The second series of BBC Three’s teen comedy Pramface has just begun airing in the UK, prompting me to go back and watch the first series. I missed it at the time, partially because of it’s frankly awful name. It was also partially because it looked like a BBC attempt to ‘deal with issues’ or to identify a market and write specifically towards that, rather than telling a story.
Last Monday saw the first episode of Citizen Khan, the BBC’s first Muslim family sitcom, and, well, it’s not been well received. There have been claims the programme is offensive to Islam, that it stereotypes Muslims, and, most fundamentally of all, that it simply isn’t funny.
I’ve now watched the first episode all the way through twice (which appears to be roughly 4-12 times as much as the average person who sat down to watch it), and tried to set down some thoughts about the programme.
What follows is part review, part analysis and partially a look at the social implications of the show. (I’ll try to prevent it from being too pretentious, I promise.)
To start with, I’ll say that I’m not a fan of Miranda, another BBC sitcom that seems to be aiming for a similar ‘retro’ feel as Citizen Khan. Though I love Dad’s Army, Morecambe & Wise and have generally positive feelings towards ‘Allo ‘Allo, I’m probably not the ideal viewer to target with this kind of ‘big’ humour.
But even so, there’s a lot in the first episode that could be improved without driving off the target audience.
To get something out of the way first, there’s a few cultural references that I didn’t get. Citizen Khan is a character spun off from a sketch show, Bellamy’s People (and the character had appeared as a radio character before that). In Bellamy’s People, a TV host travels round the country meeting with a cross-section of British people for a ‘documentary’. He meets Mr. Khan, who describes himself as a ‘community leader’ despite not seeming to have a lot of respect from the locals. Similarly, in Citizen Khan there are jokes that play off the settee being covered in plastic, and Khan bringing in a large bag full of toilet rolls, which, judging by the reaction on Twitter, seems to be a real cultural trait amongst British Muslims. These are jokes that didn’t connect with me, but that’s fine, not every joke is going to land with everyone.
But beyond that, the show is full of predictable, obvious ideas, and decent ideas really badly executed. It might seem paranoid and reactionary to say that if this programme didn’t star a Muslim family, then it wouldn’t have been made. But it does seem that the people making Citizen Khan got carried away with the idea of making a show centred around a Muslim family, and were blinded to the flaws.
For instance, in one scene Khan sits at his desk within the mosque, and for some reason starts singing into the turned off microphone. it never feels real, like a person relaxing and being silly, but like a performer doing something wacky for the sake of it. And then, in a massive twist, it turns out that the microphone was turned on the whole time!!
At another point Mr. Khan is told that his family is considered common, which he responds to by asking why, then hocks his throat as if he’s about to spit.
It just feels so, so, fake – artificial situations set up purely for a joke, but too predictable to land a laugh, rather than creating situations which are inherently funny.
And Khan himself… Well, he’s a self-indulgent anti-hero of a patriarch, so I think the best models of comparison, for good and bad, are Homer Simpson.
In the early years of The Simpsons, Homer is an idiot, and a self-indulgent jerk, but he means well and tries hard to fix the messes he accidentally causes.
Homer dances with a bellydancer on a stag night, and fails to get Lisa a new reed for her saxophone in time for a performance, but always means well, taking a second job to earn back Lisa’s love in the second of those two episodes.
Then, in later years he morphs into what’s been called Jerkass Homer – a character who causes disruption for others, yet faces no consequences himself, blindly riding off to cause more mess without any punishment.
I think the creators of the show wanted Khan to fit into the first model – he forgets that he needed to book his eldest daughter Shazia’s wedding at the local mosque, a classic ‘early Homer’ mistake (religion aside). But in the process of trying to fix or hide his mistake, he tries to bully the mosque manager into giving him what he wants, then places the blame on his future son-in-law, which leads to the pair breaking up.
Khan does eventually go to Shazia to beg her forgiveness, but he seems happy for his daughter to lose the love of her life, just as long as he doesn’t get the blame.
As well as this…well, I’m pretty sure Mr Khan is racist.
He seems to think ginger and Scottish are the same thing, and insists he can’t be racist as he’s from a minority – well there’s definitely potential for humour there, and I’m sure some people laughed, so I won’t dwell on that.
Khan meets his friend Riaz outside the mosque, who introduces his new employee, Omar. Omar greets Khan cheerfully, and Khan then turns round to whisper to Riaz:
Khan: “What’s wrong with him?”
Riaz: “He’s from Somalia.”
Apart from a slightly strange pronunciation (I doubt it’s a completely accurate Somalian accent) there’s nothing OTT or unusual in the way Omar speaks or acts, so I’m genuinely confused as to what Khan’s commenting on. And if it’s Omar’s accent Khan’s laughing at, doesn’t that make him racist? Omar is played by Felix Dexter, an excellent actor in a minor role, who I’m sure could have pulled off whatever was asked of him. Was the joke genuinely meant to be that foreigners with strange accents are funny and should be laughed at? I’m honestly unsure what they were going for with this.
