Archive for the TV Category

Real Just Got Shit

Posted in Comedy, TV with tags , , , , , on October 16, 2011 by Tim Lee

This isn’t so much a moan about naturalism as a comedic tool, more the trend in recent years that any single camera sitcom with no laugh track, semi-improvised dialogue and preferably some swearing, seems to get an automatic critical pass and is deemed somehow more worthy. Spot these Bafta baiting atrocities by playing Critic Bingo and scouring your average broadsheet review for words and phrases like ‘dark’, ‘brave’, ‘realistic‘, ‘beautifully observed’ and ‘dead clever’.

So when did this all begin? Well the Year Zero as far as most reviewers seem to be concerned would be the advent of The Office. Sure, the mockumentary format was already a bit old hat by this point –  having been used in The Pool sketches in The Day Today, People Like Us and so on – and The Royle Family had already proven that longueurs were no barrier to mainstream success, but The Office was probably the one that has pretty much become the template for this is how it’s done. Now I’m not here to argue that those two aren’t classic shows – I’ve not gone totally wang-waving mental – but what seems to have got lost in subsequent years is that it wasn’t the form that made these shows funny, but the writing. What primarily made The Office so good was its brilliant execution – grafting dramatic, almost soapy storylines onto a sitcom format and making the whole damn thing work. Its stylistic quirks were just the icing rather than the cake.

The most noticeable trend in the last decade, particularly in UK sitcoms, has been the slow death of the laugh track (be it canned or studio). I won’t be dancing on its grave like some – in a few cases, such as It’s Garry Shandling’s Show or even Seinfeld, it really adds to the energy of the performances – but in general it’s a fairly inessential addition to a show. Having said that, a rerun of Father Ted or I’m Alan Partridge is in no way ruined for me by its presence, and I don’t see its absence as a signifier of some higher artistic worth. But you know who begs to differ? Sam Wollaston of course – a man for whom words fall from Macbook Air like shit from arse (c. Spartacus: Gods of the Arena).  Here he is on the execrable Roger And Val Have Just Got In: ‘I began by appreciating the lack of canned laughter.’ Oh brilliant. So now you’re sat there enjoying what isn’t in the show. What else did you enjoy not being there? A car chase? An uplifting Glee-style song and dance number? FFS. Griping about the presence of a laugh track seems to have become lazy reviewer shorthand for having a refined comic palate.

So, when I start my bi-weekly moan on this topic and the pub immediately empties or Friend X is no longer online, the show that inevitably crops up is The Trip. It’s a show which I thought had its moments, but its numerous self-indulgences signify for me where realism ends and onanism begins. The US show you’ll most commonly see cited by UK comedians is the undeniably great Curb Your Enthusiasm. The thing that most people seem to take away from Curb is that it’s semi-improvised, to the point where script has almost become a dirty word. Well yes, Curb is semi-improvised. It also has a cast comprised of some of the best improvisational comics in the US – plus Cheryl ‘why would you do that Larry?’ Hines – and storylines that are tighter than a gnat’s chuff. A Curb show outline will have around five liberally annotated pages but that’s solid plot, and takes can go into the thirties with LD suggesting key lines as jumping off points for the scene.

Compare this to The Trip which often played out more like Lost In Translation meets Groundhog Day, the cycle being starter, impression-off, repeat. And the pauses weren’t so much as pregnant as birthed, went through an awkward goth phase and then buggered off to university before the joke was eventually delivered. Yeah, that might be naturalistic, but entertaining? Debatable. As for the show staking a claim to realism, Coogan’s problems are real alright: ennui-laden multimillionaire comic ears-deep in muff can’t find true love, Hollywood acclaim or a really good crème brulee; but the general yearning for something better aside, I didn’t find these problems particularly gripping or relatable. Apparently the comedy had ‘real edge’ and it took ‘a lot of guts’ for them to make it. Personally I found as far as being realistic goes, ‘Steve Coogan’ was a far more sanitised, sympathetic creation than the coke snorting fuckmonkey of tabloid lore. Tommy Saxondale was a much more interesting, nuanced character.

