2008 on the goggle box: Comedy

[EDIT: I’ve changed the typo in the title of this post, so it says “goggle” rather than “google” – my fingers seem predisposed to do the latter]

My favourite comedy show this year was easily Outnumbered, which finished its second series on BBC2 just after Christmas. I feel somewhat vindicated by the extent to which this has become first a critical, and latterly a word of mouth, hit – the first series did not attract anything like the same acclaim, other than in a few places, including this blog. As last year, the outpourings of the children provided some clenchingly acute humour, while there was some seriously effective drama as well, particularly around the fate of Sue’s deteriorating father. If it had a flaw, it was maybe in the second half of the final episode, which concentrated on the adults: the children rather faded from view, without any particular scene to round off their appearances. This contrasts with the first series, which closed with  delightful  scene setting the horrors of parenthood in contrast with its joys. Still, I hope the BBC commissions a third series before the remarkable cast of child actors become too old: there would probably be little point in continuing the series if, say, Ben reached the same age as Jake was at in series one.

Lead Balloon seemed to me to have upped its game from an already high level. Last year, I remarked that I admired the show, but couldn’t warm to Rick Spleen on account of his habit of bringing misfortune on his own head through his consistent mean-spiritedness. This trait was still in evidence, but – and it might just be my imagination – Rick seemed to be on the receiving end of some genuine bad luck in this series, as well as messing things up for himself. It made the whole thing more palatable. Though the programme still regularly depicts Spleen as not especially talented, which calls into question the idea that he was ever well-known – though maybe it’s just trying to say he’s lost his magic and is destined to spend the rest of his career on the scrap-heap; the episodes in which he overtly prizes monetary reward over artistic integrity were among the best-drawn, I felt.

I recall Sean Power, who plays Spleen’s altogether funnier and better-balanced writing partner Marty, got shirty with a blogger on Off The Telly, condemning all “armchair critics”. Happily not all performers take this view of bloggers, as Robert Webb’s comment on here a couple of months back demonstrated. But it seems to me to be an unsustainable position: as an actor or writer, you’re in the position of putting an item of work in public view; it’s not rational to expect that nobody will ever form an opinion on it. Indeed, if it’s not valid for the viewer to have a reaction, what’s the point of making the work available? And if it is valid for the audience to have a reaction, why should they not express that reaction in conversation, or in writing? Maybe it’s easy for me to say that as a blogger, and it’s different if you’re on TV. But the availability of a comment function on blogs makes it easier, if anything, for unwelcome feedback to be passed to the blogger than to an actor (unless they google themselves – not quite the same thing, but see what the captain of King’s College’s University Challenge team, Kat Gold, found about herself).

I’m looking forward to the new series of That Mitchell and Webb look in 2009; and Peep Show again proved reliably excellent this year. But the outstanding sketch show I want to comment on is The Kevin Bishop Show on Channel 4. Its pace has been commented on, with over 20 sketches in probably less than 25 minutes’ airtime. They included some deadly accurate swipes at celebrities (“Mutton… the new fragrance from Madonna”) and superb parodies. Countdown USA was only very slightly implausible, while the Vietnam-set adaptation of ‘Allo ‘Allo, Harrow Harrow, was deeply un-pc, but extremely funny. Bishop’s turns in Star Stories also continued to impress – there’s no doubt much more to look forward to from Bishop in 2009 and beyond. Elsewhere in the land of sketch shows, Peter Serafinowicz‘s debut series compared poorly: a lot of good ideas, but often stretched a bit thin. Though I very much enjoyed the Michael 6 robotic talk-show host.

Finally decent comedy continued to emerge from BBC3 this year, despite what some critics might tell you. Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps is perhaps a little past its best, but the seventh series was as crude and as funny as ever, particularly the live special. And I mean that without any irony at all – I genuinely think Two Pints is great, and gets a very raw deal from critics. That said, the death of Johnny has upset the balance of the cast a little; moreover, the fact that Two Pints existed in an essentially cosy world where nothing ever changed was part of its appeal – the departure of a key character and a series of grief and tragedy-stricken episodes did muck with the formula a bit. I’m glad there’s apparently a series eight in the offing… but I would have been equally content to see the programme left to rest with the ultimately happy ending to series seven.

Meanwhile, BBC3 has cancelled the superb Pulling after a triumphant second series. What the hell are they thinking? Pulling offered a superb brand of character-based comedy: like The Office and Extras, the viewer squirms on the characters’ behalf as they get themselves into the most believably dreadful situations. Karen’s feelings about her cancelled engagement, her self-deception and her unwanted new lifestyle were, at least, given a superb pay-off over the course of this series, so at least it went out on a high.

And finally, a show that was slammed after its first episode but really came into its own subsequently: Clone again existed in a cosy world where little changed but much genuinely funny silliness went on. Unfortunately this wasn’t at all evident from its first episode, which involved a rather elaborate set-up. Textbooks on writing will tell you to be wary of flashback, but I wonder if the events that led to Clone’s creation and Victor’s flight from the forces of the military might have been better told in flashback, while introducing us first and foremost to his bolt-hole and the emotional lynchpin character of Rose (Fiona Glascott completing a superb trio of lead actors with Jonathan Pryce and Stuart McGloughlin, with the much-vaunted Mark Gatiss really in a supporting role). I hope it gets re-commissioned, given the cliffhanger nature of the final episode.

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