Archives for category: comedy

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.

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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.

Have you ever read a review by a TV critic and wondered what the hell they were watching? I don’t mean the bloggers like me who is happy to admit that they are entirely objective. I mean the professionals who have been given the status of arbitrators of taste. Maybe they slam a show you love, for example, ignoring any joy the programme might give.

More annoying though is when they decree a triumph for a show that isn’t worth of it. Take Back, for instance. This a comedy about Stephen (David Mitchell) dealing with his father’s death, when Andrew (Robert Webb) returns. Turns out Andrew was a kid fostered by Stephen’s parents for five months. The plot revolves around Andrew’s manipulation of Stephen’s family, presumably to claim some money out of the inheritance.

This is a dark premise for a comedy, but not necessarily bad. There is a lot of potential in fact. And it does exploit some of it well. Mitchell draws out Stephen’s fastidiousness well, but then that isn’t a stretch for him. Likewise, Webb is reliably good as the scheming charmer Andrew. There are even nicely drawn side-characters. Some of the lines are funny, and, when allowed to go slightly eccentric, the show really starts to fly.

Yet there are also many faults. There was an unnecessary plotline of a dying dog in the first couple of episodes, which did nothing in my view to draw out any laughs. In fact, it seemed purely to be a device to add an extra humiliation to Stephen. And that is where the show for me has its biggest weakness: it is entirely dependent of humiliating one character, who is basically a nice but fussy guy. I can’t help but think inflicting misery on someone in a comedy that isn’t a monster isn’t actually funny. It works when, say, Edina in Absolutely Fabulous fails, because she is a vain, egotistical person who doesn’t deserve success. But Stephen is harmless.

Not that you would see it as a problem if you read the view of the professionals. This is apparently a brilliant show, so funny yet so clever. I fail to see how a show that maybe raises one or two smiles and one genuine laugh per episode deserves such accolades, but I assume this is why I merely blog and they get paid. There is no doubt some deep, wonderful thing that I am missing.

Frankly, I’m only sticking with it in the hope Andrew gets his comeuppance and Stephen becomes the rather mild-mannered hero of the piece. Although judging by the show’s form, I wouldn’t count it. The critics would probably prefer to see Stephen wither away into perpetual embarrassment then have a happy ending.

Historical comedy is probably one of the hardest to get right. The balance needs to be found between mocking our ancestors’ beliefs on a subject without making it a history lesson, whilst also spearing some of our modern-day pre-occupations. Blackadder did it near perfectly, particularly season 3, but it is easy to see why it has often been avoided. For every hit there is a Let Them Eat Cake.

Still, one crops up now and again, and recently we have seen the launch of Quacks. This is a sitcom based around three Victorian medicine men – surgeon Robert, William the alienist (psychologist) and John, a dentist. There is also Robert’s wife, Caroline, who is keen to become a medical professional herself, and Dr Hendricks, the head of a medical school.

Naturally, most of the humour is about how backwards medical practice was: the high mortality rate of surgery, the dangerousness of early anaesthetics, the lack of any psychological understanding at all. Many of these are used as set ups to the plots of the episode, rather than the plot itself, which is a relief, as this is the weakest strand. Which is awkward, as this should be where a historical sitcom shines.

Instead, it is the surreal pin-wheeling off that is driving force behind the humour. Take episode two, where William and Caroline take a drug-addicted Charles Dickens to John’s shop to try his drugs, leading to Caroline and Charles being locked in a cupboard with a comatose boy who suddenly comes round.

Which brings to me another strength of the show, which is the guest characters. Andrew Scott was delightfully horrid as the attention seeking and sex obsessed Dickens, playing the character exactly as his worst critics had written him. Of course, the problem with guest appearances being the root of a show’s success is that if an episode has a duff one or not one at all, then you are left with a central cast that offers little.

This is the show’s biggest weakness. Everybody feels a little underdeveloped as characters. For example, John is rarely stretched beyond being a drug-loving dentist. There is also a cloying subplot of William’s love of Caroline while Robert ignores her. I do wish someone could make a sitcom where men and women are just friends and stay that way. I doubt this plot will add to anymore laughs to the show – it hasn’t done so far anyway.

Despite this, I want the show to find its feet. It is too easy for channels to ditch sitcoms after one season if they don’t quite work nowadays, rather than letting them adjust as time goes on. Blackadder only really worked series 2 onwards, for example. There is a kernel of something good here, but rather than labouring how terrible medicine was back then, it needs to focus on the more surrealist elements. Don’t just raise a smile, make me laugh. It’s what I’m paying a licence for.

TV has been dire recently. Summer is always a silly season, where the foot gets taken off the peddle. But this year feels particularly bad for some reason. No wonder people are turning to streaming services more and more, when you consider the alternatives on offer.

Because of this, I am forced to discuss a show I have written about before, namely It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. To be fair, I am now on season 11, so another look at it is worthwhile. The passage of time always changes things. Some shows dip, others find their form.

I feel It’s Always Sunny is in the latter. The plotlines that are designed to shock have been done away with, like racism or drug addiction, in place of a more standard pattern of the gang gets into a scrape or come up with a ridiculous idea and either get out of trouble or fail miserably, depending on what the plot requires. There are some episodes that specifically pastiche certain genres (‘The Gang Hits the Slopes’ mocking of 80’s movies for example’) but there is still a fairly simple rhythm.

This has helped the show in many respects, as the humour is now driven by a character’s flaws directly interacting with a simple set-up and allowing things to spiral, rather than trying to satirise a specific aspect of society. There is still an outrageousness and blackness to the humour, but it is more character driven.