However, the show that really pisses on my porridge, the one that’s taken the very worst that comedy vérité has to offer and combined it in one moribund Gagasaki of a half hour, is Him & Her. The premise of the show, if you’re lucky enough to have avoided it, is that the most tedious, unlikeable unemployed couple in the world hang around in their flat and do nothing. Absolutely nothing. Seinfeld ain’t got nothing on this shit. Of course the critics spaffed all over it saying that it’s yep, beautifully observed, to which my response is ‘oh that makes it good, does it?’ For a long time the last great taboo in television has been seeing characters on the can – well Him & Her breaks down the fourth (toilet) wall on this one when one of them opines ‘Can you make me some toast? I just done a wee. I fink I done a poo as well.’

Now I’ve had mornings on the mercy seat packed with more tension than a Hitchcock drama and parked my breakfast in many a meaningful way, but I’ve never thought it would add a deeper level of understanding to a character – to see man, trousers down, vulnerable and de-clenched, is to see the true essence of what it is to be human. Also, in line with so much realistic dialogue, nobody would actually say this. Even somebody with the most spastic of colons is pretty certain whether they’ve dropped the brown shark or not. But Him & Her really plays the full deck: mumbled, dramatically inert dialogue, quizzical rise and fall intonation, and interminable silences. We’re getting dangerously close to ‘comedy is like jazz’ territory here – it isn’t so much about the jokes as the space between the jokes. I wouldn’t want to spend thirty minutes with these enervating DSS fucks, so why would I want them beamed into my living room either?

A lot of these shows are often labelled as ambitious, but I think in many cases the reliance on naturalistic tropes belies exactly the opposite – celebrating rough cut amateurism for its own sake. The Observer’s recent review of  Fresh Meat warns that it ‘risks becoming as sparkling as 30 Rock.’ A long-running, successful, consistently funny gag a minute sitcom? How awful. Of course there are plenty of examples of this kind of thing being done well, like Marion & Geoff and even Peep Show in the UK to the cruelly cancelled Party Down in the US, but it’s the snobbery and unthinking blanket approval that really grates.

There are many more shows on my shitlist – Pulling, Lizzie and Sarah – shows where people behaving universally appallingly is somehow more real and therefore funnier, as if the recognition and laughter reflexes have the same trigger. But ultimately it should come down to this: when assessing a sitcom’s worth, funny should come before form. Realism is just another form of stylistic technique.


Fringe Benefits

Posted in Comedy, TV with tags , , , on September 18, 2011 by Tim Lee

[TV show] New Girl

Zooey and I have been through a lot together over the years. I’ve watched The Village. Twice. I sat through (500) Days Of Summer. Seemingly in real-time. That film where she runs a hipster cereal bar? Flipped the bird at the Feds and downloaded it due to the inexplicable lack of a UK release. Seriously, that shit had Oscar written all over it.

It even took me longer than the 10 seconds listening strictly necessary to determine that She & Him were a bucket of tepid folk wank; the aural equivalent of drowning in a ball pool full of kittens. That is to say, I thought it was time to move on – the cycle of abuse had to end. I even started perving over other women with fringes. *Logs on to*

So it was purely in the spirit of inquiry that I decided to give her new sitcom New Girl a chance. Any actor will tell you that all the best writing in Hollywood at the moment is on television, especially those who need another hit like Pete Doherty, so it’s no real surprise to see Zooey turn up in Fox’s ‘adorkable’ (yup, that’s how they’re promoting it. Jesus) latest offering. But before you crank up the CRAP KLAXON it should be noted that the series is created by Elizabeth Meriwether, whose previous credits include Childrens Hospital. Less promisingly, she also wrote No Strings Attached. *Fire up the klaxon*

