Discovering a series long after it’s ended is a lot like being Captain Picard in that episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation where he lives a lifetime in twenty-five minutes. You know: the one with the flute. Like Picard, you get transported into a strange new world, gradually learn its ways, and grow to love the people you meet there – only to return to the present, bereft, but all the better for having those memories to treasure. Picard is told by the shadows of those that once were, “The rest of us have been gone a thousand years. If you remember what we were, and how we lived, then we’ll have found life again… Now we live in you.” That’s exactly how I felt after happening upon a wonderful and tragically overlooked gem of a series called Spirited.
Created by Jacquelin Perske and Claudia Karvan (who also stars), Spirited centres on the unconventional relationship between a “living” human, Suzy Darling (Karvan), a strait-laced dentist, and the ghost occupying her apartment, Henry Mallet (Matt King), a 70s rock star. In life, Mallet was the frontman of legendary punk band The Nerve; last sighted in Australia in 1983, he rocks up in 2010 – seemingly unaged – in the swanky Sydney penthouse owned by Suzy, who’s finally left her loathsome husband Steve (Rodger Corser) and taken her two children along with her. Airing on Australian premium channel Foxtel between 2010-2011, the show was unjustly cancelled after two seasons despite winning awards, high ratings, and a dedicated fan base who implored the network to #SaveOurSpirited after the axe fell.
Love stories between a ghost and a human are a rarer supernatural subgenre than most. When they do pop up, they usually focus on a couple who were already together before one of them shuffled off this mortal coil, leaving the living partner to struggle with their loss and ultimately learn to move on. In these stories, to love a ghost, and let them go, is a way of personifying the grieving process. Rarer still are the romances in which the pair only meet after one of them has died, the most prominent of which – classic movie The Ghost and Mrs Muir, and its television remake – has been cited by Karvan as a major influence on Spirited. And rarest of all is Spirited itself, an achingly sweet, whimsically funny, and charmingly offbeat series that will break your heart and make it beat again.
Spirited’s premise is simple enough: “What if you don’t meet the love of your life until you’re dead?” What it’s really about, though, is less coming to terms with death and more learning what it means to be alive. Is it about what you do with your time on earth, what you accomplish, or with whom you spend it? A search for emotional independence, human connection, or both? And if you do find someone with whom you want to share your world, will you face life’s challenges together, no matter the emotional toll?
Posing these questions and more, you can see why Spirited is the kind of show that’s tricky to label. Karvan describes it as “playful, romantic, and a little absurd”, and while it definitely has elements of paranormal romance, fantasy, comedy and drama, it’s completely a creature of its own making. It’s Wings of Desire with a punk rock attitude (because, really, what’s the difference between a ghost and an angel, in the end? Semantics). The strange magic of Spirited is its precise and careful tone, a mark of a show that’s exactly what it wants to be right from the start. It sets up a world so specifically quirky that it takes time for you to move to its particular rhythm, what with its awkward tangents and slapstick asides threaded in with moments of genuinely heart-stopping romance and wonder. But once you tune in to its unique melody, you’ll never look back – and so much of its allure is down to the incredible chemistry between its two leads.
Claudia Karvan and Matt King are utterly spellbinding together, and they manage to achieve the impossible in making Suzy and Henry believable both as characters and as partners. Even discounting the whole ghost aspect, theirs is a relationship that should never work – and yet it does, because they just get each other. They start out as strangers, become friends, fall in love, and end the series as the most beautifully supportive and loving couple. The fact that Suzy is the only one who can see Henry is a gorgeous allegory for truly knowing a person and being truly known by them; genuine human connection, in its purest form.
Both Henry and Suzy are in the process of reassembling their identities when they meet each other in the pilot. They were both “dead” in a sense; stuck, lonely, yearning to be understood. It’s no wonder these two lost souls meet in The Elysian: it’s both a paradise and a purgatory, trapping Henry and Suzy in a limbo where they cannot touch (except, sometimes, in their dreams). The raw sense of longing in this show is angst of the highest calibre: the spectre of loss underscores even the tenderest of moments, and the aching, harrowing heartbreak of it all is devastating – but in a good way. Suzy may initially come across as stiff, reserved, and uptight, but that’s just because no-one has ever taken the time to know who she is – until Henry. Like Suzy, the series is full of emotions that it takes time to work through and express. Give Spirited and Suzy a little time, and you will know wonders.
