Dark comedy is not everyone’s cup of tea. If executed well, any show or film based on this branch of humor leaves a lasting impression on the audience. Physical, Succession, Barry, Bad Sisters, and the very famous After Life are some of the prominent examples. Obituary is a brand-new Irish comedy series that flirts with dark comedy for most of its runtime. This six-episode show is a Hulu original released on November 21, 2023, written and created by Ray Lawlor.
The show is about small-time journalist Elvira Clancy, who writes obituaries for the local newspaper ‘Kilraven Chronicle’. Elvira lives with her unemployed father, Ward Clancy, in the small town of Kilraven, Ireland, and she is not happy with the pay she receives from her employers. The newspaper has a low circulation rate, and she ends up being paid based on the number of obituaries she writes instead of a steady monthly income. Her calculation proves that there aren’t many people in this village, but there are several people who have been dubbed unreliable, controversial, or simply bad people, as per Elvira.
She decides to draft obituaries of people she would target and kill them by either making it look like an accident or a suicide. Growing up Elvira, unlike other children, had a penchant for death and everything related to it. She finds herself drawn to funerals and wakes, and enjoys writing obituaries. When she jokes to her boss Hughie about wanting to kill people to write about them, Hughie takes this joke at face value. Elvira eventually considers following this path without garnering any attention. She ropes in her best friend of many years, Mallory Markum, in her ploy, and they unearth a lot of information about specific people who don’t seem to fit into their society. Does Elvira become a serial killer in pursuit of coming across more stories? This forms the crux of the story.
The premise of the show is very similar to this year’s ABC sitcom Not Dead Yet. In the American comedy show, the lead, Nell Seranno, is assigned the job of drafting obituaries, but she receives the ultimate power to see dead people she was writing about. This gave her a new perspective on life. In Obituary, drafting a write-up for the dead is given a realistic and dark touch. It offers the audience a peek into how death could be tragic and funny at the same time. The writing of the show is excellent, and so is the premise. The biggest drawback of the first episode is that it brings in too many people and subplots in one episode.
Unlike in After Life, where Tony Johnson seems to have become a bitter man; in Obituary, Elvira celebrates death. The grim humor is the highlight of the show, and the writer and the creator, Ray Lawlor, made sure to give it many layers. The show progressed into a territory where Elvira was turning into a serial killer. This writing could be considered genius for not relying on tried-and-tested tropes. The problem with this screenplay is the humor starts off as something new and engaging, but starts to drag and becomes dull by the sixth episode. The narrative is affected by the runtime of each episode. Forty-five to fifty minutes is too long to set up a premise and navigate the show towards the climax.
A comedy show should not test the patience of the audience. The screenplay must be tight and should not go too far to reach a definitive conclusion. Ray Lawlor made the mistake of indulging too much in this genre and introducing way too many subplots that did not help the overall narrative. The makers should be willing to fully explore a human mind that is attracted to everything related to death which they did not do.
There is also a parallel subplot that runs through the show about the death of a German woman working in the town who was found murdered. The crime beat of the Kilraven Chronicle is adamant about finding out who the killer could be, while the local police have given up on the same. Thankfully, this narrative becomes a major part of the show, and it concludes with the killer being uncovered. The friendship shared by Elvira and Mallory is explored in depth. The two women have been friends since childhood and are not judgmental of the choices they have made for their lives. Mallory loves being a part of the community in the town she was raised in. Meanwhile, Elvira was raised to be financially independent and moved out to the city to sustain a lifestyle away from the judgments of the small town. Their polar opposite behavioral pattern forms the main core of the show, and the women refuse to leave each other in times of adversity and offer help in every form.
Ray Lawlor’s work in comedy is similar to Phoebe Waller Bridge’s work as well. The lead in this show has an inner voice that pushes her to do many despicable things to sustain herself. Here, the inner voice does not come across as destructive, as it was in Physical. In Obituary, Elvira’s voice takes her forward and encourages her to do the deed meticulously without leaving any trail. Elvira moves around in the shadows to carry out the murders of people who do not deserve to live.
It is appalling that no one witnessed her in action, especially in such a small town. The audience was under the impression that her crimes would catch up to her, but the climax of the show was a surprise. The last episode of the show is well-written and executed, and the writer-director aptly tied up all the loose ends without leaving a residue of confusion. The screenplay in the middle did come across as confusing because of the senselessness. Aimlessly placed scenes further jolted the narrative, for it takes time to recognize its purpose. Murders are the core of the show, but adding them for shock value loses the purpose very quickly. There is also a lack of clarity in the story and the character arcs. These characters are hardly created with a definite structure.
There is a lot of emphasis on newspapers becoming outdated, and journalists having to resort to a lot of techniques to retain their relevance in this digital age. All of them at the Kilraven Chronicle go out of their way to make sure the newspaper does not get shut down. There is no emphasis on why Elvira is fascinated by death. There is a mental health angle, but it required more screen time.
The direction by John Haynes and Oonagh Kearney is not an immersive experience. The engagement factor somehow got lost in a bid to give space to many subplots and their execution. The cinematography by James Mather, on the other hand, is brilliant. It attempts to take the audience into Elvira’s psyche and allows them to watch the life of a young woman from her perspective. The excellent original soundtrack by Steve Lynch complements the overall dark narrative of the show.
The performances of the ensemble cast are another takeaway. Siobhán Cullen and Michael Smiley as the father-daughter duo are a hoot together. Elvira and Ward Clancy put forward an emotional performance that encapsulates the struggle they have gone through together. Ronan Raftery, as Emerson, and David Ganly Hughie Burns, as supporting characters, bring a lot to the table when it comes to taking the narrative forward and retaining the humor element of the show to some extent. Obituary is an average attempt, but it is highly recommended for those who have a penchant for dark humor.