Aside from Mr Khan, I counted seven other significant characters in the first episode (plus two – Riaz and Omar – who appeared very briefly). Of those seven, five can be described totally by a very brief handle – The White Convert; The Timid Idiot; The Fierce Mother-in-law; The Partygirl; The Middle-Aged Maneater – while the other two, I have trouble even describing in that much detail. The Houseproud Mother and The Nice Daughter perhaps? I can’t think of anything any of those seven characters do that contradict or add complexity to those very brief and narrow descriptions.
And the whole show is over-acted. It seems almost like a parody of acting, with every joke and emotional beat being struck as hard as possible.
Adil Ray as Mr Khan is the worst – the scenes in his office come across, as I’ve said, more as a performer doing something wacky than a character intended to be mistaken for a human being. The character has been transferred from radio and sketch comedy, where a bigger performance is appropriate, without adapting the performance to fit. In fact, it feels like the rest of the cast were instructed to rise to his level of melodrama, rather than bringing it down, rooting it in something human, identifiable.
The reactions to the family being told the mosque hadn’t been booked are so over the top that I was left wondering why I’m supposed to care about these hysterical idiots.
In addition, the characters are incredibly unperceptive – I buy Mr Khan thinking that his partygirl youngest daughter Alia is as devout as she claims, as she seems to have him wrapped round her finger, but her mother seems like she should see through the act. And Shazia, the eldest of the two daughters and supposedly pretty smart, is meant to have bought her father’s blatant lie that her fiancée is responsible for the mosque not being booked.
Families, by nature of spending time together, get to know each other pretty well, but no-one seems to know anything about each other in the Khan family.
Kris Marshall plays the mosque manager, a white convert to Islam, and seems to be the only member of the cast who wasn’t told they were supposed to play every joke, every emotional moment, as over the top and obvious as possible, pandering to the most slow-witted members of the audience.
Yes, the idiot son in My Family is the only member of the cast who seems capable of understatement.
It’s a shame, as I think there were genuinely some good jokes in there, hindered by the mess around them.
Going by my notes, I was amused eight times (seven of them where the joke seemed deliberate).
In one, Khan asks if anyone saw News at Ten the previous night, adding
“Seven times they mentioned Pakistan! Twice in a good way!”
I’m not from an immigrant family myself, but this felt ‘true’ – it felt like this was a believable reaction from an immigrant with pride in his country of origin so strong it sort of overrides logic.
This, to my mind at least, is how sitcoms should work – believable characters with a range of character traits, some of them comic.
I mentioned that one time I laughed when the joke didn’t seem deliberate. Late in the episode, when Shazia and her fiancée are separated, she’s laid in a foetal position on her bed, clearly distraught, in a room with pink bed sheets and pink lamps, wearing cuddly bear slippers and clutching a pink fluffy toy. All of this is clearly meant to convey that she’s a soft, delicate young woman, and set the stage for the emotional heart of the story (Khan apologising to Shazia) but it’s expressed in such over the top stereotypical way that it made me laugh.
I didn’t dislike Citizen Khan in the same way I do Miranda or Mrs Brown’s Boys – it’s surreal in a way I couldn’t quite believe or understand. I watched it with a sense of confusion, bewilderment about where they were going with certain plot elements, and how things had managed to turn out this bad without someone slowing down production to fix its problems.
Onto the reaction.
The BBC had received 185 complaints by the time they put out an online article on the reaction less than two full days after transmission, Citizen Khan was covered in opinion pieces in The Telegraph, The Daily Mail, The Guardian, The Huffington Post
and was described as “outdated…lazy and offensive” in The Independent.
Two of the main lines of criticism (besides the show not being funny) were that it mocked Islam, and negatively stereotyped Muslims.
Firstly, there’s a difference between poking fun at one aspect of religious culture and mocking the religion itself.
To return to The Simpsons, there’s an episode where, after getting home from church on a Sunday, Bart and Lisa throw off their Sunday best clothes in celebration, with Bart explaining that it’s the part of the week that’s furthest away from having to go to church.
That line isn’t mocking Christianity itself – it’s a lot different from a section that argues that there’s no God and that everyone who attends church is an idiot – but gently teasing about one aspect of religious culture that does happen in the real world.
The ‘controversial’ aspects of Citizen Khan – the idea of a party girl daughter pretending to be devout for instance – fit into the same mould.
As for the stereotyping…
Stereotyping, can be used for comic purposes by playing off the audience’s expectations. Think of the Indian friends ‘going for an English’ in Goodness Gracious Me. The sketch takes the way many English people misunderstand Indian food, and turns it on its head. By using commonly held stereotypes, the creators were able to start with a basic set of shared ideas that they could safely assume the audience as a whole were aware of.
Stereotyping can also be used to reduce a group to something small, and limiting, whether purposeful or not. (Black people are good at athletics and join gangs; Asians are religiously devout and keep to themselves; the Irish are humorous and drink a lot, etc.) Stereotypes say that this is who your culture is, and since you’re from this culture, this MUST also apply to you.
