This Way Up: Aisling Bea’s Bittersweet, Life-affirming Tragicomedy

Welcome to the W TV Club, a spin-off series of W Movie Club, in which W magazine’s editors pick a season of a television show they’d recommend you binge-watch. This week, we recommend This Way Up, a bittersweet yet life-affirming tragicomedy about two sisters just trying to keep it together.

Aisling Bea
Courtesy of Hulu.

If you enjoy Catastrophe (Sharon Horgan), Normal People (Irish accents), Starstruck (rom-coms) or Feel Good (something offbeat and light, yet still dealing with deep personal tragedy), then you will likely find yourself enchanted by This Way Up, created by and starring Aisling Bea.

This Way Up follows a character played by Bea named Áine, her sister Shona (Horgan), and Áine’s delicate journey toward equilibrium after suffering a nervous breakdown and going to rehab. Much of the show’s drama begins to unfurl after Áine gets a job teaching English to recent U.K. immigrants, as well as a young French boy named Étienne, whose father Richard (The Crown and Outlander’s Tobias Menzies) has recently gained custody of Étienne after the sudden death of Étienne’s mother (whom Richard himself never really knew).

One night this summer, about a week before This Way Up’s second season premiered, Bea called me on Zoom after a late-night stand-up performance. While walking home in London, the actress shared her motivation for starting season two of her series with her main character in a much better place than at the start of season one. “I knew I wanted to make the sister role balanced and give Sharon enough to work with. If you have one sister that is unwell, what about the codependency?” Bea said. “The unwell person always trumps the other person’s feelings because they are unwell, but once that unwell person starts to get better, what does the other person do with their energy or time?”

The first season of This Way Up debuted in 2019 as a co-production between Channel 4 and Hulu, anchored by the charisma and talent of Bea as a writer and performer. Now, as the second season begins to release episodes on Hulu, Bea is doubling down on making sure the plot of the series is even more solid, exploring Áine’s sister Shona’s inability to cope with the isolation she feels while her fiancé Vish is away in New York for a months-long business stint. Meanwhile, Áine seems to be doing much better than before—she’s out of rehab, successfully teaching her students, and entering a stable romantic relationship.

Figuring out the structure of season two was no simple feat. But Bea received some sage advice from fellow comedian Jordan Carlos while working on the new Home Alone sequel in September—in which she will star alongside Rob Delaney—and writing season two of This Way Up. “He told me, if the first [season] is the battle, the second is what peace looks like, whether you win or lose,” she said. “I wanted to put in this show a depression that is not external. What does life and healing look like for a codependent person when their sister starts to get their life back together? What does the other side of ‘having everything together’ look like?”

The second season was shot during the Covid-19 pandemic, and it is increasingly revealed that the plot takes place during the months just before London shut down. The circumstances under which Bea produced the show were grueling, she said. “We made it after Christmas had been canceled in the U.K. and there was still an airborne virus making people afraid to even pass each other a pen without covering their hands in sanitary wipes,” she added. “When so much of every day for most of us is difficult, and especially on the set of a show dealing with the ups and downs of a mental health spiral, emotionally, it wasn’t so easy for the cast and crew, either.” Morale was low, but Bea did her best to make the set a safe emotional space, especially as the show’s subject matter delves into darker territory. “We had a mental health coordinator on set, but there were still so many people struggling,” she explained.

Nevertheless, Bea and her cast and crew made it to the finish line of This Way Up’s second season. The characters’ comedic foibles and tragic miscommunications steer their lives in a direction that ultimately lands on a similarly life-affirming yet bittersweet note as that of season one. “I made this for others to see—it’s like being gluten-free and baking a loaf of bread—I didn’t make it for me!” Bea said. The second season is set up well for a binge watch, with the drama of the show unfolding more like a three-hour film. And in a strange twist of events, those in the United States will get to see the new seasons before viewers in the United Kingdom.