Archives for posts with tag: sitcom

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.

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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.

Sometimes I wonder rather than genres of TV we should just have two categories: “investment” and “disposable”. Investment TV is anything you need to watch regularly, say once a week, in order to understand what’s going. In other words, episode 10 will only make sense to those who have dedicated time to the first 9. Disposable TV is where you can dip in and out at will – each episode is self-contained or has minimal references to what went before.

The latter category has your talk shows, panel shows, some sitcoms depending on how much they invest in long-term plotlines, and animated comedies. Don’t get me wrong, you can still binge watch and diligently follow these shows, you just don’t necessarily get a pay-off.

One of my new favourite disposable shows is Bob’s Burgers. I have seen only four episodes and I couldn’t even tell you if they were from the same season or not, but it doesn’t matter. What is important is has it kept me entertained, which it undoubtedly has.

I find it far superior to Family Guy. The gag rate is much higher and it moves along at a quicker pace. Most importantly, it actually feels far less dark-hearted. There seems to be an increased need to make everyone an arsehole in FG, which BB doesn’t have. Instead of maliciousness, the driving force is pure eccentricity.

Everyone can find someone to identify with. I personally want to be Louise, with her constant energy and fearless drive. In the episodes I’ve watched she has brought down playground dictators, been an effective defence lawyer and rescued missing pets. The truth is I am probably Tina. Plain, easily panicked and happy to be in the middle of the road, albeit an eccentric one.

It may not be as edgy or willing to confront social issues as some its rivals, but I feel that it is no less funny. In fact, because it is not distracted by trying to make a point, the humour is allowed to be at the core.

So yes, it is disposable TV. But don’t let that make you think you are not watching high quality. Because you are. It may not be investment TV, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worthy of your time.

Graham Linehan is a personal hero of mine. He has created some of my favourite shows, including Father Ted, Black Books and The IT Crowd. He is also collaborating on Motherland, a pilot I enjoyed last year, which is missing some of the trademark absurdities of his other shows but is compensated by allowing the characters to zing off each other.

His current big project though is Count Arthur Strong. As with his other works, this is a collaboration, this time with Steve Delaney. It focuses on an out-of-work former variety star (played by Delaney), his eccentric friends and the put-upon ‘straight’ man Michael. The standard episode revolves around Arthur having some bizarre scheme in his head, which impacts on Michael’s hopes of a quiet life.

The most recent episode progressed as follows: Michael got called up for jury service, while Arthur got addicted to doing good deeds, everyone being followed by a vision of Brian Cox staring dreamily off into the landscape. In doing so he messes up both Michael’s jury service and gets entangled with organised crime, before everything reaches a climax with him overdosing on ‘gratitude’.

This is essentially a comedy of errors writ large. And it is joyful. This is largely because it is written in an innocent way – this is no black-hearted sitcom, with cruel people and comedy monstrousness. Interestingly, the first two series were put on in obscure timeslots, particularly series 2, which is strange when you consider how ‘family’ orientated the show is. No bad language, no sex, and minimal bad behaviour – this is something a ten-year-old could joyfully watch with their parents.

There are some Linehan trademarks. The absurdity has already been hinted at, but also the ensemble nature of the cast is a classic feature of his work. A small retinue of regular and semi-regular characters that have their oddities, but none of them nasty. It isn’t afraid to be tender either. In episode 1, a rare moment of clarity from Arthur helps save Michael from a mistake.

Steve Delaney is great as the eccentric and easily confused Arthur. The malapropisms are a nice touch, showing the character’s delusions in a light way. Rory Kinnear plays the unfortunate Michael well, and the rest of the cast all allow their moments to shine as well. All of this – the kindness in the characters, the warmth in the jokes, the silliness in the plots – makes this the perfect family sitcom. It’s a shame the BBC didn’t realise this two series ago.

One of the things that struck me about the 2016 TV BAFTAS was the disparity between the winner of the male comedy performance award and the female. The latter was won by Michaela Coel, a new talent who is black and edgy in her humour. Her win was packaged not only as a BME triumph, but one of women prepared to be ‘ugly’ to be funny. It is a source of wonder to me that men are never asked to sacrifice their physical appearance to be seen as comedy gold but women are – as if being pretty is a barrier to writing a good joke and delivering it superbly.

Anyway, the male winner was Peter Kay, a popular established figure. It was almost as if the judges were trying to balance the two out – Coel a critical darling that was still comparatively unknown to the British viewer, Kay an everyman figure of immense popularity. One for the broadsheets to show that British TV is diverse, the other for the tabloids to cheer on as a ‘people’s choice’.

None of this is to do down Kay. He is an excellent writer and performer, with the same ear as Victoria Word for how words actually sound as well as the ability to show the slight absurdities of normal life. Car Share, which also picked up best sitcom last year, is a great example of this. The premise is simple: two co-workers get involved in a car share scheme and travel to work together. During their journeys, they discuss their lives, gossip about work and explore some of life’s odder moments. Of course, over time they discover they have feelings for each other, but never truly express them except in small gestures.

Kay’s co-star is Sian Gibson, playing the bubbly and naïve Kayleigh, the yin to Kay’s yang character John, a grumpy, no-nonsense manager. The conversations are zippy and worthwhile listening too twice if you can – the first time you are bound to miss a gem of a detail. Plus you have the little details that only people like Kay think of in a sitcom, like comedic road signs.

Then you have the secret third character, the radio station Forever FM. It’s essentially a parody of local commercial radio stations, where the music is squarely middle of the road and with adverts for companies accompanied by jingles or poorly thought through slogans. Worryingly, I find myself enjoying the music more and more.

It is also the source of one of my quibbles though. I find the where the characters pretend to be in music videos dull and a little cringey. I do wonder if this is Kay and Gibson’s way of filling thirty or so seconds when they aren’t sure where to go with the dialogue.

My other quibble is that, actually, I don’t want the characters to fall in love. I find it frustrating that we can’t have a man and a woman spending time with each other without it progressing beyond platonic. It would definitely lose something if they got together. For a start, it wouldn’t be a car share. It would just be a man and woman going to work together.

Despite this, it is still easy one of the best British sitcoms of the last few years. Keeping it simple has meant that they can just focus on the writing and the characters, the two things that matter. For once, being popular and a critical success are going hand-in-hand.