The characters (Mr Khan aside) are underdeveloped stereotypes, but I’d say they’re more sitcom family stereotypes than Muslim stereotypes.
A sitcom, as opposed to a sketch show, should go beyond the stereotype, to something individual to that character. To return to The Simpsons one last time (because there really is no better programme to compare against) Homer is a loudmouthed idiot, but he’s also a sensitive soul who wants to look after his family. Lisa is a borderline child genius, but she also has a sense of melancholy that she only feels able to express through blues music. The characters are stereotypical enough to be recognisable, yes, but they have depth and complexity that makes them feel human.
Citizen Khan is only one episode in, so it may well develop a greater character complexity. I’m sort of cautiously optimistic about Alia developing into an interesting character. But there was enough time to devote to basic character development in the first episode, rather than show how hilariously wacky Mr Khan is.
I apologise if I’m wrong here, but I think most Asian families in Britain have immigrated within three or four generations, so the majority will know a relative who was raised in their old country, and will still be going through the process of adaptation. There’ll be a tension over changes in the younger generations, as the Asian/Muslim community is growing into something new as they’re exposed to wider British culture, either degenerating into something tacky, or evolving into something that combines the best of both.
Citizen Khan, as deeply flawed as it was, put me in touch with some cultural traits within the British Muslim community that I didn’t know about, and gained an ever so slightly deeper understanding of the ways in which we are different and similar. A programme of this type, if well executed, can build the sense that Muslims are part of ‘us’ rather than ‘them’. Think of programmes like The Kumars and Goodness Gracious Me, gently mocking both British Asian habits, and wider British culture.
But by far the most offensive thing about Citizen Khan is that it wastes the audience’s time on something that simply isn’t funny.
Citizen Khan is available on BBC iPlayer, episode 2 is on BBC One at 10:35 Monday September 3rd.
Dead Boss is the new sitcom cowritten by and starring Sharon Horgan (Pulling, Annually Retentive, Todd Margaret), and is a darkish comedy with quite a cheerful tone.
The first episode opens in court, after Helen Stephens (Horgan) has just been found guilty of murdering her boss. Some quick exposition lets the audience in on the plot, and the subtext of what’s really going on, as she’s sentenced and led away.
Dead Boss is silly enough to make light of the dark subject (complete with cheerfully upbeat narration and music), but dark enough that interactions with Top Dog and Yvonne (leaders of the prison gang) have menace to them.
There’s a strong story running through the comedy, whereas Life’s Too Short, for instance, is more a series of comic incidents with a plot loosely connecting them. With the process of appeals, and the murder mystery, there’s a strong story here as well as the comic incidents.
But of course, comedies rely on the quality of their jokes, and Dead Boss is packed with good lines, many of them laugh out loud and mostly character based. Some of the jokes are a bit filthy (Horgan was one of the writers on Monkey Dust) but Dead Boss doesn’t reach for the cheap shocks.
Though you may expect a writer-star to give themselves the best lines, there’s a range of strong characters here – Helen’s meek, arsonist cellmate, her cheerfully indifferent sister, Jennifer Saunders as The Governor – almost as selfishly detached and delusional as Absolutely Fabulous‘ Eddy Monsoon – and a cheerfully incompetent lawyer, who announces that ‘Until I get paid, my work will be half-arsed. At best.’
The best comparison I can make on Dead Boss‘ style is with 30 Rock.
I first became aware of 30 Rock by repuation, a fair while before seeing an episode. With it being hyped up so much, I expected something very funny and emotionally and tonally realistic, like Frasier and Cheers at their peaks. In fact, it’s more like Airplane – very funny, but in a silly and inconsequential way, with characters that are quite over the top. Dead Boss is the same.
Dead Boss has the kind of world that isn’t realistic, (and certainly wouldn’t be mistaken for a documentary as The Office apparently was) but has plenty of funny and compelling characters. None of the characters is a Tracy Jordan or Jack Donaghy, but there are a few (Aisling Bea’s and Edward Hogg’s characters in particular) who are just below that level in quality.
Silly but involving ensemble sitcom with colourful characters and big laughs.
Dead Boss is available on BBC iPlayer, episode 3 is on BBC Three at 10:30 Thursday.
When I first started this blog, one of my initial aims was to analyse, to look at films and television from an analytical point of view, to tear things apart and look at why they do, or don’t, work.
As part of the process, I’ve looked at a few pilots, in particular how they introduce the characters, to take some tips for my own script.
In particular, the opening scene of Friends is, in my opinion, excellent. I’m not going to look at the quality of the jokes (I think that analysing humour tends to kill whatever was funny about the line or situation, and besides, that’s not really what interests me here) but at the way the characters are introduced.
First of all, I’d recommend you take a look at the video below, as it really is quite funny:
0:00 – 0:28 The episode (and the series) opens by introducing Central Perk coffee shop first, introducing the setting before the characters, and the sign on the window establishes that this is a coffee house.
