Archives for category: comedy

The afterlife and death has been a frequent setting for comedy-drama. Six Feet Under, Pushing Daisies and Dead Like Me have all been and gone. They have never been out-and-out comedies though. Perhaps it has been seen as such a sensitive subject that, if you are to include jokes, you need something a bit darker to balance it out.

The Good Place dispenses with such a rule, with humour front and centre. The story focuses on Eleanor, who after dying is sent to ‘The Good Place’ as a reward for her hard work on earth. The Good Place is a community made up of similar individual who have been granted their dreams in the afterlife by The Architect, a God-like figure given human form.

But there’s a problem. Eleanor shouldn’t be here. She wasn’t good. In fact, she was awful. And when she behaves in such a way in The Good Place she creates a mini-apocalypse which can only be fixed by being good. So, in order to not be found out, she learns to be a good person with the help of her soulmate.

I’m only four episodes into the first season but there is a lot to like. The central plot is fleshed out by some side mysteries, it is intelligently constructed and the characters are slowly fleshing out nicely. Ted Danson is charmingly vulnerable as The Architect, a flawed but omniscient presence. Janet, his assistant, is also smartly drawn.

Best of all, it is actually funny. Ok, this is often as a wry smile rather than a belly laugh, but this is one of the shows that bears repeat viewing. The first time you follow the plot, the second time the jokes. In true Netflix-style, it also rewards the binge watcher with its promise of a cliff hanger at the end of every episode.

There are nods to My Name Is Earl in its themes of redemption and morality whilst side-stepping religion. Good is quantified statistically – how impactful and frequent were your good actions? This is totted up by some kind of celestial computer. No religious figurehead here – it is all formulas, which, in era where Google and Amazon watch you daily, is oddly believable.

Perhaps it could benefit from some bigger laughs. But this seems like an unfair quibble for a show that seems to be somehow quaint yet daring. The afterlife has never been so funny. Nor, in this post-modern word, so unnerving.

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Firstly, an apology for missing a week. Real life got in the way. And by real life, I mean a Christmas Afternoon High Tea with prosecco. But I am back now, so let’s crack on.

Last year the BBC launched a number of sitcom pilots to see if any could generate enough interest to succeed as a series. Most failed to even raise an eyebrow, but one – Motherland – generated both critical and public acclaim. This perhaps isn’t surprising when you consider the calibre of people working on it. Two of the four writers are Graham Linehan and Sharon Horgan, both of whom have a pedigree in making excellent comedies.

Motherland is, as the title obviously suggests, about parenting. Anna Maxwell Martin plays Julia, who is trying to ‘have it all’ and ending up often with having nothing but stress thanks to a feckless husband. Diane Morgan is the more slatternly (and presumably unemployed) single mum Liz, Lucy Punch as queen of the ‘Tiger Mums’ Amanda and Paul Ready is stay-at-home dad Kevin.

It has to be said the strongest character is Liz, full of brutal honesty and realism with also a touch vulnerability. A particular highlight came in episode one when Julia’s entertainer for her child’s birthday party was exposed as a racist and Liz had also used and refused to pay him. When Julia queried if it was the racism, Liz responded with: “No, because he was shit! If I didn’t pay people because they were racist I would have never got my satellite dish fitted. Or my wedding catered for”.

This more down-to-earth humour balances the more manic energies brought by Julia and Kevin. The latter in particular is annoying, a mixture of weird obsessiveness with a desperation to please normally only seen in puppies. It is the fact this portrayal veers in the cartoony that is the show’s biggest weakness. Everybody else you feel is somewhat believable, regardless of their faults.

Putting Kevin aside, this is an excellent comedy. It actually makes you laugh as the strands of the episode build to a climax. There isn’t any of the absurdism of Linehan’s other sitcoms, but then, that wouldn’t work here. This is about wry observations of modern parenting and the social rules that come with it.

I hope this show achieves continued success. Female-dominated comedies often get plenty of well-meaning comments but nothing to show for it. This deserves more. At the very least, a BAFTA for Morgan, who seems to be constantly just bubbling under the surface as a breakout talent. Maybe this could be her chance to join those at comedy’s top table. She has earnt it.

 

We need to talk about Taskmaster. And not in an ‘Oh my god did you see it?’ kind of way. More of a, ‘That wasn’t as good as it used to be’ kind of way. Because it’s true, it does seem to have declined. Four seasons why I found myself crying with laughing at least once an episode to this series, where it rarely got passed raising a smile.

There are two obvious things that need to be held accountable. The first is the tasks themselves. Actually, I feel these haven’t declined as much. There are still the deceptively fiendish mixed in with the borderline logic puzzles and the odd bit of eccentric creativity thrown in. It is noticeable how this series the ability for a contestant to read between the lines and ‘cheat’ their way to first place has been tightened up, but the show doesn’t live or die by that. So it’s not the tasks then.

