Archives for posts with tag: comedy

TV is rubbish over Christmas. The desire to please a broad, captive audience means that the mainstream thrives at the expense of anything interesting. No Christmas special of Killing Eve for those of us who loved it, at least not this year. Instead, updates of Poirot (albeit supposedly grittier), accompanied by the usual Call the Midwife and Mrs Brown’s Boys.

No wonder I have turned to the Planner, where, in a Christmas miracle, I found dozens of episodes of Bob’s Burgers. I have declared my love for it before, but with so little else on I am unashamed in doing so again.

One of the key things I love about it is that, in what seems to be an increasing rarity in comedy (animated or live), the characters actually love each other. I have got to the point with Family Guy and American Dad! Where I have stopped buying into them as loveable but dysfunctional. They just have pushed each other all too far.

But not the Belchers. There is genuinely a united front in the family and a sense of support for each other, even with the craziest of ideas. I know I may be reading a little too much into a cartoon, but it is a massive mood boost not to watch a family that brims over with resentment.

This means you can focus on the plot and the lines, both of which are at the top of their game. Again, some comedies by now in their lifecycle go for bigger targets and overreach. Suspension of belief is fine but there is a definite sense at times that they are going for plot at expense of humour. With Bob’s Burgers I can still buy into that this is just the regular adventures of a family.

The show isn’t scared of making the audience pay attention either. It can at times shoot rapid fire lines between the characters (Gene in particular goes for off the cuff remarks that you could miss if diverted) and that is one of the joys.

Of course, the greatest two characters are and always will be Tina and Louise. The former is an introvert dying to be an extrovert and fiercely individualistic. She is a hero to anyone who just wants to be themselves and finds themselves half in/half out of the popular group. Louise, meanwhile, is beautifully cynical and strongminded. She is one of my favourite characters from any show ever.

My last point in praise for the show is that even the minor characters are well drawn out (pardon the pun). They may only get a few minutes in an episode once or twice a year, but you still know them. Two of my favourites are Felix, the brother of Mr Fischoder, and Gayle, Linda’s sister, both of whom have the kind of nuance some shows struggle to get into their main characters, never mind secondary ones.

This show has got me through Christmas. It might even need to get me through January at this rate. Mind you, there are worse things. I could actually have to talk to my own family.

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I spoke last week about the fad of having people who are fundamentally unpleasant as lead characters in sitcoms. The kind of person who is rude, selfish and not as smart as they think they are, living under the impression that the world should fall into their lap. Man Down is a good example of this genre, with the central figure of Dan never believing that the bad things are happening because of him, but because the universe is against him.

His co-star Roisin Conaty treads a similar beat in her own sitcom GameFace. In it, she plays out of work actress Marcella, who gets by on temp jobs that she can never keep and is forced into life coaching sessions. To be fair, she is not as rude as the above description but is always trying to take a short cut in life and failing. And, most crucially, she has that most crucial character flaw for the genre, a lack of accountability.

Yet you actually feel a bit more sympathy for Marcella. I wonder if this is a gender issue – there is that feeling that if a man fails it is because of his own actions, a woman because of those of others. Or it could be that her actions never stem from a place of anger; she is merely scatty and impulsive rather than aggressive.

Conaty is, of course, brilliant, although when you play an exaggerated version of yourself it is hard not to be. Still, no one can deny the air of authenticity on the show. Her elaborate daydreams add a surreal dimension to the show and are probably the highlight.

Also, it is actually funny in amongst some the cringe. The best humour comes from her one-line responses as opposed to any of the elaborate set pieces, although that is just my take. I have never been one to be bowled over my embarrassing people as a form of humour, preferring witty repartee or caustic off-the-cuff remarks.

Basically, this functions as a short diversion. It is certainly good enough for you to spend your time on, but is also slightly throwaway and disposable. It certainly doesn’t match the sharpness of This Country, which has grown on me from being mildly enjoyable to bloody amazing. GameFace is perfectly fine in its own way. It may follow a well-walked path, but you won’t regret going down it.

I have spoken about The Big Bang Theory a few times before, but as we are now into the final season it seems a good time to summarise the entire show. An attempt at a eulogy, if you will.

It is a show that has its detractors. It is regularly mocked and scorned for a variety of crimes, real and imagined. Personally, I think the only one it truly committed was becoming too popular, if you can deem that a felony. Perhaps it is, considering how this age is defined by finding the next big thing rather than just enjoying it while it is big. Also falling into this category are Coldplay, Ed Sheeran and Taylor Swift, presumably the recipients of such bile because they refused to stay small and humble and instead, oh the horror, played to the mainstream and became successful.