Four of the main cast are discussing Monica’s pathetic love life, Joey mocking her while being smooth, Chandler quipping, Phoebe talking sympathetically about her ex-boyfriend’s chalk addiction.
Four of the main characters are fundamentally introduced here – Monica is pretty defensive and has romantic troubles, Phoebe is open-hearted and mixes with slightly weird people, Joey and Chandler are being smooth and quippy respectively, and to an extent playing off each other. Bear in mind that this is within the first twenty eight seconds of a brand new programme, and the audience should have a decent sense of who 67% of the main characters are already. That’s pretty efficient story-telling.
I just want to slow down for a second, and look at what we know about these characters based on just this very brief opening section.
Joey is cool, laid back, though the leather jacket is perhaps slightly overstating his character, making him seem a little bit more like Tony Danza than the character Joey Tribbiani would become.
Phoebe has her hair in pigtails (a girlish look) and is genuinely slightly weird, in a way that’s amusing and intriguing, rather than ‘look at me’ wackiness.
Chandler is quippy, with a fast-paced delivery, and Monica is more emotionally open and honest than the other characters, more open to mockery than doing the mocking.
0:28 – 1:00 The scene cuts forward to later, still at the cafe. Chandler is now telling the story of his dream, which is recognisable but… goes off in a weird direction.
And, while I may be reading a bit too much into the scene here, it also touches on the empathy of the series. The core audience was always, as far as I’m aware, people in their mid-twenties – similar people to the characters – just living a more glamourous and exciting life. It’s a slightly cheap trick, but introducing something – anything – that the audience can identify with, will help to build a bond between viewer and character. Also, Chandler’s dream condition sounds quite painful.
1:00 Ross enters, on the verge of collapsing into tears. Upset at his wife having left him, he’s being miserable and self-hating – hatred driven internally, rather than outward.
Joey’s line – ‘This guy says hello, I want to kill myself’ – shows that this is a group of friends willing to make jokes about even the misery they’re going through, suggesting a strong friendship, with no solid boundaries betwee them.
Concentrating on Ross’ behaviour for a moment, it’s striking how different his behaviour is here to in the later years of the series. His reaction to being left by the woman who had pledged to spend the rest of her life with him, makes him understandably miserable, but he doesn’t seem too angry about it.
Imagine if he acted in a different way. Imagine, to pick a totally random example, his ex-girlfriend, who dumped him after he slept with another woman several years earlier, pointed out that this hurt her, and he responded by, out of nowhere, yelling at her about how technically what he did was okay, because technically they hadn’t been a couple for about six hours when he slept with the other woman.
You wouldn’t like that guy, would you? Of course not, that guy’s a jerk, to put it mildly. So unless you have really bad taste in friends, you’d be annoyed by someone with such poor self-control and lack of perspective.
Here though, Ross, though clearly unhappy, has driven his anger inwards, he’s reluctant to even admit he’s angry at his ex-wife, who’s left him for someone else. The Ross – Rachel plot was the central driving narrative in the first few years. With Ross as the main protagonist of the series, establishing him as sympathetic and likeable early on is pretty important.
1:30 Combining my earlier points about Phoebe and Ross, trying to cheer Ross up, Pheobe ‘cleanses his aura’. Ross is clearly annoyed by it, but doesn’t get too worked up.
Ross doesn’t seem the type to believe in spirituality, but even at his emotionally lowest doesn’t snap at her, plus it helps establish Phoebe’s slightly weird personality a bit further.
1:44 Joey: ‘And you never knew she was a lesbian?’ Ross: ‘Why does everyone fixate on that?’
First of all, it’s a really funny line.
I’m not totally aware of the state of gay acceptance in mid-nineties New York. (In my defence, I was a kid living 300 miles away.) But I’ve read references to Ellen’s ‘coming out’ episode as being a major landmark in gay culture, and that came in 1997, three years after this episode was aired. The idea plays up the metropolitan, colourful nature of New York, and, to an extent shows how nice a guy Ross is that this seems almost irrelevant to him. Though I’m not sure of the cultural context, it may have helped make the show seem edgy.
There were early plots centring around threesomes and being the other man in an open marriage. In the early years it was a little bit edgy, all things considered.
2:25 ‘I just want to be married again’, then Rachel shows up in a wedding dress. Chandler’s next line (‘And I just want a million dollars!’) shows his irreverence, and he’s mocking the show itself to an extent. I don’t want to get bogged down in how much the quality of the show dipped over time, but I’d say this acts as a sort of promise to the audience, that there’ll be big, interesting events happening in this and future episodes, but that the characters won’t take themselves too seriously.
2:50 Monica takes control when Rachel enters, introduces her to the other characters. This establishes that the two have the previous relationship, Monica’s position as the mother hen of the group, hammers home who the characters are (I don’t think Joey and Chandler were mentioned by name before this).
