Douglas is Cancelled review: Cancel culture drama offers only sermons, moral binaries and easy answers

Geopolitical strife, climate disaster, artificial intelligence turning humans into useless flesh lumps. There’s a lot to be worried about at the moment. But, for a certain class of person, there’s one thing that creates more dread than anything else: cancel culture. That’s the jumping-off point for Steven Moffat’s new ITV drama, Douglas is Cancelled, which looks at the fallout from a dangerous rumour.

Hugh Bonneville is Douglas Bellowes, an avuncular, Eamonn Holmes-type TV presenter. His sofa-wife is Madeline Crow (Karen Gillan), an ambitious younger journalist, and, in the words of Douglas’s hack wife Sheila (Alex Kingston), “God’s gift to the photo desk”. Their tight relationship is put under increasing stress when an accusation circulates on Twitter/X that Douglas was heard making a sexist joke while drunk at a wedding. What was the joke? Or, more importantly, who was the punchline? As Douglas, his sleazy producer Toby (Ben Miles) and idiotic agent Bentley (Simon Russell Beale) scramble to control the narrative, dark secrets emerge about life on Live at 6.

This is, in many ways, a show of two halves: Douglas’s half and Madeline’s half. The former deals with the almost disposable threat of cancellation (whatever that might mean), while the latter deals with the much more real residue of trauma. “Whatever shit you have to wade through,” Douglas tells Madeline on their first meeting, “it really is worth it.” But is it? That’s the question Douglas is Cancelled poses. In an industry dominated by leering men – and other men, who increasingly feel like the tide has turned against them – is it possible for a young woman to traverse that quagmire?

ITV is marketing Douglas is Cancelled as a “comedy drama” much in the vein of other Moffat endeavours, like Dracula and Inside Man. The laughs, where they appear, are fleeting and predominantly deputised to Nick Mohammed as a wildly incompetent comedy writer (who obsesses over Greta Thunberg and the payoff that “Twitter is for twits”). But, more substantively, Douglas is Cancelled is a drama. A relationship drama between both Douglas and Sheila and Douglas and Madeline. A workplace drama, conducted in the national gaze. And then, finally, a revenge drama. Like all of Moffat’s enterprises – from Sherlock to The Time Traveler’s Wife – a jauntiness of tone masks the absence of jokes.

Gagged: Bonneville as Douglas (ITV)
Gagged: Bonneville as Douglas (ITV)

Which leaves a lot of weight on the shoulders of the drama. And this is where Douglas is Cancelled falters. The first couple of episodes deal with a frankly implausible scenario where a beloved TV presenter’s reputation is shredded by an anonymous tweet (by an account with a couple of hundred followers) refusing to relay an overheard sexist remark. It is the sort of feverish, delusional set-up only sellable to people who talk about the existence of a “woke mob”. Too late, then, it segues into something more real: a story about sexual assault in the television industry. So much of the show’s foundations have been expended on something petty, that when the rug is pulled out from under the audience, the concrete is exposed, glistening and bare. There is no emotional void to fall into.

All the while, Bonneville does an excellent Hugh Bonneville – that particular brand of hapless buffoonery he has made his own – and Gillan is totally convincing as a woman whose beauty distracts from her brains. Miles is now challenging Rufus Sewell’s crown as casting directors’ go-to “hot guy you don’t trust”. But Moffat’s scripts don’t give them much to work with. They talk in newsroom cliches such as “the truth is useful, but I’d prefer something a little more balanced”, while Douglas’s Gen-Z daughter Claudia (Madeleine Power) is given clunkers like “Dad, I really, really don’t want to have to cancel you” and “Dad, I believe you – hashtag: total confidence”. It is hard to escape the feeling that this story might’ve been more dynamically, more sensitively, handled by – oh, I don’t know – a woman?

Perhaps there is a good drama to be made about cancel culture. But the reality is that cancellation is one side of a transaction, whereas the other is transgression. Douglas is Cancelled tries to have its dramatic cake and eat it: a relatively frivolous accusation, an extremely serious transgression. This is a subject matter that deserves ambiguity, grey areas and hard questions, but Moffat offers only sermons, moral binaries and easy answers. In the end, it’s no different to an ate cake: filling but not nourishing.