Last Night's TV: Viewing is definitely not recommended

Sold, ITV1; Lead Balloon, BBC2
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The Independent Culture

A comedy about estate agents? "Fish" is a word that comes to mind, along with "barrel". Because we all hate estate agents, don't we? Unless we are estate agents, or members of their close family. So there's not much point going over the reasons why, and in any case, I have to watch myself in case I start to sound like Martin Amis on Muslims. Though the big difference is that whereas our Martin is, of course, merely raising the issue of the urge towards vengeance and repression, when it comes to estate agents, I think I probably stray over the line towards actual incitement and I'm not sure what the legal position is.

Where were we? Oh, yes, Sold, a six-part comedy or, more accurately and more worryingly, "comedy drama", set in a morals-free estate agency called Colubrine's ("colubrine", it turns out, is a real word, and means "snakelike" - marks to Steve Coombes, the writer, for putting in some work with the thesaurus). At the start, a team of Colubrine's hotshot sales people turns up to take over a sleepy local agency, along with its sole employee, a meek young man called Danny. He is quickly dismissed as a hopeless case: he gives clients his honest opinion, respects their privacy, bears no malice towards rival estate agents, and enjoys selling property at realistic prices to clients who can afford it. By contrast, the Colubrine's types, led by the ill-named Matt, who is, as it happens, as shiny and slippery as you could hope to find, get their kicks from stealing properties, both from other firms and one another, misdescribing them, inflating estimates, making fake offers, padding their windows with photographs of random properties that aren't even for sale, and so forth. Matt is filled with contempt for clients and would-be buyers: "Let's hump some dumps to these chumps" is one of his lines, and at one point he even kicks a cat, a sure sign of moral turpitude. Following his lead, the other staff at the agency, especially the pretty blonde one, sneer at Danny. At the Friday-night company sales meeting, Matt, as top salesman, is awarded custody of the keys to the company Lotus, while Danny is named "Geek of the Week" and subjected to a barrage of abuse and food.

You don't expect Glengarry Glen Ross from ITV at prime-time, of course, but there was reason to be moderately optimistic about this one:

promising casting, including Kris Marshall as Matt, and Anthony Head,

Giles the librarian in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, going over to the dark side as Mr Colubrine; and, of course, the whole fish-in-a-barrel factor. It's a letdown, though. Despite apparently borrowing heavily from that episode of Whistleblower that did the dirty on estate agents last year, it feels contrived and unrealistic; in particular, Danny's reversal of fortune - which involves topping the sales figures, solving a range of clients' deep-rooted personal problems, and getting the pretty blonde one back to his flat, all through sheer niceness - contains less comic inspiration and genuine insight into human behaviour than one of the ads for BT broadband that Marshall does. The whole thing is dragged further down by daydream sequences in which prospective buyers see the lives they might lead in the properties they're viewing: simple-minded and tackily decorated confections of

familial bliss or leather-clad orgies. The scenes are as lacking in human empathy and imagination as the estate agents who are supposedly being satirised. I'm not buying.

You can see something of the same difficulty with real life in the second series of Lead Balloon. Jack Dee's sitcom has been compared to Curb Your Enthusiasm. Both feature a misanthropic comic, blessed with a lovely and reasonable wife, who allows his own meanness and narcissistic pride to drag him into ever deeper realms of humiliation. But whereas Larry David's sitcom takes its colour from real life, Lead Balloon is a product of sitcom thinking. The names of the main characters give it away: Larry David plays a character called "Larry David", not simply a piece of shallow self-reference, but the consequence of a determination to blur the lines between life and fiction; Jack Dee's character has the patently fictional name Rick Spleen.

In this week's episode, the Spleen household's stability was threatened by the departure of their Eastern European help, Magda. Knowing him to be vindictive, tactless and self-serving, and knowing that he doesn't like Magda, Rick's wife nevertheless enlisted him to persuade her to stay - in real life, an impossibly stupid move; in sitcom, a perfect opportunity for a few cheap gags. Later, Rick found himself obliged to buy a car for someone, but instead of spending the £2,000 promised went for a £500 death trap. The police turned up to make enquiries as to the car's provenance, and Rick sent them to a second-hand car salesman who had earlier resisted his attempts to involve him in this petty fraud; at the end, the salesman was seen being driven away in a police car.

That might make a plot device in Sitcomland, but in my country we have a little thing called the DVLA, which would swiftly lead police to the real culprit, and Rick into court for attempting to pervert the course of justice. All I ask is just a little plausibility - just enough to give me an excuse to laugh. Is that really so much?

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