Television Review

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The Independent Culture
WHEN IT comes down to it, an awful lot of sitcoms are about girls sharing a flat. Sometimes there are twists to the situation - in Man About the House one of the girls turned out to be a man; in Golden Girls they were all senior citizens. At other times, the situation is absolutely pure, as in Girls on Top and, the most recent addition to the genre, Babes in the Wood (ITV).

The first series boasted the twin attractions of Denise Van Outen and Samantha Janus. Janus has now moved on, perhaps realising that, contrary to everything that logic and experience would seem to dictate, up was not the only possible direction after Game On. Van Outen, who left The Big Breakfast to do this series, is still clinging on, though what motivates her apart from the lie-ins is hard to say. Maybe it is the pleasure of being the centre of attention, rather than Johnny Vaughan's straight man. Certainly she dominates the action without much effort. Some reviews of the first series praised her acting. In fact, she doesn't act at all; but she has the rarer talent of seeming completely herself in front of a camera.

This gift is worth nothing, though, when she has to put across a sequence of poison-ously stupid lines. For a comedy advertised as "post-post-watershed", Babes in the Wood seems surprisingly puerile, the script constructed out of playground abuse - bollocks, arse, tit, slapper and cow - with the odd verb thrown in. A sample joke - Karl Howman, the lecherous neighbour, laments the Janus character's departure: "We could have been good together... the thing is, there always seemed to be something standing in the way." Van Outen: "Yeah, like the fact that she thought you were a complete prat." The studio audience laughed as if this was the funniest thing they ever expected to hear. Possibly they had peeked at the rest of the script.

The last thing you want is another critic lamenting the inadequacy of British sitcoms compared with their American cousins. Still, you cannot watch this and Third Rock from the Sun (BBC2) in the same evening and fail to be aware of the gulf. In Babes in the Wood, predictability is all. In Third Rock, familiar situations are inverted, twisted, shifted sideways: finding herbal substances in teenage Tommy's sock drawer, the rest of the alien household accuse him of being - shudder - a secret cook. He denies the oregano and fresh rosemary: "It's pot, I swear - I smoke it with my friends. I love to toke up on the fat daddies, er, dude." Weird Harry's girlfriend tells him there is something he should know. His face screws up with misery: "Oh, please don't say `the alphabet'."

Both comedies revolve largely around sex. But where Babes in the Wood tries to squeeze humour out of sex by coarsening it, reducing sexual relationships to rude words and groping, Third Rock makes a joke of the way that John Lithgow and his crew are constantly undermined by sex, their advanced extra- terrestrial intellects crumbling before the urges of their human forms. The difference comes down to expectations of the audience: it's not so much that I like Third Rock from the Sun. It's more that I think it likes me.