Archives for posts with tag: satire

One of hardest genres of literature to adapt to TV must be fantasy. With a straightforward literary novel or period piece of fiction you are merely transposing reality. You are not asking your audience to buy into a new world, rather just a corner of the real one.

With fantasy though, you have the challenge of making the physically impossible and the bizarre plausible. You can’t help feeling that this is fractionally easier in written form, where the reader can conjure whatever their imagination allows them to. The viewer, however, must accept what the screenwriter has created, and if the imagination of one doesn’t marry the other then the whole thing is lost.

So it is a minor miracle that Good Omens manages to suck the viewer in so perfectly. This is a world of angels and demons, fearsome hellhounds and prophecies. For those unfamiliar with the plot, it follows the angel Aziraphale and demon Crowley, who have somehow become friends. When they discover the apocalypse is coming through the birth of the anti-Christ, they decide to put a stop to it by working together. Problem is, due to a hiccup at birth, the anti-Christ has been swapped with a perfectly average child and is living with a nice suburban family.

It helps the screenplay has been written by one of the co-authors of the original novel, Neil Gaiman, so you feel that any changes are allowed. It certainly keeps the zing of the novel and the edge of silliness. But most importantly, the vision is still there. Nothing is lost in translation, so the world is as instant as it was in the book.

David Tennant and Michael Sheen are both brilliant as Crowley and Aziraphale respectively. You instantly get the sense of the odd couple relationship they have. A viewer can tell when two leads have had a blast working with each other and it glows from the screen by the bucket load.

The supporting cast don’t slouch either. Everyone embodies their roles so well, be they mortal, angelic or satanic. It’s a great example of the more ensemble-style casting that has come with the increase in streaming and cross-Atlantic production.

This is a perfect treat for winter. My initial nerves at the book being adapted have gone and I am revelling in the joy of it all. It is silly, fun and clever. It will make a believer out of us all.

There are some shows that become word-of-mouth hits. Season one and two may pass by with barely any recognition, but by the time season three hits everyone wants a piece. Then the mainstream beckons. And that’s the test for the creators – fit in and potentially dilute what they have or stay true and risk missing the big time.

Rick and Morty is one such hit. The premise for this (very) adult animation is Rick Sanchez, an alcoholic, nihilistic scientist goes on adventures with his sweet but dim teenage grandson Morty. There’s also Morty’s idiotic father Jerry, his more together mum and his social climbing sister Summer.

There are a lot of things I like about the show. Scratch the surface of the more puerile elements and you actually find a good bit of satire and some zippy writing. The characters are well constructed enough so that within a few episodes you already have strong continuity gags. In fact, the whole programme is smarter than it initially comes across.

And that is where the problem is for me. I’m not a fan of toilet or gross out humour and sadly that is something the show all too quickly resorts to. Whilst there are some moments where it feeds into the plot of the episode, all too often it is there for what appears to be no reason. Which is a shame, because it doesn’t need to resort to that.

Of course, I’m only on season one. The show could radically change in later seasons with kinks ironed out. The question is which kinks. It would be a massive disappointment to me to find it decided to lean heavier on the fart jokes and step away from the satire.

Overall, I do enjoy it. The trick is to find the thing that hooks you in and come for that, ignoring the rest. I can’t say I have become as obsessive as some of the show’s fans, but it is a decent enough time filler.

Certain arenas are ripe for satirical comedies. Politics is the obvious one, although the current environment suggests that truth really is stranger than fiction. Medicine too is a common one, although this can fall prey of needing some insider knowledge.

It fits, therefore, that the legal world is also a suitable target. Like medicine, it perhaps relies on some fairly decent understanding of the reality, but rather akin to politics it is bizarre enough for you to get away with anything.

Defending the Guilty follows naïve wannabe barrister Will (Will Sharpe) adjusting his moral compass to defending the less than innocent clientele being dealt with by his master Caroline (Katherine Parkinson). A lot of the humour derives from youthful enthusiasm of the deluded Will with the cynicism and competitiveness of Caroline and her hunger to win at any costs. She often reduces him to menial tasks like fetching her pastries or a laptop charger.

There are plenty of digs at the modern legal world. Wins being accomplished manipulation rather than exoneration. The fact that progressing means being somehow incredibly ruthless yet somehow sunny and pally (see Caroline’s attempts to become QC for the challenges that poses). The rather open admission that winning matters more than delivering justice, or at least for the defence anyway.

Amongst all this there are elements of traditional sitcom plotting. A mistake made by Will in the opening episode when he walks through the wrong door and get himself locked out then feeds into a satisfying denouement. A piece of feedback delivered to Caroline in the second episode leads her into making a foolish error later on. It all feeds rather nicely together, as all good comedies should.