Having re-watched a few of the first few years of Friends in recent months, most of them in or just after the Tom Selleck era, I’ve started to realise how much Monica is the emotionally vulnerable mother hen of the group, the ‘heart’ of the story, so to speak. In the same way that Michael Bluth is the ‘normal’, relatable character in Arrested Development, surrounded by weirdos, I’d argue that Monica plays a similar role in the early years of Friends. If my memory’s accurate, this only goes as far as series 4 or 5, before the gang start to deviate from their ‘classic’ personas, and become less funny, less interesting characters, with their interesting and relatable quirks being replaced by melodrama and overacting. But in the early years, she is very much the mother hen, the characters who feels, and creates, the most empathy.
Over time she becomes an uptight weirdo, with an OCD problem that would concern Adrian Monk, and I’m not sure that Courtney Cox has ever been particularly funny. But, as much as the friends clearly care for each other, she goes further than the others in the early years in creating empathy. Ross, with his divorce and feelings for Rachel, is the central character plotwise in the first few years, but I’d argue that Monica is the emotional centre of the show.
3:10 Rachel tells her story – why she ran away from the wedding. She’s a bit scatterbrained in her explanation, but gives a good and compelling explanation of why she suddenly came to the realisation she couldn’t marry Barry.
She’s the last of the characters to be properly introduced, and as she’s coming into their lives, it makes sense to introduce the other five main characters – the status quo – first, and have Rachel’s introduction act as the inciting incident, the thing which shatters the status quo and spurs the story into action. As well as her own story, she has an impact on Monica (her old friend who invites her to share her flat) and Ross (who had an unrequited crush on her when younger). While these plotlines aren’t shown in the opening scene, she’s turned to Monica for help, and Ross is being supportive and helpful to her.
Looking in from a technical point of view, one of the things that surprised me was the quick cuts.
Rather than everything in the conversation following on in real time, the show cuts across the relevant points in a long conversation. This shows they’re happy to spend a significant portion of time just sitting around in each other’s company, and is more realistic than having the ‘big events’ happen one after another.
I don’t think that I’ve seen this used too often in other sitcoms (or even in Friends) but it’s an interesting device.
Chandler’s material is weird, embarassing, witty but self-effacing.
Joey’s is smooth, he’s stylish in control. His cool is never really undercut, whereas Chandler would find it nearly impossible to build up a sense of cool after what we see of him here. Joey’s also a bit indifferent – whereas Ross goofily and clumsily tries to be supportive to Rachel, Joey just sits there, and makes fun of his goofiness.
Rachel is moving at 100 miles an hour, bit of a scatterbrain, a bit self-involved and spoiled. There’s an episode in one of the later years when Phoebe discovers Rachel had a lesbian affair in college, and is surprised by it, as Rachel is ‘so vanilla’. Eventually she develops this way, but at first she’s definitely a slightly spoiled and emotionally stunted brat, and this is the start of a personal quest for her, a process of personal growth.
Ross is miserable, but drives his frustration and anger against himself (as he’s not yet developed the sub-Adam Sandler anger management problem he’ll have in later years). He doesn’t lash out at his friends – even when he’s clearly a little bit annoyed by Phoebe, he’s still quite nice about it. He wants to wish the woman who’s just broken his heart well, and is being caring towards Rachel (pouring sugar into her coffee) when she tells her story.
Phoebe in later years becomes more generic Hollywood zany girl, as if the writers are thinking up wild and wacky things for her to, rather than look to the root of the character. Here she’s quirky, off-beat, but in a way that feels like a real person.
Monica, I’d say, really only has one funny line where the comedy rests on her performance (rather than being mocked by others). I don’t know if she was originally envisioned as the ‘straight man’ of the group, but she feels like she works that way here.
When a television programme is as well made as Friends was at it’s peak, it’s tempting, even as someone who wants to imitate it’s greatness, to sit back and enjoy, without thinking about why I enjoy it. But, even without looking at the jokes, I think it’s interesting how quickly and how well the characters are introduced here.
Basically those are my thoughts about the opening of Friends.
I’d be interested in reading any further thoughts people have to offer, whether building on what I’ve said or tearing apart my interpretations.
Today I’m bringing in a guest columnist, who is totally a real person and definitely not myself writing under an incredibly transparent pseudonym. As his views are out of step with what he terms ‘the mindlessly politically correct age’, he has asked to be able to hide his real name. Instead, I have assigned him a handle.
The Hateful Misanthrope’s Column
Recently, the masterfully wise AA Gill has pointed out the obvious fact that Mary Beard, presenter of Meet The Romans is too ugly to be on television, to which she, not knowing her place, has replied.
In case you’re not aware of AA Gill, think Jeremy Clarkson, only instead of cars, obsessed with being posh. And slightly more in love with himself, if that’s possible.
In the past he has described the Welsh as
“loquacious, dissemblers, immoral liars, stunted, bigoted, dark, ugly, pugnacious little trolls.”
Fantastic! That’s the kind of negative-minded vitriol I can get behind! What a man! What a mind!
Gill has said that Beard
“should be kept away from cameras altogether.”
And only right as well.