It is true that the previous season of Big Bang was quite weak. It had got lazy in its plotting and jokes, although it still occasionally landed a good episode. But everything before, and the current season, have been strong. It does what only American sitcoms can do well, allowing characters to grow and change with humour yet also knowing when to go slightly for the heartstrings. The episode where Howard’s mother died was a beautiful example of this. Comedies that rely on dragging down their characters into misery should take a note that joy can be equally powerful.

The predictability that so many hate is actually a strength for the fans. We know the episode will revolve around Sheldon becoming obsessive or uppity about something. Whoever is his foil that week will be deigned to control or revolve the situation, while the rest of the cast have their own adventures. It is predictability that makes those moments like Howard’s mother’s death so powerful – at a moment when everyone is a little lost, it is Sheldon who surprisingly offers the most-tender words.

Of course, for a show to end well the fans must feel the story is complete. Friends did it perfectly, with everybody going off on new adventures. They would not forget each other, and may still be part of each other’s lives, but it was time for a new chapter in all their lives that didn’t involve drinking coffee together every day. If Big Bang pulls something off like this, it will have done well.

It will be weird to say goodbye. It has been on so long that it will inevitably feel like a huge gap has appeared. But let us not mourn the passing, but celebrate the life. This was a show that only offered us warmth. It is only fair to reciprocate.

I finally had a breakthrough this week and managed to get round to watching This Country, a show that has been top of my must-watch list for over a year now. I had heard constant hype about it and clips on social media had whetted my appetite. So did it live up to my expectations?

Well, not quite. But first, let me go over the premise for the uninitiated. Cousins Kerry and Kurtan Mucklowe live in a small English village. Their surroundings are picturesque but dull. Most of their time is spent wandering the streets and upsetting the neighbours or sitting around Kerry’s house talking nonsense. Importantly, both are deluded as to their own importance, believing themselves to be the coolest people around.

A lot of the humour comes from the gap between their outward bravado and the reality, and the lies they tell themselves to bridge it. The mockumentary style works well, as it is allows that distance between what is said and what is done to be played out to the fullest. As a result, it is funny, but often in a more low-key way than expected.

The funniest scenes are when some trivial argument gets out of hand, for instance, the fight over who gets the top shelf of the oven. Also, kudos goes to Kerry’s mum, never seen but always heard. She is a Mrs. Wolowitz from Big Bang style presence, able to draw a bigger laugh from bellowing something from another room than most of the cast can from being physically present.

It does fall prey to some of the traps of low-key comedy though. When you watch it, you can only do that. No trying to surf through social media on your phone or internet shop at the same time. The humour is from a twist in language or a sudden and brief change of expression. And because this is a comedy about having nothing to do, little happens, so the temptation to distract yourself is high. It rewards the attentive viewer and the modern world means these are often in short supply.

But I still enjoy it. It is endlessly quotable – you will have yourself muttering Kerry’s ‘I have enemies in Upper Cerney’ speech as soon as you hear it. Those that put the time in will be rewarded with well-drawn characters that become instantly recognisable. So if you have some distraction-free time, invest in it. Just don’t try and watch it with only half an eye.

The Good Place has never been a conventional sitcom. Not in a downbeat, angry white male kind of way though, which by the way there are far too many of. If anything, it is relentlessly upbeat whilst tackling the big questions.

Its unconventionality lies more in its ever-shifting premise. Season one was about Eleanor avoiding being discovered as not belonging in The Good Place. Season two became about the entire cast avoiding The Bad Place, which actually involved being sent to said place. Season three sees them back on Earth living mortal lives, initially unaware of their previous experience in the afterlife.

Of course, for a show that sees humour and philosophy intertwine, this shouldn’t be a surprise. Philosophers change what it means to be good, and even whether it is important to be so, on a regular basis. If the first season was about the difficulties of actually being good (Chidi was punished despite being a nice person), the focus is now on ‘why should we be good?’ With the gang guaranteed eternal damnation, and they know it, the good they do is coming from a more selfless place. This is the point where you can start debating on how possible is it to perform a purely selfless action. If you want that debate, please have it.

Now the characters have built up a backstory, I am actually finding the show funnier. Not just a glib ‘oh that’s quite good’, but genuinely laugh-out-loud funny. There is a strong satirical bent to the humour, which is where the show is strongest, not least in its openness to critique the trappings of the modern world.

The difference between a sitcom that works and one that doesn’t isn’t just about the jokes though. It is about investing in the characters. Thankfully, he whole cast has grown on me, even Jason, whose stupidity has progressed from irritating to charmingly naïve. Janet still remains my favourite. D’Arcy Carden tells a whole joke with just her facial expressions, and for saying she is playing the least human character, is also the one that brings heart to the cast.

