chase him through the neighborhood's alleys. He takes refuge on the roof of a garden shed, below which Janet, with a sawed-off shotgun, is about to shoot herself.

[Beyond the fact that this is the series idea of a meet-cute... Seamus, you self-centered numpty, if you come across someone making a suicide attempt, get them help!]

Somewhat to his disappointment, she has no idea who he is. But she is marginally hospitable, considering the circumstances, offering toast and TV, although all he’s really interested in is getting a cab back to his hotel. After a longer period than most of us would take to realize that yes, she was trying to kill herself, and maybe he should check on her, he returns. 

The meet-cute laboriously achieved, by this time it’s too late for a cab, so Janet makes him up a bed for the night. She tells him she was married, but she killed her husband in a bizarre accident with a sex toy. She’s joking and confesses her husband left her for another woman. After he finds her sleeping in the bathtub –– there’s a hole in her bedroom window –– they share the sofa. She snores unromantically.

Picture shows: Seamus (Johnny Flynn) and Janet (Roisin Gallagher) stand outside her house.

Janet (Roisin Gallagher) and Seamus (Johnny Flynn).

@ AMC/Sundance

He admits to her the next day that he’s worried about his upcoming interview with the Foreign Secretary, and she sings him an extremely silly, improvised song about not being nervous. It seems to work for him. They say goodbye, and Seamus returns to London and Frankie. But he starts a series of texts to Janet, which continues through his return to Belfast the following week. He tells her he’s staying in the extremely fancy Merchant Hotel, making grandiose claims that Room 1 is the Presidential Suite. He emerges from the shower to find Janet in the room and is outraged that she attacked him! While he was naked and defenseless! But he gave her the room number, isn’t that what he expected? 

They finally start talking after she accuses him of being self-absorbed –– she’s only just noticed –– and they bicker about whether the hotel really is Belfast’s best and whether Seamus is really that famous. Why didn’t he mention a girlfriend? Why was she trying to kill herself? But instead of talking seriously, they progress to drinks at the hotel bar, where Seamus struts around in the hope that he’ll be recognized. Finally, he shouts over a balcony that he’s Seamus O’Hannigan, and someone tells him to f*** off. (Maybe he’s only famous in Islington.) 

A chance meeting with the Foreign Secretary Nisha Anand (Sunetra Sarker) reveals that she is staying in Belfast’s fanciest hotel and that she and her companion are only here for dinner. She and Janet chat easily together, and Seamus is jealous of their rapport. The atmosphere has cooled, and Janet decides to go home. There’s some silly stuff with a bus she appears to board but doesn’t, and then appears eating an ice cream.  They stroll through the street together, and she stops to read a menu outside a restaurant. When Seamus approaches her, she’s taken by surprise and knocks him flat. And that should give him, as it does us, a clue that she has had a troubled past. As he complains that his nose is broken (it isn’t), they kiss for the first time.

Picture shows: Seamus (Johnny Flynn) and Frankie (Alice Eve).

Seamus (Johnny Flynn) and Frankie (Alice Eve).

© AMC/Sundance

Naturally, right then, Frankie drives up. Surprise!

So by the end of the second episode, we have two troubled people who are reluctant to share their fears –– and Janet’s fragility is worrying. Seamus, it turns out, is ready to slide into marriage with Frankie. Or will he slide out of both relationships? And then what? Janet has a lot more to lose than he does. The series is both trying too hard to present us with the theory that modern Belfast hasn’t faced up to its troubled history and, at the same time, entertain us with a hip, modern romcom. As charming as Flynn and Gallagher are together, there’s a darkness to The Lovers which does not indicate the requisite happy ending.

The first two episodes of The Lovers are available now, with the remaining four releasing on Thursdays through January 4, 2024. 

If you or someone you know is expressing suicidal thoughts/ideations, you can call or text the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988 for free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals in the United States. In the U.K., the NHS helplines and 111 are open 24 hours, as are Samaritans at 116 123.

Janet Mullany

Writer Janet Mullany is from England, drinks a lot of tea, and likes Jane Austen, reading, and gasping in shock at costumes in historical TV dramas. Her household near Washington DC includes two badly-behaved cats about whom she frequently boasts on Facebook.

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