When I watch television, I don’t want to be educated. If you put something on the television which implies there are things out there that I don’t know, that makes me feel less intelligent. Instead, I prefer to assume that I know everything there is to know, and despise anyone who tries to tell me otherwise.
I don’t care if her face is warm and open, and helps convey her enthusiasm for her subject. That’s not what television’s for, and that’s not the point of women. Samantha Brick has got the right idea, she realises that the point of women is as decoration, and for us men to fantasise about. Television is about fantasies – the men and male characters on screen are for us to fantasise we are, and the women are there for us to fantasise about being with.
I often watch Bear Grylls, in order to fantasise about what it would be like to live in the wild. Mary Beard is not the kind of person I wish to be, and I certainly don’t wish to be WITH her, so why have her on television at all?
I’m now going to counter the obvious argument you’ll throw at me. You see, that’s how much cleverer than you I am – I can anticipate your argument and counter it before it’s even left your lips. I’m dead smart, I am – like Gill, Simon Cowell, or Piers Morgan.
Media types will talk about USPs, or Unique Selling Points. They will argue that being a Professor of Classics at Cambridge, or whatever that dreadful woman is, means she has access to a level of knowledge on her subject which very few can match.
Well, I say tosh.
I say that, regardless of how much knowledge and insight a person has to offer on a subject, they should be judged on their skin, hair, and clothing.
MEN run the world, and run it badly. That’s the natural order of things. Women are on this Earth to bear our children and keep the Human race going until our inevitable self-made annihilation.
Any woman who tries to learn things, (or any man who tries to run things competently) is going against the natural order of things, and should be knocked back.
Instead of having Beard wandering about the remnants of Rome’s Empire, perhaps they could have hired a reality TV star or daughter of a celebrity to ‘investigate’ something she knows nothing about, but which is obvious to the rest of us?
Maybe Amy Childs or Stacey Dooley ‘investigates’ Roman ruins, comes to realise that people must once have lived without central heating, and cries about how awful it must have been to always be cold.
She could go on a ‘journey’ that would be emotional and cathartic to the plebs, and would allow the rest of us to laugh at her and feel superior.
Samantha Brick, whose skin-deep obsessions fit her into my ideal of how a woman should act, has argued that
“While there is no denying that Ms Beard is a supremely intelligent and fiercely ambitious woman, there is absolutely no chance of her becoming a successful broadcaster in prime-time slots on flagship TV channels.”
Exactly! There is absolutely no chance of her getting the sort of success she’s recently achieved.
She then compared viewing figures of Mary Beard’s Meet The Romans show to that of The Hairy Bikers’ Bakeathon and The 70s, which are completely fair, like for like comparisons.
I am hostile to learning, so I can’t be sure, but I assume that people will be alive who can look back fondly at Meet The Romans in the same way they do to nostalgia programmes like The 70s.
And any show which has the word ‘bakeathon’ in it’s title must be as intellectually challenging as a detailed historical programme. It certainly won’t the kind of personality driven tosh which often functions as background noise, which people drown out 55 minutes of the hour, before noticing a particularly beautiful looking meal and asking each other if they saw how it was made.
Ms Beard (I assume that no-one could marry her, for who could find her enthusiasm, intelligence, energy and warmth attractive enough to override the fact that she doesn’t wear nail varnish?) should be thrown off the air, and it is only right, in my brilliantly insightful and clearly correct opinion.
Sherlock Holmes is one of the classic characters of literature, and as such, has had his adventures turned into TV and movies, so people can share his adventures without all that pesky reading.
In fact, he’s suddenly so popular, that several franchises have taken advantage of Holmes being a public domain figure and produced alternate versions. There’s Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’ BBC TV version, Guy Ritchie’s films, and now a CBS TV series starring Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu.
Yes, really, that is an actual thing.
Over at The Leaky Wiki, I’ve uncovered the long term plans for the character:
Every Actor in The World to Play Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson
Spoilers up to S1E6 of Life’s Too Short.
As the show features Warwick Davis playing a fictionalised version of himself, I’ve referred to the character in inverted commas. So, the actor Warwick Davis plays the character ‘Warwick Davis’.
I discuss the use of Davis’ size, and it’s relevance to the plot, but I’m not totally sure what the correct term is, and what’s generally seen as slightly offensive. I’ve used the terms ‘dwarf’ and ‘short person’ – if either of these cause offence, I apologise.
Life’s Too Short aired in the UK in December, and I wrote a review, based on the first two episodes.
After the series finished, I had some thoughts based on the series as a whole that… well, that I didn’t up at the time, based either on being nice or lazy. Take your pick of those two. Having seen adverts for the American airing of the series currently taking place, I’ve decided it could be worth putting finally putting those thoughts down in writing.
You know – for journalistic integrity. Or something like that.
As I say, I’d written the previous blog after watching the first two episodes, and, though I had mixed feelings about the show, I was cautiously optimistic about the rest of the series. After all, this was Gervais and Merchant – maybe a little overhyped, but probably the best comedic pairing in Britain at the moment.
