Television Review

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The Independent Culture
Every job has its downsides, I know, but the obligation of the television critic to point out how superior American sitcoms are to their British counterparts is a peculiarly wearisome task - habitual but nonetheless faintly disgusting, like cleaning out a cat-litter tray or pulling hairballs from the bathroom plug. It is habitual in a bad sense too, in that more often than you might think it is not entirely true. American sitcoms are overpraised and the home-grown version sometimes unfairly bullied, in order not to smirch the received opinion with a smudge of grey. But an evening like Monday, in which the new series of Game On serves as a prelude to The Larry Sanders Show and Seinfeld (all BBC2), does much to restore the brilliance of the contrast.

I'm still recovering from my astonishment that Game On was given a second series - its scrupulous combination of retarded characters and brutish nastiness seeming to have sealed off all loopholes through which the benefit of the doubt might squeeze. One wondered whether it had been specifically designed to repel its audience, like the Nazi musical in The Producers.

But here it is back again, and to watch it up against American comedies tackling similar material is an object lesson in its poverty of ambition. It's true that there are structural reasons why British sitcoms are so poor and American ones so rich, most notably the fact that both adjectives also have a monetary application. Where a successful American show will earn millions and can thus afford a battalion of lavishly rewarded writers, many British shows are produced by one man and his dog - the man's jokes being distinguishable because you don't actually have to scrape them off your shoe with a twig. Even making such allowances, though, there wouldn't be any excuse for Game On's dismal skimpiness of comic resource - essentially the utterance of the word "shag" (15 and counting in last night's episode) and the exchange of coarse insults.

When Seinfeld's ex wants to express her contempt for his hormonal drives she says "You know, just when I think you're the shallowest man I've ever met, you somehow manage to drain a little more out of the pool." In Game On Mandy simply sneers "You sad bastard", a line which returns many times for an encore. "Why would I be a leg man?" says Seinfeld explaining his sexual preferences. "I don't need legs. I have legs." In Game On Martin just says "Aren't breasts nice?". And if he's "sad" for being able to talk of nothing else but "shagging" what does that say about an audience that shrieks with undimmed vigour every time he says the word?

I can't even record the funniest moments of Larry Sanders, because they were often passages of trusting silence - the laugh-track cleared out of the way to make room for mute insinuations and meaning looks, subtleties that only work if you imaginatively place yourself in the scene. Where Game On invites you to luxuriate in a complacent superiority, to enjoy your distance from its characters, the American shows take it for granted that you might have something in common with them. Though Seinfeld is a bit too self- regarding for my tastes, it is capable of surprising audacities in this respect - a recent episode, for example, centred on the idea that four adult friends might, for a bet, forswear masturbation - and the jokes that followed depended on a sense of recognition from its adult viewers. Such confidence is almost inconceivable in a British sitcom, where the protective snigger rules supreme.

It didn't help matters that The Legacy of Reginald Perrin was fresh in the mind from Sunday night, an ill- conceived sequel in which a group of old catchphrases have been reunited for the reading of a will. What's really depressing about this enterprise, apart from the unprovoked abuse of a long-dead horse, is the desperate crudeness of its engineering. Reggie's will, you see, calls on all its beneficiaries to "behave in an absurd way". No problem there, I would have thought, they're in a British sitcom.