The only thing I am not sold on is the plotline of Will cheating on his girlfriend by kissing a juror. One the one hand, it did deliver an excruciatingly funny scene and fed into a decent subplot in the second episode. On the other, I’m not sure we should care what Will does about it. We haven’t seen enough of his girlfriend to weigh up who he should be with and his musings over the rights and wrongs of it are already wearing thin. Much better would have been if it was with another lawyer or someone closer to the centre of the action so there was some genuine tension and character building. As it is, both women are virtual voids.

Overall though, this is good. It is funny (always a promising start) and neither too sweet or too dark. I look forward to a satisfying conclusion as we see if Will can finally make it as a barrister. It may be the darkness in my own soul, but I rather find it appealing the thought of him straying from the good side.

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.

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.

Adapting a novel for the screen, big or small, must be one of the most challenging projects on TV. It’s all very well having the plot nicely written for you, but this becomes a hindrance. Do you stick to it rigidly, digressions and all? Do you focus on just the main strands but axe some minor characters, who could actually be the most interesting of them all? Do change the ending to suit your ‘vision’?

However you answer these, you are bound to ruffle feathers. Be too close to the book and you risk making something pointless – after all, people may as well just read the story and get the full flavour unless you do something original. Lose a minor character and you remove potentially some of the best moments or give them to someone entirely unsuited. Change the ending or a major plot point and people will howl at the moon if you even put the slightest foot wrong with the change.

When it’s a book you love, you feel very protective of what is created. You have your vision and woe betide anyone who doesn’t go along with it. So I was nervous about the recent adaptation of Decline and Fall, a book I read as a precocious teenager. Or, at least I was nervous, until I realised I couldn’t remember most of it. I definitely recollect enjoying it and finding it funny though.

I suppose then, that this adaptation’s one and only test was to be funny. It stood a good chance with Jack Whitehall in the lead role of Paul Pennyfeather. Yet I was surprised by how lifeless he seemed to make the character. Of course, that is partially due to the nature of the story – the pitfalls that occur are caused by others’ actions on to him rather than his own agency. Even so, book Paul always seemed more robust than TV Paul. This could be partially due to a reader having more access to an inner monologue and the narration, where the satire is probably sharper. It could also be a faulty memory of mine.

Nevertheless, quietly politely rarely carries a story well, so it falls onto the supporting cast to give the story its life. They do this admirably, in particular Vincent Franklin as agnostic minister Prendergast and Douglas Hodge as Grimes, a man who is nearly always ‘in the soup’.

There are hints at the satire that Waugh was aiming for in his novel. The Bollinger Club and the government officials who manipulate their way to the top and stay there, largely by passing blame on to those underneath. The ‘trendy’ approach to maintaining discipline in prison. An education system that focuses on please parents over teaching children. All as true now as then. I can’t help feeling it couldn’t have been more savage though. This was satire with gloves on. What it needed was for a brick to be hidden in it.

Confession time – there has been little new for me to watch this week. No new series have taken my fancy and my week has fell into a humdrum pattern of viewing. The good news is that this week coming there are a couple of new things on the horizon. For now though, you will have to suffer me talking about something I’ve discussed before.

The Last Leg has built a loyal following over the last five years. It has moved beyond its original remit of just being a Paralympics companion show to becoming an incisive current affairs programme, gleefully mixing pop culture references with satire to cut through the news of the week.

By and large, it does an excellent job. Neither forced to be neutral like the BBC or owned by someone with an agenda like our newspapers, it can break down stories to make them understandable whilst offering social commentary. It is positive and uplifting and is capable of discussing both sides of the argument whilst still able to draw a line when one side is talking nonsense. They even have a special ‘bullshit’ button to know when that line is being crossed.

Of course, time restraints mean that they can never go into too much detail, but shows like this are only ever intended to be a jumping off point, especially ones like this that aim to give some light relief. Of course, it is seen by many as a home to ‘libtards’, although this seems harsh when you consider they have been as quick to criticise the shortcomings of Clinton and Corbyn as they have to May and Trump, it’s just the latter two have now got power and need to be more accountable for what they say and do.

My biggest critique is that actually, for all its talk of equality and diversity, it sometimes fails its own standards. The last three female guests on the show, Victoria Coren Mitchell, Sandi Toksvig and Sharon Horgan, have all been paired with male guests, with only Horgan’s understandable, as it was her writing partner Rob Delaney. Both Coren Mitchell and Toksvig could hold their own. There didn’t seem to be a need to book a female guess to counter balance Kevin Bridges, and, as Harry Hill pointed out when he appeared, it was ironic that the show broadcast on International Women’s Day had five men and no women.

Similar arguments could be made regarding race and LGBT figures (Stormzy the sole BME guest and Toksvig ticking the LGBT box for the series). Nobody wants this reduced to a box-ticking exercise but something as simple as allowing female guests to fly solo would be a start.

Am I being pedantic? Maybe. But it would be a shame for a show that covers equality and diversity so well in other areas to fall on something as basic as this. Otherwise it might be their hiring policy that is termed ‘bullshit’.