Archives for posts with tag: sitcom

The afterlife and death has been a frequent setting for comedy-drama. Six Feet Under, Pushing Daisies and Dead Like Me have all been and gone. They have never been out-and-out comedies though. Perhaps it has been seen as such a sensitive subject that, if you are to include jokes, you need something a bit darker to balance it out.

The Good Place dispenses with such a rule, with humour front and centre. The story focuses on Eleanor, who after dying is sent to ‘The Good Place’ as a reward for her hard work on earth. The Good Place is a community made up of similar individual who have been granted their dreams in the afterlife by The Architect, a God-like figure given human form.

But there’s a problem. Eleanor shouldn’t be here. She wasn’t good. In fact, she was awful. And when she behaves in such a way in The Good Place she creates a mini-apocalypse which can only be fixed by being good. So, in order to not be found out, she learns to be a good person with the help of her soulmate.

I’m only four episodes into the first season but there is a lot to like. The central plot is fleshed out by some side mysteries, it is intelligently constructed and the characters are slowly fleshing out nicely. Ted Danson is charmingly vulnerable as The Architect, a flawed but omniscient presence. Janet, his assistant, is also smartly drawn.

Best of all, it is actually funny. Ok, this is often as a wry smile rather than a belly laugh, but this is one of the shows that bears repeat viewing. The first time you follow the plot, the second time the jokes. In true Netflix-style, it also rewards the binge watcher with its promise of a cliff hanger at the end of every episode.

There are nods to My Name Is Earl in its themes of redemption and morality whilst side-stepping religion. Good is quantified statistically – how impactful and frequent were your good actions? This is totted up by some kind of celestial computer. No religious figurehead here – it is all formulas, which, in era where Google and Amazon watch you daily, is oddly believable.

Perhaps it could benefit from some bigger laughs. But this seems like an unfair quibble for a show that seems to be somehow quaint yet daring. The afterlife has never been so funny. Nor, in this post-modern word, so unnerving.

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Firstly, an apology for missing a week. Real life got in the way. And by real life, I mean a Christmas Afternoon High Tea with prosecco. But I am back now, so let’s crack on.

Last year the BBC launched a number of sitcom pilots to see if any could generate enough interest to succeed as a series. Most failed to even raise an eyebrow, but one – Motherland – generated both critical and public acclaim. This perhaps isn’t surprising when you consider the calibre of people working on it. Two of the four writers are Graham Linehan and Sharon Horgan, both of whom have a pedigree in making excellent comedies.

Motherland is, as the title obviously suggests, about parenting. Anna Maxwell Martin plays Julia, who is trying to ‘have it all’ and ending up often with having nothing but stress thanks to a feckless husband. Diane Morgan is the more slatternly (and presumably unemployed) single mum Liz, Lucy Punch as queen of the ‘Tiger Mums’ Amanda and Paul Ready is stay-at-home dad Kevin.

It has to be said the strongest character is Liz, full of brutal honesty and realism with also a touch vulnerability. A particular highlight came in episode one when Julia’s entertainer for her child’s birthday party was exposed as a racist and Liz had also used and refused to pay him. When Julia queried if it was the racism, Liz responded with: “No, because he was shit! If I didn’t pay people because they were racist I would have never got my satellite dish fitted. Or my wedding catered for”.

This more down-to-earth humour balances the more manic energies brought by Julia and Kevin. The latter in particular is annoying, a mixture of weird obsessiveness with a desperation to please normally only seen in puppies. It is the fact this portrayal veers in the cartoony that is the show’s biggest weakness. Everybody else you feel is somewhat believable, regardless of their faults.

Putting Kevin aside, this is an excellent comedy. It actually makes you laugh as the strands of the episode build to a climax. There isn’t any of the absurdism of Linehan’s other sitcoms, but then, that wouldn’t work here. This is about wry observations of modern parenting and the social rules that come with it.

I hope this show achieves continued success. Female-dominated comedies often get plenty of well-meaning comments but nothing to show for it. This deserves more. At the very least, a BAFTA for Morgan, who seems to be constantly just bubbling under the surface as a breakout talent. Maybe this could be her chance to join those at comedy’s top table. She has earnt it.

 

The problem with this time of year is that so many old staples return to TV that it is hard to make time for anything new. Yes, I know there is catch-up services and streaming, but I like to keep a balanced life and that makes it hard for me to make time to watch everything. I have a list as long as my arm of shows I want to see – The Good Place, Rick & Morty and Shit’s Creek have all come highly recommended.

So when I put off watching these, it is annoying when something I invest time in starts to not repay me. That is the problem I am currently facing with 2 Broke Girls. It has always had its critics for its base humour and stereotyping, but for me it had always just been knock-about fun, a counter-balance to the more thoughtful New Girl or The Mindy Project.

The last season has only just begun in the UK, such is our lack of interest in it – The Big Bang Theory comes out within a few weeks of the US episodes. The two episodes I have seen so far have been verging towards the dire.

Yet I can’t put my finger on why. The plot of the episodes has always been wafer-thin, so it isn’t that. They have never gone for surprising jokes – you have always seen the next line or visual gag coming. The characters haven’t changed, although admittedly over six seasons you expect to see some development.

I can therefore only put down my change in view towards it down to myself. I feel as if my taste in TV has matured over the last few years. I was never the kind of viewer to get invested in Line of Duty for example, but I now want the next series of that to come around more than anything else in the world. I’ve also grown tired of Family Guy, although I did think the episode spoofing the Emmy’s was quite clever in its own way.

The thing is, knowing this the last season makes me want to persevere with it. I want to know if we are going to see a happy ending (although the plot of the first two episodes suggests Caroline has seen too many of Max’s), both in terms of the business and the personal lives of the characters. Even so, it will be a relief when it is over. Whether I will get round to completing my wish list after all, well, that’s a different story.

After what feels like an eternity, I have once again returned to The Middle. My pause from it was caused by my obsession with working my way through all 12 seasons of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia. My word, the contrast is huge. It feels like entering a sunny landscape after days of hiking through rough terrain and a biting wind. Not that I don’t love It’s Always Sunny, it does edgy so well after all, but watching a comedy that isn’t full of anger and with people who are at a basic level likeable feels almost a relief.

Not that there aren’t clouds in The Middle. It’s just that it is the clouds are what drives the family together. Financial hardship, the perils of adulthood, dissatisfaction with life – they are all on display. But there is a love between the characters. And that’s why you buy into them as a real family.

Also, like with any family, you find yourself siding with different people each time. I have watched episodes where Brick is almost a hero to me, fighting his social awkwardness with a charming naivety. Then, in the next episode, these very qualities become overbearing and frustratingly child-like. Likewise, Frankie can be too naggy in one episode, wanting too much from her family and life and then giving up on her dreams when a minor bump appears. But then, you suddenly feel sorry for her when you see how much she tries to support her family with little gratification in return.

I’ve said it before, but it’s true – American TV truly comes into its own when it allows over a number of seasons at twenty or so episodes at time the characters to develop. Long-running plots can develop without being rushed and even minor characters can be fleshed out.

I think, more than anything, you come away from The Middle wanting the characters to be happy. Obviously not too happy. There is no comedy or narrative tension in a smooth life. But happy enough so that you come away affirmed that life can occasionally at least go your way.

You don’t always want happy in a comedy. Life isn’t like that and humour can come from the darkest place. But sometimes fiction needs to lift you up, even if it’s not aspirational. And that’s because aspiration alone doesn’t lift. It takes people to do that. Even dysfunctional families can make things better.

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.