The premise is as slight as one of the floaty summer dresses I picture the winsome Ms Deschanel wearing as she gambols through a meadow towards me in my dreams. But hey, this isn’t Zooey fap fiction I’m writing here – if it was it would consist mainly of us shopping in the stores she wants to shop in, to a vegan café for soya lattes all round, then maybe some light sex afterwards if we’re not too tuckered out. *Cough* Sorry to digress. In it she plays Jess, a geeky teacher who’s just been ditched by her boyfriend and ends up moving into an improbably swish loft with three regular guys. Beamed into their apartment like Mawk from Ork, they’re not so keen at first due to her admission that she watches Dirty Dancing six times a day and sings to herself. A lot. But the discovery that all her friends are models mean that she’s on the washing up rota quicker than you can say ‘six month shorthold agreement.’

Okay, so the show may have been custom-tooled to make bedwetting fringe-blind fucks like myself lose all use of our critical faculties – its métier being less ‘set up, joke’ and more ‘set up, mope’ – but you know what? It ain’t half bad. Things don’t get off to a great start when, with grim predictability, Zooey sings the theme tune like the schmindie Anthropologie wearing Dennis Waterman she so clearly is. Christ, her uniquely mellifluous atonal honk could RIP even the most resolute hipster boners from the other side of a vinyl fair. On the plus side, at least it didn’t have any titting ukulele on it. But if you can get over that the writing is pretty sharp and the twee tart is genuinely funny and charming in it (translation: I totally would. But she really is quite good). The opening scene where Jess outlines to a friend how she’s going to seduce her (soon to be ex) boyfriend is a case in point:

Jess: He says he has a fantasy where I’m a stripper and I have a heart of gold and he’s helping me through college.

Hannah: He didn’t say the college part did he?

Jess: No. I wanted to create a three dimensional sex character.

Hannah: So what’s your stripper name?

Jess: Rebecca Johnson. No, Boobies Johnson. Two Boobs Johnson.

Look, it’s all in the delivery, okay. Also, she was wearing a trench coat and horn rims when she said it. But as strong as Deschanel’s performance is, the supporting cast are pretty weak. Her trifecta of turd roommates consists of Nick, a recently dumped, ennui-laden barman who will obviously at some point realise he can look beyond Jess’s dungarees and Lord of the Rings references to see her inner beauty; Schmidt, an allegedly loveable douche; and Coach, a stereotypical emotionally repressed black guy. None of these J Crew models really adds too much to the show and in the long run it’s debatable whether Jess’s story arc – socially inept geek can’t get a date – is really going to sustain the show.

She’s okay in small doses, and has plenty of funny lines, such as when she triumphantly announces she’s been asked out on a date: ‘Dinner. With food’ (remember, delivery) but she’s essentially 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon minus the self-awareness, snark or kick-ass job. And without a Jack Donaghy to bounce off it’s difficult to see where the character can go. The majority of the comedy supposedly stems from the guys’ increasing exasperation at Jess’s relentless girly kookiness – they’re like chalk and cheese! And boy, is there a lot of cheese – even more than you’d find in Alex James’s Cotswolds farmhouse kitchen.

But, for all these reservations, there’s the germ of a decent show here with a girl who rocks a mean up ‘do at its heart. And for that reason, I’m prepared to give it another shot. Which is big of me.

I thought I was out. But she pulled me back in.

Update, 6th January 2012. The show is now going to shit. In one episode she taught bell ringing to troubled teens. FFS. But episode 8 – Bad In Bed – is a total keeper.

Please Release Me

Posted in TV with tags , , on January 17, 2010 by Tim Lee

[TV Show] The Prisoner

prisonerRemaking the much loved 1960s series was always going to be a tough proposition, and the troubled gestation of this co-production between AMC (the cats that brought you Mad Men) and ITV doesn’t fill one with much confidence. And it seems AMC had even less confidence as it languished on their shelves for a year before being leaked out like a damp silent fart at a funeral on consecutive nights just before Christmas. ITV are pushing it big time this year though, which tells you more about the paucity of quality drama on their channel than anything else.