I wasn’t familiar with Claudia Karvan before this, but she’s made a fan for life. Australian acting royalty and a goddess of the screen, she is a force to be reckoned with – and I’m in awe of her incredible work both in front of and behind the camera. I’ve been a fan of Matt King since RocknRolla, and while Super Hans may be his most iconic role, Henry Mallet is his magnum opus. Sometimes you just get a perfect synthesis of actor and role, where you feel this specific person was born to play this specific character – and Matt King as Henry Mallet is the ne plus ultra. He never fails to elevate whatever project he appears in: he’s not just a fantastic actor and comedian but a wonderful writer too, absolutely kills it behind the mic, and he’s turned walking, standing and wearing punk couture into an art form.
As well as being brilliantly performed, Spirited is also beautifully written; a deceptively simple tale which balances so many disparate elements it’s a miracle they don’t all come crashing down. Co-creator Jacquelin Perske spoke of wanting to move “beyond naturalism” to tell a story about the “human condition”, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the love story at its heart. As much as I absolutely adore the swoony romance, I love that it is one aspect of Suzy’s life (and a hugely important aspect at that), but it is not her whole existence. So many romance plots contrive to have the love story subsume everything else, but not in Spirited: Henry plays a key role in Suzy remaking herself and learning to live properly for the first time, but her life is her own. She has a career, a family, and her own wants and desires. It also speaks to the care and love with which the series treats all of its characters. Although I strongly feel that time spent on Suzy’s odious ex-husband is time wasted, I do appreciate that Spirited genuinely cares not just for its star-crossed lovers but for every character. They don’t throw anyone away.
And so the world of Spirited is simultaneously expansive and intimate. Season one is a quirky, low-key affair in which Henry and Suzy fall in love and have to decide whether their relationship is worth pursuing in spite of seemingly insurmountable odds. Henry and Suzy’s interactions are always brilliant, and Jed Kurzel’s extremely authentic punk tunes do a good job of elegantly slotting The Nerve into music history. The season does spend a bit too much time on some inconsequential plotlines, mainly those relating to Steve, and Suzy’s slightly chaotic sister Jonquil (Belinda Bromilow), which made it feel a bit lopsided until the midway point – but then it’s off to the races. Season two is bigger and bolder, with an expanded cast list and high-quality production values, but the show never loses its quirky and distinct sense of self. They marshal the non-ghost-related subplots with a surer hand and give Jonquil and Steve more meaningful storylines. Suzy tracks down her long-absent mother Helen (Heather Mitchell) and a coterie of ghosts from different historical eras rock up to wreak havoc (not unlike like the pitch for BBC’s Ghosts).
I’m going to give away a plot point from season two, so if you want to experience the series with (almost) no spoilers, I encourage you to stop reading now and seek it out (which you should do anyway – it’s currently streaming on Amazon Prime). Henry and Suzy share the same physical space, but they can only touch in dreams. When even their dreams become unpredictable, they learn about the concept of “spiriting”, a process by which a ghost and a living human are able to touch – but only for a limited period of time, and for a high price. To go “spiriting” for one hour means giving up a year of your human life, in which you wander, detached and listless, existing but not truly living, and having no memory of what has transpired in the interim.
It’s a state of mind to which anyone who has lived through 2020 can relate. We’ve all gone through this year in something of a “spirited” state: drifting through the waking world, only living through dreams and memories. Like Henry and Suzy, we snatch moments of borrowed time with our loved ones, unable to hold them or even be near one other in the flesh for long enough. Karvan called the show ‘silly but with an edge of melancholy… [because] living with a ghost forces you to confront your own mortality’. We all live with ghosts because, in the words of Charles Dickens, we are all “fellow-passengers to the grave”. For nearly ten months we have kept our distance from others for their and our safety; it’s vital – but the lack of human contact does somewhat disconnect you from humanity, and from yourself. Henry Mallet’s frustration at being unable to leave his current digs will resonate with anyone who’s lived through lockdown, and in a world in which COVID has rendered touch and close contact a rare gift, it’s become easier to relate to romances between living humans and ghosts and how they embody the long-distance yearning and ache of separation experienced en masse this year.
There’s closure, of a kind, in Henry and Suzy’s story, but it’s coupled with the feeling that there was so much left to tell (as Karvan indicated in a 2012 interview). What that might be, we may never learn – but, for my part, I hope Suzy and Henry get the same ending that Marion and Damiel did in Wings of Desire: if you’ve never seen it, this speech and this monologue will explain why. There are many moments in Spirited which take my breath away, but this is the one I keep turning over in my mind: it’s the moment where one character says to another, “It is not over, it is just finished.” In that line, whether intending to or not, Spirited is describing itself. I feel like I was a thousand years too late to this wonderful and too short-lived series, but though it is finished, it is not truly over, and it never will be. As long as it resonates with those that love it, as long as people continue to discover it as the lost treasure it is, Spirited lives on.