I don’t want to sound like the stereotypical entitled internet commenter, demanding the best from everything while giving nothing in return, and picking apart the flaws in a piece of creativity that’s superior to anything I’ve produced.
But I wrote the previous piece assuming things would come together over the course of the series, and flaws would be solved, whereas, to be honest, it didn’t. If anything, the show fell further apart, like a toy from a particularly cheap Chinese sweatshop that arrives with lead paint flaking off, then later reveals plutonium inside.
Okay, maybe that was a little harsh. I’m almost certain that watching Life’s Too Short won’t kill your kids and make your hair fall out.
I should also state in advance that I only saw six of the seven episodes when they were shown here in the UK – I missed the finale, and though finding it would have been pretty easy on BBC iPlayer, I wasn’t all that bothered about getting round to watching it.
I’m the kind of completionist that tends to watch shows long after they’ve past their best or failed to reach their original potential…just on the off chance that there’ll be an occaisonal episode that does reach those heights.
I’m saying this to point out that I may be a little uninformed, but also that the show didn’t grab me enough to make me care that much about what happened to these characters.
In many ways Life’s Too Short is a third series of Extras, in tone if not in continuity. It’s set in the showbiz world, with big name actors playing versions of themselves that are over the top, or surprising, or whatever else.
It has some good ideas – I like the idea of Gervais being rude to Steve Carrell about the part they’ve both played, for example.
But most of them didn’t come off – with the exceptions of the excellent cameo by Liam Neeson (as good as Patrick Stewart’s or Kate Winslett’s in Extras, in my opinion), or the very good cameo by Jonny Depp – who’s fascinated by the concept of being a dwarf, and bares a grudge against Ricky Gervais for his hosting of the Golden Globes.
But those cameos – in the first two episodes – are the only ones that struck me as worth the effort.
Probably the weakest cameo is by Cat Deeley – her character is hired by ‘Warwick Davis’ as a professional party guest. That’s something which I think showbiz types really do, and it’s a silly and really quite sad trend that’s ripe for mockery. Instead, ‘Warwick Davis’ pretends that the two of them are dating, which is really the most over the top and least believable way they could have gone with that idea.
Really, this is a subject where they should have gone for subtle satire, and chose OTT farce.
In another episode, Helena Bonham-Carter plays a version of herself that’s bigoted against little people, and, rather than blurring the line between reality and the private version of themselves, I was watching thinking ‘no, she’s not like that, I don’t buy that at all!’.
Obviously truth isn’t the aim here, but verisimilitude is – the appearance of truth.
(Ooh, look at me with my big words, I must be dead clever/or own a thesaurus.)
Patrick Stewart’s cameo made me wonder if, beneath all his charm and decency, there’s a slightly perverted man, and Liam Neeson’s made me think that maybe he’s a really unfunny man who desperately wants to be funny. They’re almost certainly not, but the scenes were so strong, in writing and acting, that the impressions they left stayed with me after I’d seen them.
Helena Bonham-Carter’s didn’t make that impression even while I was still watching it. Like Cat Deeley, it was just totally unbelievable the way it was written and played.
There were other ideas – like ‘Warwick Davis’ challenging for chairmanship of the dwarf rights group he attends, and desperately trying to get in on a televised interview, that felt unrealistic and contrived – to me they didn’t seem to fit with the rest of what had been shown of the character.
It wasn’t funny, and was awkward in the wrong kind of way.
If the character is such a pathetic person that he feels the need to wrestle what is apparently (in the world of the show) the UK’s leading dwarf rights group away from a more talented leader, should we really care about him? Honestly, this is a rich celebrity trampling over a group set up to help people with physical and social barriers in their way. I know Gervais and Merchant like to push the barriers of likeability in their characters, but this isn’t David Brent being oblivious to one or two people in an office, whose experiences he finds hard to empathise with. It’s a deeper form of lack of empathy, that makes it look like ‘Warwick’ does understand how important the group is, and just doesn’t care.
‘Warwick Davis’ is meant to be, I’m pretty sure, a delusional egomaniac in the same vein as David Brent. The problem is that Warwick Davis isn’t as good as playing that kind of nasty character as Ricky Gervais.
I like the idea of a sitcom set around life as a dwarf, and apparently the series began as a series of real life incidents Davis had been through or heard about, and pitched to Gervais and Merchant.
And I feel a little mean saying that the character as intended is beyond Davis’ acting ability. I do like the idea of including a wider range of actors and characters in mainstream sitcoms, but just as being short doesn’t mean he can’t act, it also doesn’t mean he has an infinite acting ability and can play any part.
The problem with his acting is that Davis is too nice a person, and that comes across even when he’s playing a character who, based on words and actions, we should detest.
It’s not so much a criticism of Davis himself, more of Gervais and Merchant. As writers and producers, they will have had a lot of power over the making of the show, and with their past experience should really have realised what did and didn’t work.
