Archives for posts with tag: comedy

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.

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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.

Bar what is on Netflix, I avoid shows that are online only. I’m aware this makes me sound like a technophobe, but I like the old-fashioned concept of a TV. Similarly, I also demur from the binge watch, preferring to watch in manageable nuggets i.e. episodes.

As a result, I am rarely sucked into the ‘watch the first episode on TV, the rest online’ concept. But, at a loose end one evening, I notice E4 were showing the opening two episodes of Search Party, which had piqued my interest through its trailers and gone on my ‘may watch’ list. I assumed the entire series was being shown after previously being on All4 only, but that was not the case. So clearly those two episodes must be good enough to persuade you to dive straight into the rest of the series?

Well, maybe. I mean, the central mystery is decent enough, if fairly standard. Rich girl goes missing leaving a trail of cryptic clues, a character becomes determined to solve it and gets into danger along the way. I am a sucker for this sort of thing and will happily lap it up. Mystery dramas are the kind of trashy it is ok to love.

What throws Search Party off balance is that it is supposed to be a comedy as well. I have discussed before how much comedy is about making you laugh – you would think it is an obvious yes but not always. Even so, a comedy should be funny, even if it’s a recognition of something witty.

I’m struggling to find the comedy in this show. I mean, I can see which lines or set pieces are supposed to be funny, but I don’t find them amusing or even that clever.

The problem is the characters. I don’t like any of them. I’m not sure if they are an exaggerated reflection or a satire of New York hipsters, but they all universally seem like pains in the arse. They all drippy, pretentious and self-absorbed, living purely for gratification on social media. I was born at the upper end of the millennial timescale, so maybe someone five or so years younger than me can explain why these people are actually really nice, normal people, but to me they seem like narcissism writ large.

It is a shame this massive hurdle is in the way, as this show could have been so much than what it is. Better still, drop the comedy and play it straight but witty. Instead, I find myself watching just to solve the mystery, which, frankly, isn’t good enough. Maybe that is why it is online only. It just can’t compete with other programmes that are so much better.

Are some shows review proof? What I mean is, are some programmes so deliberately slight and inconsequential that to review them is to miss the point. They are not designed to be appraised or analysed, they are merely something to be watched and disposed of.

I ask this question because I want to review Judge Romesh, but to do so feels almost silly. It is just a knockabout show where comedian Romesh Ranganathan settles minor disputes and invents novelty punishments. It’s Judge Rinder with an even shakier grasp of the law.

So yes, it is basically all a bit of silly fun. Most of the humour derives from Romesh’s dim view of the people in front of him and the verbal onslaughts he releases as a result. This isn’t the kind of show where you come away debating the nature of justice. The ‘crimes’ are barely even crimes. We are talking here about friends not paying people back for things or marital couples settling some minor axe to grind in their relationship.

Tom Davies plays the usher and looks comfortable and natural in the set up. There is some slightly odd joshing between him and Romesh that suggests some kind of mutual bromance between the two. It isn’t the funniest aspect of the show, but it fills some dead time.

The one fly in the ointment is, and I hate to say this as she is the only woman in the set up, Kerry Howard, ostensibly the court’s clerk. Unlike the naturalness of Romesh and Tom, Kerry come across as fake and scripted. There is a whole aura of her trying too hard. There are some jokes about her being the third wheel that land a little too well because she is exactly that.

I suppose my advice for watching this show then would be as follows: firstly, don’t take it seriously – it’s not meant to be, secondly, be prepared for some slightly forced but ok bromancing, and thirdly, blot your ears out when Kerry is talking.

It does what some might argue TV is meant to, it fills the time. It is though highly disposable – it wouldn’t be missed if it never got a second series, but you wouldn’t object if it did. And that is as close as I can get to a review.

We are used to travelogues being about the familiar yet exotic. Japan, Brazil, China, India… we all know about these countries enough to be conscious of them, yet still have that distance to make us curious. For all their other-worldliness, they are open to tourists and trade off it successfully.

The Misadventures of Romesh Ranganathan takes a different slant by taking us to countries that are not so travel friendly. These are places with, to put it mildly, an image problem and have become trapped by a conception that the Western world has fixed upon it.

The first episode saw comedian Romesh visit Haiti. It epitomises many of the problems third-world countries have. It has suffered a combination of cruel dictatorships, that when they collapsed left a country with no real infrastructure for a democracy to grow, gang warfare and poverty that has arisen from a lack of law and order, and natural disasters. The island’s political history meant that just as other Caribbean islands began to take advantage of tourism, Haiti was shutting the world out. And of course, it is the place that Trump poetically called a ‘shithole’.

Romesh is a good host, adding some dry humour to the potentially bleak atmosphere. My favourite comment was when he was describing his mum giving him a blessing before he flew out- ‘it was only slightly undermined by the fact she was still wearing her Royal Mail uniform’. He also gets mildly hysterical when taking part in a voodoo ceremony, in what proves to be a highlight for the viewer.

But Romesh is not just some glib commentator. He is equally bewildered and appalled by what he sees, especially in some of the more poverty-stricken areas. Another comment of his is damning of our Western hunger for exotic luxury. Listing all the stereotypical delights of the Caribbean he is missing, he realises, ‘This place isn’t built for tourists because it isn’t even built for the people that live here’.

He does find some hope though. The beaches of Jacamel have been relatively unscarred by dictatorships and earthquakes. A bit of eco-conscious development here, and suddenly the economy could go. The island can repair its physical wounds and heal its emotional ones. This island does not have to be the prisoner of geography – look at its neighbour, Dominican Republic. The right politicians and a small dose of luck could see it rise.

The show is undoubtedly sobering. You realise that when cameras stop rolling, the people still need to keep living. There are ‘shitholes’ all over the third world that don’t have the skills to top being so. But a bit of global cooperation could go a long way.