Centred on a chaotic family coming to terms with an autism diagnosis, the Israeli comedy-drama “Yellow Peppers” never aired on British television, but it’s had a pronounced influence on British TV schedules over the past decade. First, it begat Peter Bowker’s direct adaptation “The A Word,” which over three series relocated several of its predecessor’s storylines to a picturesque Lake District setting, achieving the holy-grail combo of excellent reviews and high ratings for the BBC before finding a transatlantic home on Sundance TV.
Now “The A Word” generates its own variation in “Ralph & Katie,” a six-part spin-off charting the further adventures of soccer-mad Ralph (Leon Harrop) and his baker beloved Katie (Sarah Gordy). Noteworthy as characters with Down’s syndrome played by actors with Down’s syndrome, these lovebirds first won hearts during a third-series subplot on “The A Word,” moving in together against the advice of their overprotective, micromanaging guardians. Now they attempt an arguably trickier transition yet: from B-plots to A-plots, from supporting players to leads.
Some of the pressure has been reduced. Where “The A Word” occupied a full hour of primetime, “Ralph & Katie” – which gradually starts to feel like a mini-“A Word” – comes in chaptered half-hours, with Bowker penning the opener, before passing the baton to a new writing team. A sprinkling of familiar A Worders ensure continuity, notably Sherry Baines and Nigel Betts as Katie’s quietly troubled parents, and Pooky Quesnel as Ralph’s eternally flustered mother Louise. And if crisis rears, director Jordan Hogg knows turning his cameras Lake-wards will always serenely fill a frame or two.
What’s going on front and centre, however, mirrors the breakaway the show represents — it’s a push for much-coveted space in the schedules, as in Ralph and Katie’s lives. While engaging throughout, the show is only semi-successful in this aim. “Ralph & Katie” proves far gentler than its memorably lively source, sometimes feeling as though written and directed with kid gloves, and forever threatening to overdose on fairylights. A cross-stitch in the lovers’ home — bearing the legend Good Vibes Only — serves as both mission statement and notice of one limitation.
“The A Word” was soap-adjacent TV, tessellating with the nightly “EastEnders” in addressing serious issues with warmth, wit and sporadic heft. Incongruous strong language aside, “Ralph & Katie” initially feels daytime soap-adjacent: a mix-up over Valentine’s cards and misdelivered party favors is as exacting as it gets early on. If there’s a weakness here, it’s a sweet-toothed tendency to provide and take the easy dramatic option: There’s seemingly always someone popping by with kind words and a homemade lemon drizzle cake.
The shift towards cosiness is also reflected in the soundtrack selections. In place of “The A Word’s” angular New Wave and post-punk cuts, we get a poppier, far more familiar playlist: “Just the Two of Us,” “It Must Be Love,” a choreographed dance routine to Amii Stewart’s “Knock on Wood,” and — in a closing festive special — both Slade’s “Merry Xmas Everybody” and Shakin Stevens’ “Merry Christmas Everyone.” It’s comfort listening for comfort viewing, bound to warm and reassure U.K. viewers heading into an especially uncertain winter.
The show is bolstered by its ensemble, however, and here “Ralph & Katie” succeeds in matching one of its forerunner’s strengths, affording us time around characters we genuinely care about. Newcomers Dylan Brady (as Ralph’s PA Danny) and Jamie Marie Leary (as Katie’s colleague Emma) capably staff the romantic B-plots, and there’s a cherishable recruit to the expanded “A Word” universe in Craig Cash, rarely seen since his millennial one-two of “The Royle Family” and “Early Doors,” who brings a seasoned comic flair to the role of next-door neighbor Brian.
Ultimately, though, “Ralph & Katie” stands or falls on its leads, and despite some hesitant line readings, Harrop and Gordy remain a team you keep cheering for even when they find themselves on opposite sides of an argument. Something in the show’s DNA switches in episode three, which confines Ralph to the sofa with a leg injury and forces Katie to weigh up how much she wants to wait on him. It’s a more compelling scenario, in part because it’s what the show itself seems to be wrestling with: what to expect from its stars, and the extent to which it has to protect them.
By episode four, a decisive stand against parental interference, and episode five’s cancer scare, “Ralph & Katie” begins to mix the light and the life-altering in ways that resemble the best of Bowker’s work. “The A Word” hit the ground fully-formed, the work of a writer who’d spent years studying what primetime viewers want. If “Ralph & Katie” feels a comparably tentative step, it’s nevertheless a step in a potentially valuable new direction. “Let me do it my way, please,” Ralph tells his mother at a crucial juncture. After its first series, it’s fair to say “Ralph & Katie” is getting there.
“Ralph & Katie” airs from Wednesday (Oct. 5) at 9 p.m. on BBC One; a U.S. airdate is yet to be confirmed. Six episodes in total; all six were screened for review.
Executive producers: Patrick Spence, Peter Bowker, Howard Burch, Keren Margalit, Avi Nir, Kathryn Pugsley, Lucy Richer.
Producer: Jules Hussey.
Cast: Leon Harrop, Sarah Gordy, Pooky Quesnel, Dylan Brady, Jamie Marie Leary, Craig Cash, Matt Greenwood.