Television Review

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THERE WAS an episode of Men Behaving Badly in which Tony found out that he needed glasses. Telling Gary about this, Dorothy begged him not to make fun. Gary stared at her for a moment, then said: "You must be mad." One of the strengths of the writing of Simon Nye, the man responsible for Men..., is his sense of the way that even the closest relationships can be underpinned by a little edge of nastiness (as Morrissey of the Smiths put it, we hate it when our friends become successful). Conversely, even extreme cruelty doesn't preclude friendship, affection, general warmth and humanity.

How Do You Want Me? (BBC2), Nye's sitcom about a devotedly urban photographer transplanted to the countryside by marriage, is often nightmarishly cruel - not Spanish Inquisition cruel, but replete with the sorts of petty social sadism most of us can imagine suffering from. This week, Ian (Dylan Moran) decided to give up drink for a month, following a reckless post-pub expedition on a motor-mower. But two days sober in "the Great Nothing", ringed by vindictive in-laws and an omniscient local gossip network, left him desperate for escape and unable to find the means. The landlord of the local pub stonily refused to hear his pleas; the lads at the pub, normally keen to fill him with beer, displayed a jokey schadenfreude in denying him a swig, even making sure his picture was pinned up with a warning in pubs and shops. His wife's family, meanwhile, displayed an entirely earnest Schadenfreude in "supporting" his resolution; and the nice couple at the office were evidently convinced he was a dangerous alcoholic.

Nye is expert at this sort of thing, the carefully graded crescendo of frustration and humiliation. Moran's effortless technique is a big help to him - he has a stand-up's throwaway, deadpan expertise at delivering a line (compare Tommy Tiernan in Channel 4's Small Potatoes, projecting only the stand-up's anxiety about attempting real acting, his desperation to hear the laughs). The climax of last night's episode had Moran, newly appointed a governor of the village school where his wife teaches, turning up to a meeting with a gutful of magic mushrooms. Trippy humour can be very tedious, but Moran's casual, unshowy air as he stroked ripples of melody out of a glockenspiel, clutched tentatively at the headmaster's hair, spouted semi-nonsense ("Children are people, I think - smaller, much smaller, but, you know, little trousers, little voices, but still people") - all served to make the sequence hugely funny.

But still, what makes this such a superior comedy is the range of emotion, the way that it dares to counterpoint appalling behaviour and unpleasantness with unfunny things like tolerance and love. The relationship between Ian and Lisa (Charlotte Coleman) is one of the most sophisticated and plausible marriages since William Powell and Myrna Loy in the old Thin Man films - wisecracking, cynical, but always sustained by good humour and affection. Aghast at her husband's self-immolation in front of her boss and her father, Lisa was finally won over by the extravagance of his madness, unable to do more than smile weakly at his conviction that the meeting had gone rather well. In this depiction of a complex, adult, happy marriage, Nye has achieved a small step forward for himself as a writer and a giant leap for the British sitcom.

And without wanting to get all jingoistic, what a pleasant contrast to the infantile battle of the sexes that animates Ally McBeal (C4). Last night, in the first half of a double-bill - I know, chills the blood, doesn't it? - Ally (Calista Flockhart) demanded of her colleagues: "Why are all our cases about sexual harassment?" The case in question was that of a fat woman feeling harassed because her employer had initiated a monthly optional beachwear day. Billy (Ally's love object) maintained that this issue was gender-neutral, that men can feel self-conscious about their bodies, too; the fat woman smiled sweetly and said: "You just don't get it, do you?"

There's a good point here, about the way that society pressures women to look a certain way. But isn't it interesting that overweight people only ever appear on Ally McBeal in guest roles, and that their weight is always an issue? On the other hand, all the leading women are conventionally attractive, or at any rate deemed to be so for the purposes of the plot (speaking personally, any attempt to describe the physical attributes of Flockhart leads swiftly to the medical dictionary or the bestiary). This is called: "Having your cake and eating it." Though by the look of her, cake is not one of Ally's besetting sins.