The first episode of brand new Channel 4 sitcom London Irish opened and closed with the four twentysomething Northern Irish expat protagonists getting bladdered in the pub. That's right, writer Lisa McGee (a Londonderry woman herself) isn't afraid to confront those national stereotypes head on. This would also explain the scene riffing on a certain budget airline's baggage policy, and the cameo from Father Ted's Ardal O'Hanlon.
It was sweet of Mr O'Hanlon to bestow on this fledgling show the blessing of the Irish sitcom elders, but if the ultimate aim was to fool us into thinking London Irish owes something to Graham Linehan and Arthur Matthew's work, the ruse failed. As with any sitcom about a mixed-gender group of twentysomethings made at any time since 1994, it's to Friends that London Irish must pay reluctant tribute.
This weight of influence bears down heaviest of all on Kat Reagan, whose character Niamh is a mildly irritating kook in the tradition of Phoebe Buffay. Television doesn't need any more mildly irritating kooks – Zooey Deschanel in E4's New Girl has seen to that – so the angry, sweary, pathologically stingy Bronagh (Sinéad Keenan) was a particularly welcome foil. Ostensibly, there were also two male leads, the garrulous Packy (Peter Campion) and childlike dreamer Conor, but McGee's script betrays her obvious preference for writing female characters and they barely got a look in.
It may be unchivalrous to note it, but, at 35, Keenan is knocking on a bit for a role as studenty as this. It's testament to her energy and talent, then, that her performance was so enjoyable, regardless. Bronagh's righteous indignation at the one-handed man who failed to inform her of his missing appendage before they had a drunken "ride" at a party was easily the best thing in this opening episode.
It's also the strongest hint that McGee's writing might be ballsy enough to eventually transcend the over-familiar setup. If you must make yet another sitcom about the messy social lives of twentysomethings, the Nineties institution on which to model it is not mushy Friends but misanthropic Seinfeld. Might the characters of London Irish all turn out to be shallow, sex-obsessed reprobates with no moral compass to speak of? We can but hope.
I'm also holding out hope for BBC1's The Wrong Mans. Mathew Baynton from CBBC's Horrible Histories plays Sam Pinkett, an employee of Berkshire County Council who gets mixed up in a thriller plot-line entirely at odds with his mundane existence to date. Gavin & Stacey's James Corden (who also co-wrote the script with Baynton) plays his colleague Phil Bourne, a man who makes up in enthusiasm what he lacks in common sense.
Wisely judging that the Hitchcock reference will go over our heads, this first episode of six spent much of its time in setting tone. Thanks to slick direction and, one suspects, a large chunk of the BBC's autumn budget, it certainly looks as good as a Hollywood thriller.
It's only a shame that the combination of ordinary blokes and extraordinary setting won't feel original to anyone who's seen Shaun of the Dead or any other Simon Pegg/Nick Frost collaboration. Unlike Pegg/Frost, Baynton/Corden isn't yet a natural double act with natural chemistry. Instead, they came across like the straight man(s) in search of a comedian.
Still, if Baynton and Corden don't do it for you, we're promised forthcoming episodes will include a supporting cast of contemporary comedy talent to compensate. There's Him and Her's Sarah Solemani, The Thick of It's Paul Higgins and Dawn French, among others. As the trail for next week's episode revealed, Lock Stock's Nick Moran will also be stomping around doing his well-worn cockney gangster bit. But don't let that put you off.
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