GAP YEAR opens with a cynical travel writer informing two British lads on a plane to Beijing that China is unlikely to offer them the booze and beaches they’re after and will, in all probability, wreck their friendship.
The two minute exchange sums up E4’s latest original, which throws the two best friends into a backpacking adventure around Asia. Episode one crams a fair amount into its 40-minute running time, covering divorces, dashed dreams and high drama. As well as introducing our protagonists, we visit the Great Wall of China, attend a huge music festival, discover a frankly unnerving number of emotional flashpoints for each character and witness a mildly thrilling foot chase.
Gap Year’s motley crew consists of the aforementioned Brits, wannabe booze cruiser Sean (Ade Oyefeso) and lovestruck philosophy student Dillon (Anders Hayward), two American backpackers, the freewheeling Ashley (Brittney Wilson) uptight May (Alice Lee), and hanger-on Greg (comedian Tim Key).
While Dillon takes stalking to a whole new level, Sean thinks he’s signed up to a lads’ tour and Ashley...well, we don’t learn that much about Ashley to be honest, apart from the fact that she’s free-spirited freeloader. So it’s Alice and Greg who make the biggest impression. Alice’s increasingly frustrated attempts to “get in touch” with her Chinese roots will be familiar to anyone with immigrant parents, but it’s Greg’s tragic, middle-aged divorcé who mines Gap Year’s richest seam of humour.
Gap years are supposed to be authentic, life-changing experiences off the beaten track. However, they’ve come a long way since their socially responsible roots in the 60s and 70s, and are perhaps more synonymous with inebriated Westerners dutifully Instagram'ming their identikit experiences of mingling with photogenic locals, drinking beer in exotic places and bungee jumping into rivers.
That might explain why it’s never entirely clear whether Gap Year sets out to embrace or parody the cliché of student tourists abroad. It nails the perhaps uniquely Western ability to seek out a unique travelling experience by doing the same thing overseas that they would do back home. It isn’t long before the quintet make a beeline to a music festival with throbbing basslines, laser light shows and over-priced tickets that could be anywhere on the planet, antagonistic bartender and all.
The humour is surprisingly run-of-the-mill, failing to make the most of its rich subject matter - even a toppled portaloo is a largely squandered opportunity. Unlike its spiritual predecessor Fresh Meat, which routinely skewered its student protagonists, Gap Year largely keeps its claws sheathed (with the exception of a running “banana” joke that never fails to evoke a guilty titter).
However, there is an unexpected bonus as Gap Year occasionally goes full travelogue to offer a glimpse of the most beautiful and exciting places in the world, courtesy of some cinematic photography (albeit clearly on a telly budget). Swooping gently towards the Great Wall of China, Gap Year makes up for wafer thin plot and characters with money well spent on location shoots.
Like its characters, Gap Year is a little wandering and aimless. While the first episode is a little ropey, it does show promise. At the very least, it looks set to offer a comical travelogue for anyone contemplating their own life-changing Asian adventure.