Written by Norwich resident and Lark Rise To Candleford creator Bill Gallagher, you’ve probably guessed that this isn’t so much a remake as a re-imagining – a term which has become TV shorthand for raping and pillaging an original series of everything that was good about it, then making it a bit like Lost.

This time it’s Sexy Jesus Jim Caviezel as Number 6 who finds himself stranded in the mysterious Village. We can immediately tell something is amiss because after crawling through the desert for a few hours he finds himself in a nightclub where they still play drum ‘n’ bass. Then he goes to a diner where he is disappointed by the distinct lack of variety on the menu, ‘Don’t you serve anything that isn’t a wrap?’ he asks wearily. As catchphrases go, it’s hardly ‘That’s damn fine coffee.’ Then he goes to the store to buy a map, ‘What kind?’ asks the clerk, ‘The biggest one you’ve got’ replies Caviezel. 6 doesn’t know how he got here but like everyone else in the production he sure as hell knows he wants to get out. But no matter how big his map is, one man isn’t going to let that happen: Number 2.

Mincing about like a bizarre hybrid of The Man From Del Monte and Let’s Dance era David Bowie, Ian McKellen’s Number 2 is a rare high point amongst an otherwise stultifyingly dull cast. Proffering words of wisdom like “There is no New York, only the Village” he’s a genuinely sinister presence, especially when revealing that the Village has a judicial system based entirely on baked goods, ‘The summons said to bring cake. With cherries on it.’ Number 2 also has a teenage son. I don’t know why. But he looks really pissed off about the lack of distribution for Death Cab For Cutie albums in the Village.

We’re supposed to take it as a given that 6 wants to escape and 2 wants to destroy him but we’re never really sure why. Whereas Patrick McGoohan’s 6 had a strong sense of his past and what he was trying to achieve, all we know is that Caviezel used to work in ‘surveillance’ and he really, really wants to get back to his stylish New York loft. Along the way he meets several disparate characters, none of whom really seem to drive the story forward, including Lennie James as a  taxi driver, and Ruth Wilson as a hot nurse with a dark past of her own. Wilson’s terrifyingly angular eyebrows, which must surely have been plucked with the aid of a set square, provide most of the limited psychological terror on offer.

Otherwise the show is a hopeless mish-mash of influences and ideas. It has elements of The Truman Show, with the introduction of 6’s Stepford erm… brother, and the endless use of flashbacks from Lost and FlashBoredom. There are even repeated stabs at Twin Peaks style surrealism, with recurring motifs such as a lone anchor in the desert. And a lot more wraps. Even the design of  the Village itself seems hopelessly confused, looking as it does like it’s been furnished with Ikea’s new for 2010 Havana collection. This may be a subtle comment on Guantanamo Bay, but I sincerely doubt it.

Of course this being 2010 the makers of the show really couldn’t resist throwing in at least some lazy post 9/11 references. We are repeatedly shown a glistening duolith (?) in the distance, whilst 6 is implored to ‘follow the twin towers’. The only comment the writers seem to be making about 9/11 though is that 9/11 was a thing that happened. People remember it happening. So we’re going to write about it a bit.

There are other problems too, including the dialogue which is more stilted than that in the frankly far superior soap, Wonkers, which the villagers are so addicted to. At one point 6’s brother says ‘My head is so confused with the confusion.’ What I found more confusing was the fact that he said this whilst wearing a shirt in a swimming pool. But the biggest problem is Caviezel himself. He might have killer cheekbones and wicked abs, but he’s so anodyne he manages to make Jospeh Fiennes look like Al Pacino. He was never going to live up to Patrick McGoohan, but the original choice, jug-eared Northerner Christopher Ecclestone, would at least have injected some other worldliness to the role.

As it is, it may just about be worth tuning in for curiosity value and to see McKellen show the rest of those fuckos what acting is all about, but my advice would be to do like it says on the poster: resist.

Abridged review: a real Number 2.