One of my personal favourite episodes is ‘Charlie Work’ from season 10. In it, Charlie tries to get the bar past its health inspection, but is undermined by the rest of the gang’s scam involving live chickens and contaminated steaks. There was a great use of unity of time as Charlie became ever more frantic and the eccentricities of everyone else also built (Dennis’s insistence on playing his role as barman in the style of Matthew McConaughey, Frank flushing his clothes down the toilet etc.). All this leads to a perfect denouement involving a bar stool.

When it is this good, it is hard to see why the show isn’t bigger. Having said that, there is a frustrating lack of consistency in quality of the show. Or maybe it’s just that I get uncomfortable with it at times. For example, the gang’s behaviour is fine when they are just harming themselves, but where there is a large-scale cast involved it feels like the humour is just that bit cruller.

Maybe though that is how the hard core fans like it. Maybe the episodes I love are too soft and don’t create enough awkward tension, as the gap between the character’s expectations and reality is smaller. The bigger the gap, the bigger the laughs for some people. Still, it wouldn’t hurt for the show to be more toned down. It has adapted successfully once, it can do it again.

A recent Twitter thread piqued my interest. This is rare, as I rarely have time to click on links or open entire threads. But this was a subject I was passionate about, namely the argument that Friends should have finished with Rachel being with Joey rather than Ross as they were a better match. Cue much contention on my timeline. So here is my two pence worth.

One of the big arguments in favour of Joey is how he treats Rachel compared to Ross. They are on an equal footing- both recognise the other’s hotness but still have respect for each other. Joey doesn’t at any point stake a claim to her. Yes, the brief time they are together the plotline isn’t exactly sizzling, but that is more the fault of the writers never treating their coupling as one that would work. It would have been ten times better on screen if they had put the effort in and made their relationship the end goal.

Ross, meanwhile, is possessive. As the thread writer stated, he has had a crush on Rachel since high school and hated every guy who has dated her for taking what he sees as his away from him. His jealously is always about the threat of losing his ‘property’. Rachel is never treated as his equal. In fact, it’s his need to be superior over her that plays a big part in the initial break up.

To illustrate this point further, let’s compare his jealousy to Chandler’s regarding Monica. Ross always sees the guy dating Rachel as taking something belonging to him, and that she should only be with him. Chandler’s jealousy revolves more around Monica finding someone better for her than him – he never presumes he is her only option, that he is the only one she has a right to be with. Both of the times this happens, first with the funny guy at work and then with the soulmate, Chandler’s instincts are that Monica has found someone better for her. Ross never sees the other guy as better for Rachel.

Interestingly, Monica’s one big jealousy flare up over Chandler with Wendy is similar to Ross’s, in that it is very much driven by ‘he should be with me, not her’. This makes me wonder if rather than this behaviour being ‘Ross is a bad boyfriend’ and it is more a family trait the writers have woven in.

The defence of Ross seems to be that he is funny. Now, don’t get me wrong, the sofa episode is a piece of comic glory and he has his moments. But funny doesn’t excuse possessiveness. He wouldn’t be less funny if he treated Rachel better. Besides, most of the humour is based on him doing something dislikeable and getting punished for it: breaking into his ex’s apartment to get a shirt back, dating a student and then emotionally blackmailing her dad etc.

So where does that leave us with Rachel and Ross getting back together again at the end? Well, I always saw the show as the evolution of Rachel. We meet her as someone whose only ambition was to live off her husband’s credit card. Over ten seasons, she builds an amazing career, becomes independent and proves to be an excellent mother. Her rekindling of her love with Ross disrupts her move to Paris, which suggests that history is going to repeat itself and that Ross’s controlling nature will stifle her personal growth. Unless, and I hope this is the case, that they both still go to Paris, that Rachel gets her time to shine and that Ross has learned his lesson and takes the passenger seat for once. Maybe then they are right for each other after all.

It seems weird to be discussing a show as lightweight as 8 Out of 10 Cats, but I have good reasons to. The first is, to put it bluntly, there is little else on TV at the moment that I haven’t analysed to death, although if someone wants to know my thoughts on New Girl for the umpteenth time I am happy to divulge. The other is that it is a prime example of a successful satirical panel show, and is worthy of dissection as a representation of the genre.

I always see Cats as the teenage grandchild of Have I Got News For You that is enjoying its first few trips to the pub with its mates. The jokes are not as deep and there is no Ian Hislop to offer some thought provoking monologue but it shares some basic genetic material. There are the digs at those in power and popular culture, the latter of which hit home more. It is always more convincing when you hear someone under 40 bemoan modern life if you are in that age bracket. Paul Merton dissing, say, Lady Gaga always comes across as the older generation patronising the younger. Rob Beckett doing it feels more genuine.

The change of captains from Sean Lock and Jon Richardson to Beckett and Aisling Bea is welcome. Not that Lock and Richardson weren’t great, but there was a danger of the show slipping in to the very problem described above with Merton and Hislop – complaining about modern life only works if people genuinely believe you are aware of what it is you are commenting on. Besides Beckett and Bea are hilarious. I am a particular fan of Beckett’s long-running insistence that Jamie Oliver has a kid called Spaghetti Pete. It’s not the cleverest of jokes, but you buy into it because it only stretches the truth slightly.

I do think the show shares a limitation with HIGNFY. Both of them in their satire paint an almost consistent negative picture of politics. There are two camps in satirical thought – one that it exists only to ridicule the powerful and the latter that it should offer guidance on how to improve. I belong in the latter. HIGNFY does have Hislop sometimes giving such a patch of light. Cats does not. You could argue that is not the show’s remit, but with it being so youth oriented, and that generation proving to be so crucial in elections (as the last few years have proved), it almost owes us a duty to encourage engagement in social issues. The Last Leg does this so well without being preachy, so it can be done.

Still, as a diversion it does its job and it isn’t the worst way to spend an hour with the TV.