Which leaves us with the contestants. I think we need to separate here individual charms from those of the group. Nish Kumar, Bob Mortimer and Aisling Bea all provided excellent moments of humour, some of which I will discuss more later. Sally Phillips and Mark Watson, less so. Phillips constantly came across as trying too hard, exemplified by the very first task of the series, where she had to give Alex Horne a hug. Cue lots of silly giggling whilst she shoved cake in his armpits. Watson, meanwhile, spent most of the tasks acting like a depressed and confused puppy and didn’t really spark off anything.

As a group there wasn’t much banter either. The show relied on the back-and-forth between Greg Davies and the contestants rather than between themselves. Overall, it felt flat and inconsistent. Which is major disappointment.

There were some individual moments of brilliance. Aisling Bea turning the tables on a prank played on her by Greg and Alex by sending a gold pineapple to her mum was genius. Nish Kumar made the phrase ‘You bubbly fuck’ my now go to when I get mad at the washing up. Bob Mortimer though was the star. His random comments made the show tick over and I would advise anyone feeling low to search for his ‘sausage display toy’ to cheer them up.

But it never should be relying on such fleeting moments. Maybe it is just running out of steam, or hopefully it was just a duff series. There is a Champion of Champions episode at Christmas that may point towards the show’s future. Part of me wants it to go on forever. But then again, I can’t bear to watch a continued decline. If this is to be its final curtain, then I will grin bear it. Or preferably, laugh myself silly for an hour one last time.

The problem with this time of year is that so many old staples return to TV that it is hard to make time for anything new. Yes, I know there is catch-up services and streaming, but I like to keep a balanced life and that makes it hard for me to make time to watch everything. I have a list as long as my arm of shows I want to see – The Good Place, Rick & Morty and Shit’s Creek have all come highly recommended.

So when I put off watching these, it is annoying when something I invest time in starts to not repay me. That is the problem I am currently facing with 2 Broke Girls. It has always had its critics for its base humour and stereotyping, but for me it had always just been knock-about fun, a counter-balance to the more thoughtful New Girl or The Mindy Project.

The last season has only just begun in the UK, such is our lack of interest in it – The Big Bang Theory comes out within a few weeks of the US episodes. The two episodes I have seen so far have been verging towards the dire.

Yet I can’t put my finger on why. The plot of the episodes has always been wafer-thin, so it isn’t that. They have never gone for surprising jokes – you have always seen the next line or visual gag coming. The characters haven’t changed, although admittedly over six seasons you expect to see some development.

I can therefore only put down my change in view towards it down to myself. I feel as if my taste in TV has matured over the last few years. I was never the kind of viewer to get invested in Line of Duty for example, but I now want the next series of that to come around more than anything else in the world. I’ve also grown tired of Family Guy, although I did think the episode spoofing the Emmy’s was quite clever in its own way.

The thing is, knowing this the last season makes me want to persevere with it. I want to know if we are going to see a happy ending (although the plot of the first two episodes suggests Caroline has seen too many of Max’s), both in terms of the business and the personal lives of the characters. Even so, it will be a relief when it is over. Whether I will get round to completing my wish list after all, well, that’s a different story.

After what feels like an eternity, I have once again returned to The Middle. My pause from it was caused by my obsession with working my way through all 12 seasons of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia. My word, the contrast is huge. It feels like entering a sunny landscape after days of hiking through rough terrain and a biting wind. Not that I don’t love It’s Always Sunny, it does edgy so well after all, but watching a comedy that isn’t full of anger and with people who are at a basic level likeable feels almost a relief.

Not that there aren’t clouds in The Middle. It’s just that it is the clouds are what drives the family together. Financial hardship, the perils of adulthood, dissatisfaction with life – they are all on display. But there is a love between the characters. And that’s why you buy into them as a real family.

Also, like with any family, you find yourself siding with different people each time. I have watched episodes where Brick is almost a hero to me, fighting his social awkwardness with a charming naivety. Then, in the next episode, these very qualities become overbearing and frustratingly child-like. Likewise, Frankie can be too naggy in one episode, wanting too much from her family and life and then giving up on her dreams when a minor bump appears. But then, you suddenly feel sorry for her when you see how much she tries to support her family with little gratification in return.

I’ve said it before, but it’s true – American TV truly comes into its own when it allows over a number of seasons at twenty or so episodes at time the characters to develop. Long-running plots can develop without being rushed and even minor characters can be fleshed out.

I think, more than anything, you come away from The Middle wanting the characters to be happy. Obviously not too happy. There is no comedy or narrative tension in a smooth life. But happy enough so that you come away affirmed that life can occasionally at least go your way.

You don’t always want happy in a comedy. Life isn’t like that and humour can come from the darkest place. But sometimes fiction needs to lift you up, even if it’s not aspirational. And that’s because aspiration alone doesn’t lift. It takes people to do that. Even dysfunctional families can make things better.

