In 2017, Sharon Horgan wrote a short for Sky Comedy, about a woman who attends her sister’s baby shower while secretly up the duff herself. Morgana Robinson, clad in an ironically garish “Princess Diana” T-shirt, played the slightly divvy protagonist, Mel. Her pregnant sibling was a sweaty and elementarily furious Sheridan Smith: roasting, ready to pop and clad in little more than a pair of bikini bottoms. Their mum – Frances Barber – was a sunburnt lush, attempting to add tinned tomatoes to the Bacardi punch. Set in the family’s home town of Margate, it was a summer hellscape: gross, grotty, foul-mouthed, simmering with familial resentment. It was also laugh-out-loud funny. That Horgan won a Bafta for her trouble came as no surprise.
It’s also no surprise that Sky have decided to expand these 10 minutes of taut, bristling comedy into a six-part dramedy. In doing so, however, there have been significant personnel changes. Horgan is off writing duties (she is still executive producer), replaced by a team that includes the comedian Sarah Kendall, the author Emma Jane Unsworth and Gabby Best, who plays Clare, one of two other sisters who appear in both versions. Trish – originally the extravagantly talented Smith – is now played by Doctor Who’s Freema Agyeman. And instead of the amusingly vacant Robinson, we have Lily Allen, in her first TV role.
Episode one centres on Trish’s manifestival; after two boys, she is desperate to have a girl with her lovely husband, Spence (Stath Lets Flats’ Kiell Smith-Bynoe), and stages an all-pink party in order to tempt fate. Mel, meanwhile, is returning to the scrappy resort of Margate – the show is named after the town’s theme park – from Paris, with her tail between her legs. She rocks up at the manifestival, swilling from a tinny, to the instant irritation of her elder sister. Insults are traded, and their bickering is only interrupted by an unlikely chain of events that sees both women end up in A&E.
It’s immediately clear that Horgan’s original vision has undergone a vibe shift. Stretched out over a series arc, Dreamland is a paler, flabbier and altogether sunnier proposition than the lean, mean, spiky short it is based on. Brutal naturalism is out, misty-eyed warmth is in – this Dreamland is far less darkly funny than its original incarnation. It has become a show about community and family ties, about celebrating your ragtag crew despite their dysfunction. The opener even features the line, “I love you, you twat” – which may as well have been the title, so perfectly does it sum up the bittersweet sentimentality of this kind of comforting, slightly cliched but still obviously contemporary comedy-drama. The show also finds room for moments of earnest seriousness, more notably in the first episode, when Trish supplies a dismissive doctor with stats about the ways in which black women are routinely let down by the medical profession.
The characters are also far more aspirational. Where Smith was hilariously prickly, Agyeman is merely a bit uptight. And where Smith was mesmerically swollen, Agyeman is enviably gorgeous (and the manifestival is not the gloriously half-arsed piss-up of the original, but a meticulously decorated extravaganza). Barber is now a put-together glam-ma with a female lover, and Clare, who was a bit of a non-entity in the short, is a witty, talented writer. Mel might look grungy, but even she has just returned from a glamorous stint as a model booker in Paris, and when we see her in flashback later on she looks like a polished fashionista.
Mel – or rather Allen’s portrayal of her – is undoubtedly one of the major draws of Dreamland. The pop star’s West End debut in 2021 as one of the leads in 2:22 A Ghost Story was much praised, so many will be curious to see how she fares on screen. The reality is not particularly interesting: she’s not a Billie Piper-style revelation but she does do a very decent job, bringing her brittle laugh and the wry glint in her eye to a character who is a reckless, flaky, but relatively smart party animal, one who bridles against her family and is secretly sad in an undisclosed way. In other words, not a huge leap from how some may have imagined Allen herself to be in her youth.
Mel’s secret sadness provides the bulk of the intrigue for episode one – until the hospital visit gives her a much more tangible and pressing anxiety to deal with. Although it isn’t actually revealed in the opener, it’s clear that the stomach-dropping plot twist from the original underpins the action here too, which should hopefully lead to some high drama further down the line. It desperately requires it: for this sweet but watered-down sisterhood dramedy to cut through the currently saturated TV landscape, it really needs to show its claws.
• Dreamland aired on Sky Atlantic and is available on Now TV.