Life’s Too Short could have done with a Tim and Dawn figure, or at least an Andy Millman – someone who’s ‘ordinary’ in the midst of the madness, who the audience can sympathise with. I don’t think ‘Warwick Davis’ was meant to fill this gap (although he doesn’t really succeed as a Brent style monster either, so I can’t be totally sure).
A show where, for instance, the dwarf protagonist is a nice guy bending over backwards to be polite in the face of the nastiness of the industry, or perhaps is a businessman entering the showbiz industry as an outsider setting up a talent agency, could have worked the same material better in my opinion.
There are some moments of humour and pathos, but they are too few and far between. For example, ‘Warwick’ argues with a builder hired to work on his new home, who didn’t think to fit the door handles lower, and doesn’t seem to understand why he’d want them so low. A bit basic perhaps, but the delivery made me laugh, and it strikes me as a realistic and practical problem that short people must encounter.
In one episode ‘Warwick’ gets obsessed with an abusive commenter on his website, and chases down this person in real life. The moment the commenter’s identity is revealed is a single moment of sharp pathos, strong enough to fit in the David Bowie episode of Extras. Honestly, that moment of empathy for a slightly mean character is better than anything the show generated for it’s protagonist.
There’s also the problem of Gervais and Merchant. In the show they play versions of themselves. For this to work, the characters would need to be either nasty or idiots. Instead most of the humour surrounding their characters rests on them being bothered by others – silly Jonny Depp can’t tell that the Golden Globes routine was only a bunch of jokes, and C-list celebs like Keith Chegwin want to be written into their next series to get a Les Dennis-like comeback.
Both of these were funny in themselves, but it felt like Gervais and Merchant weren’t willing to subject themselves to the same treatment they put other stars through.
Yes, they do boss ‘Barry from Eastenders’ around, but this didn’t go far enough, to me.
Life’s Too Short generally isn’t all that funny, isn’t believably awkward in the way Gervais and Merchant’s previous work is, and has characters I didn’t care about all that much.
In fact, it’s main positive role, aside from the genuinely excellent Liam Neeson cameo in the first episode and a pretty good one from Jonny Depp in the second, is as a reminder of how good Extras was.
I want to temper my criticism by saying that MetaCritic, the television equivelant of Rotten Tomatoes which compiles average ratings from across multiple reviews, has given it a decent rating overall, and that the Huffington Post thought that it almost over-reached but succeeded, whereas I thought the opposite was the problem, that Gervais and Merchant went back to the character archetypes they knew and had used before, even when they didn’t work.
However, The Guardian and The Independent both broadly agreed with what I thought, and The Metro thought that the finale, the one episode I didn’t see, was the best of the lot.
Life’s Too Short aired in the UK back to back with a lesser known but in my view far superior sitcom, Rev.
Rev. follows an Anglican priest in a inner city parish, and stars Tom Hollander as Reverend Adam Smallbone, Olivia Coleman as his wife Alex, and Miles Jupp as his assistant Nigel. The tone is colourful but realistic – similar in fact to The Office. (Not quite as good, but probably the closest currently airing on British TV.)
Adam is a very flawed and weak man in a position where he feels he should be a community leader, whose desire to be kind and patient is tested by some of his more demanding parishoners.
His flaws and challenges are much more compelling than those of ‘Warwick Davis’, and has generates some of the ‘I want to like you, but what the **** are you doing?’ empathy Brent generated.
Showing them back to back highlighted Life’s Too Short‘s shortcomings.
As I say, there are other, better shows on the air at the moment, comedies that use a deadpan, realistic tone, along with comic events that are over the top in a way that could realistically happen.
Rev.; The Big C – Laura Linney and Oliver Platt’s cancer comedy; apparently Nurse Jackie, going by it’s reputation – are all doing the kind of thing that made Gervais and Merchant’s name, to a much higher standard than they curently are.
I’m going to do something I’ve been planning to for a while – recommend some videos.
I still don’t really know what I’m doing here with the blog, so I’m throwing everything at the wall in the hope that some things stick.
The first is from ‘Honest Trailers’ – they do alternate trailers for films that are…well, more honest.
This is from the 3d release of The Phantom Menace. It’s decent, with one or two good jokes (mainly later on), but not hilarious.
This new year I’ve been watching two new lawyer based programmes – the American import Suits, and new ITV and Kudos show Eternal Law.
I’d been putting off watching the beginning of Eternal Law, as the concept of angels acting as lawyers seemed a bit gimmicky, and it was only the involvement of Kudos – creators of Hustle, Spooks and Life on Mars – that convinced me to put aside my reservations.
But Eternal Law fleshes out the concept of angels on Earth well. There’s references to their boss, ‘Mr. Mountjoy’; spotting an image of a friend on stained glass; ‘If that’s the Jehovah’s Witnesses, tell them they’re totally wrong’.
It all adds depth to the world, makes it seem more believable.
Suits is a bit more straight forward – a ‘normal’ law programme, albeit well executed, following a genius dropout with no formal training in the law, but the skills to excel.