How much of a liberty should you take with history when producing a work of fiction? I suppose it depends on what you want the end result to be. A serious period drama needs more attention to detail, and besides, real historical events rarely need extra dramatization adding. A more fluffy drama (e.g. Downton Abbey) needs less of this, as your audience is essentially wanting a soap in period costume. The social changes are merely a jumping off point for characters rather than being the tale you want to tell.

But what about comedy? Yes, again your audience is hardly going to bristle at 21st-century values being imposed on a historical figure, but you still want to feel as if the writer knows what they are talking about. Satirical jabs at our ancestors can become inane if not handled carefully. Quacks trod this line quite well. Upstart Crow, less so.

You see, the big problem with Upstart Crow is that it tries too hard. The veiled, or not so veiled, references to Brexit, Trump and other problems of our down are heavy-handedly transposed into a late 16th-century context. This is surprising, as Ben Elton did this so well in Blackadder.

In fact, the problems with Upstart Crow are laid bare when you look at Blackadder. Having a background cast that hams it up is fine if there is someone central that keeps it level, as Rowan Atkinson did as Edmund Blackadder. But in Crow, David Mitchell is as OTT in his performance as everyone else. It leaves you feeling as if you are being bashed over the head by a group of toddlers chanting ‘laugh, laugh, laugh’.

And then you have the tricky biographical details. Are we really to believe that Shakespeare was an idiot, entirely dependent on his sensible wife and uber-feminist friend to give him inspiration? I know we can stretch our imaginations a little, but this characterisation of Shakespeare borders on the unbelievable. If the whole point is to show how someone from a modest background rose to be one of our greatest writers, isn’t this rather dulled by making him a stupid man with ideas above his station? I don’t believe in hagiographies, but nor do I like this rather ‘know your place’ attitude the show seems to have.

Another example is the representation of Christopher Marlowe as a caddish womaniser when more and more evidence is showing he was actually as close to being an openly practising homosexual you could possibly be for the time. It’s 2017, viewers won’t demand heads on sticks if you write him as such.

Overall, what felt like a novelty in series one is feeling old and tired now. Most of the jokes are recycled from previous episodes bar the plot specific ones and the characters remain one-note. If you are going to satirise history, you need to show some teeth, especially if you are going to stretch the past to its breaking point. Taking liberties is only worth it if the end product is good enough. In this case, it feels like it is not.

On a recent episode of 8 Out of 10 Cats does Countdown Jimmy Carr made a barb at Fay Ripley, describing Cold Feet as the UK’s answer to Friends if the question was ‘What’s not quite as good as Friends?’ Ripley jumped to the show’s defence, pointing out that at least her show was still going. This does, however, ignore the massive gap between the original series ending and the comeback last year.

Even so, it does seem silly to compare the two shows, longevity aside. Friends was always a sitcom, Cold Feet a comedy-drama, and one of the rare ones that could pull off both at that. Yes, there were six people navigating relationships and careers in both with a significant ‘will they/won’t they’ dynamic’, but that’s where it ends.

I find Cold Feet to be one of the best-plotted shows on TV. It’s a tricky thing giving five (R.I.P. Rachel) central characters enough room for each story to breathe whilst still maintaining a group dynamic and allowing side characters to have their moments. The cleverly demarcated flashback scenes, where some of the group tell the rest what happened whilst we are shown it, is used just the right amount and with both humorous and dramatic effect. Jen and Pete’s sex tape scene was brilliantly comedic and tellingly honest about the gap between expectation and reality in our approach to sex.

I must admit to being nervous when they introduced the teenage pregnancy storyline where Karen and David’s daughter became pregnant by Adam’s son. This is a plot that has been done far too much in soaps and the like and you would struggle to find an original angle. Yet it did. The discussions around abortion were mature and focused on Olivia’s wish to have control over her body and Matt’s naïve belief he could rise to the challenge of fatherhood at just 16. The scene at the clinic was perfection and a lesson in understatement, a young girl facing the reality of her choices an everyone all so quiet and hushed, the fragility of the moment encapsulated merely in a tone of voice.

In truth, all the plots are absorbing. Jen facing the dilemma of reaching the peak of her career just as an ailing parent needs her most. David playing the night in shining armour to trapped Cheshire housewife. Karen risking everything to save her business. And, of course, Adam’s bumpy relationship with new squeeze Tina. I feel a bit sorry for Tina, as much in the centre of things as anyone yet still not given central cast status. Either let her be one of the gang or cut her loose. Otherwise she just becomes a side character who the viewers will never fully accept.

Cold Feet is a brilliant examination of life in your late forties and early fifties and is both funny and honest. Friends may never come back and tell us what happened next, but it doesn’t need to. Cold Feet is doing it better than anyone ever could.