Why even basic British comedy feels revolutionary
In a world of instantly streamed international entertainment, we all hold the same remote control. Here’s what to point it at:
What you deserve to watch:
British comedy is genius. As a colonially-predisposed audience weaned on Blackadder and Fawlty Towers, we Indians know that only too well. We know how the great British comedies embrace the absurd and find delight in verbal dexterity, and do things we do not expect of television. Say, for example, a show about an inexplicably documented office crew. There is a certain freewheeling madness the best of them chase, running full-tilt toward a windmill—a windmill-shaped, naturally, like a dead parrot.
This column, however, is not about the brilliant British shows that continue to influence the way television is made in America and everywhere else. (Two sterling examples of current Britcom wizardry I must recommend are Flowers, a weird and whimsical dark comedy about a suicidal writer of children’s books, and Catastrophe, a realistically daft close-up look at a grown-up relationship. Seek out the DVDs). No, this one is about the runts of the pack.
A slew of silly, irreverent, inconsequential British sitcoms dot the Netflix landscape, and at a time when the finest American comedies are all either profound or conceptually cunning or—let’s be honest—barely resemble a comedy, there is something comfortingly old-school about watching this less ambitious British bunch go directly for the jugular.
There’s Fresh Meat, a rollicking, raunchy comedy about freshers at a Manchester University, a show I started watching as a guilty pleasure and an excuse to reminisce about Uni shenanigans till I realised the writing was genuinely exuberant and the characters mad cool. It was with this increasing affection for Fresh Meat—and the thought that I couldn’t possibly bear some American clone—that I began to question the secret sauce the Brits bring to the table.
Short answer: Everything is fair game. Everything.
The conventional American network sitcom is that very thing: conventional. There are things the heroes and heroines wouldn’t do but their promiscuous friends are obviously allowed free run. There is a distinct morality in place, even if tucked away, and characters are frequently judged by creators and co-characters alike.
In contrast, the Britcom is the foul-mouthed friend who wants to tart it up merely for a lark. It revels in the inappropriate.
Fresh Meat, for example, introduces us to a relatively posh girl called Oregon, a literature student propositioned by her lecturer who, with surprising immediacy, takes up the offer. This affair carries on despite her coming to grips with the lecturer’s sleaziness, but—perhaps because she can’t resist the potential narrative possibilities of the increasingly intricate dynamic—Oregon sees it through, disgusted with herself, and even hooks up with the lecturer’s son. And that’s fine. The whole thing is, after all, just a laugh.
The understanding of this simple fact—that people aren’t looking for even mild morality from characters created but to deliver punch-lines—frees up European comedy as a whole, and lets British creators stray not just from morality, but also, by extension, from expectations. Anything goes. This is what leads to the flowering of gifted talents like Phoebe Waller-Bridge, creator and star of Crashing. In this silly, thoroughly satisfying show, characters refuse to grow up—a persistent theme in UK comedy, by the way—and choose to live inside a disused hospital. The fun lies in the understanding that a girl (played by Waller-Bridge) can be off-puttingly boorish and irresistible all at once. At least when the stakes are only as high as the next punchline.
For example, Lovesick, a recent Netflix original, has a tired-sounding set-up—a boy with a sexually transmitted disease hunts down the partners he’s had in order to inform them, sort of a Broken Flowers for millennials—but what these comedies lack in concept, they make up by replacing character archetypes with bonafide quirk. It helps also that we outside of the UK don’t know too many of the actors, peopled as these shows are by fresh, interesting talents. (Zawe Ashton of Fresh Meat has now in me a committed fan.)
I’m all for great television, and for shows that haunt us and makes us think—but sometimes nothing can quite beat the ones that surprise us, and make us snicker.
What life’s too short to watch:
It may be time to demand a moratorium on comedies about a mismatched couple forced to partner up and solve cases—unless, of course, we have a Pushing Daisies revival, in which case all is forgiven and encouraged—because the combination hardly ever works. Vexed, which stars the eminently watchable Lucy Punch, is a tedious show (available on Netflix), one you mustn’t bother with and one that single-handedly makes the case that all Brit silliness isn’t gold.
What everyone’s watching:
The brand-new Son of Zorn has what some of us (yours truly included) will call an irresistible premise: an animated, He-Man like conqueror comes to Earth to live and work among us in order to bond better with his half-human son. The first episode is out on Hotstar, and despite the best attempts of Jason Sudeikis, who voices Zorn, it isn’t great. The humour is too basic— hopping office desks in two—where it needed to be far nuttier. Right now it feels like something out of Family Guy but ideally, if all systems fly, it should feel like something out of Archer.
Documentary to watch this week:
In keeping with the Anglophilic slant, a fun documentary series to watch on Netflix is Very British Problems. It can only be watched in small doses, but this series featuring various celebrities trying to define peculiarly British issues—like how awkward they are with handshakes—is comfortingly droll. A reminder that we’re all nuts.
Streams of Stories is a column on what to watch online. It appears weekly on Livemint.com and fortnightly in print. Raja Sen tweets at @RajaSen