The risk with changing premise and creating almost drama-like cliffhangers is the risk one won’t pull off. A change too far or a ‘jumping the shark’ that leaves the viewers at breaking point. So far the show has avoided that, but there will be a point where there is a reset to many.

Until then though, it is one of the warmest shows around but still has a message. In a bleak and cruel world, that alone should earn everyone involved some Good Points.

It is unusual for me to write about a show after it has finished. I see myself as making a case for why you should invest time or not into it, which is pointless if it is no longer on air. Of course, there is catch up, but my brain still doesn’t quite treat that as an equal to watching it on actual TV.

However, the ending of the most recent series of Upstart Crow is a special case. But before I go into it, I want to first briefly discuss how Ben Elton ended another one of his comedies, Blackadder Goes Forth, as there is more than a passing similarity.

In Blackadder Goes Forth, the final episode ends with the men in the trenches of the First World War, waiting for the signal to go over the top and meet their almost certain death. The signal is given and, in one the most emotional scenes a comedy could produce, meet their doom.

There has not been another full series since. One-off specials yes, but nothing more. It would be wrong. Such a note-perfect ending would be disrupted by a new series, no matter how distant the setting or how big the time gap. It’s a brave move to say enough is enough when people still want more, but it is often the right one.

Upstart Crow has finished on a similar note. The final episode closes on the revelation that Shakespeare’s son has died from the plague. There is no attempt to make it funny. Instead, we see genuine grief on David Mitchell’s face as he realises what he has lost and how his pomposity has cost his son his chance to be confirmed. The nature of faith is questioned – is the fact God spared his other two children a token of his generosity or the fact he has taken one a mark of cruelty? Does he even exist at all, if he allows such things to happen to a family?

No news has been confirmed as if there is to be a new series, but I hope not. As with Blackadder, to suddenly switch back to comedy would be jarring. For a start, could we really buy in to Mitchell still playing Shakespeare as slightly foolish and very pompous when such attributes have cost him his last moments with his son? Would he even care about his rivalries with other theatres or the inadequacies of Elizabethan coach travel in light of this tragedy?

I think not. While there is arguably more stories to tell, the show would need to find a new tone to tell them. A layer of darkness would always be there, and it would not suit what is basically a slightly silly family comedy. Ben Elton has made this brave decision before. He should make it again.

I have spoken before about my love of Orange is the New Black. It showcases diversity across gender, racial and sexuality spectrums, yet you only realise this when you step away from it and think about it. It’s clever without being smug. It tells you moral tales without being preachy. It’s funny without being demeaning. So many boxes are ticked.

Individual seasons were up and down. The first one was peerless, the second darker but still strong. The third seemed lighter in tone, which I was fine with. Season four for me was a low point. Too dark and too angry, the subtleties of the cruelty that had been seen so many times laid too bare, although to its credit the closing episode was a beautifully done sucker punch.

Many didn’t like the fifth season but I did. I felt our investment in individual characters paid off in the riot, as different paths emerged, at least in the first half. Admittedly the second half was a bit of a sprawling mess, that seemed more to be building to the next season then giving satisfaction in that one.

However, the gamble seems to have paid off. The sixth season once again has seen the balance between dark humour and punchy drama restored. Only the best characters are back – Red, Taystee, Black Cindy etc. All of whom are now facing the consequences of their actions, with Taystee suddenly an icon of Black Lives Matter and Piper suddenly finding a sense of purpose.

The new characters are a mixed bag, but that is always the case. Baddison is certainly a more irritating presence than she is threatening, although Daddy proves to be a more interesting proposition. The main interest though is on rival cell kingpins Carol and Barbara. At the moment they are just on the sidelines, watching their respective troops line up. But you can feel a storm brewing and it will be rewarding for the viewer when it finally happens.

A particularly fun plotline is the fantasy inmate game the guards are playing, a form of fantasy football where inmates on your team pick up points for certain infractions. In fact, the new guards in general seem better to watch than previously, not merely at the extremes of cruel or too soft hearted.

There are still some plotlines we could have lost or developed differently. Gloria’s menopuase story and Blanca’s attempts to get pregnant are lost amongst the punchier stories. Pennsatucky being on the run was resolved too quickly and easily. And, bar her new sense of purpose, what function does Piper serve?

The advantage is that for every duff plot, two others work. This is still one of the best things Netflix ever made. It may be infuriatingly consistent, but it is so in the most charming of ways.