Laugh? I nearly stayed at home

Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
Typical. Just as summer turns up to tempt us out of the house on Friday nights, TV makes it worth staying in again. For a while, the sitcom lover has had to be content with the company of the deathly Life After Birth, or Cybill, which is passable if only for the opportunity to laugh at her friend's plastic surgery, and at how blatant a copy her daughter is of Roseanne's Darlene. But at last, these unwelcome guests have been shoved aside by some old friends, and Friends (C4) is foremost among them. If you want to hate this programme, you won't have to try very hard. "Seems like you're always stuck in second gear," goes the theme song, "When it hasn't been your day, your week, your month or even your year ..." You'd gather from that lyric that the characters would be thrown out of Cheers for being too big a bunch of losers. Instead, the inhabitants of this smug, aspirational world make the rest of us look as if we're stuck in reverse.

They are six young, impossibly well-dressed, breathtakingly gorgeous, painfully witty New Yorkers, who glow in the familial warmth of their hermetic coterie. No wonder Chandler started Friday's edition by announcing that he had dumped his girlfriend for having "big nostrils". When your best mates are cosmetically flawless, why settle for less? Sure, one Friend will worry about a job or a relationship every now and then, but you want to scream: "So what? I'll take your worries! Just let me play Pictionary with your five perfect pals!" But you can't scream that. You're too busy screaming with laughter. And considering that Friends has more out-loud laughs before the opening credits than most other sitcoms have in total, then a bit of physical beauty seems a small price to pay.

It's not a programme with a particular message or a high-concept setting. What it does have is so many running jokes per episode that it resembles a comedic athletics meeting. Woven into Friday's tapestry were a magnifying glass, a bad-taste lamp, Chandler's rigorous girlfriend- selection process and Phoebe's rejection of the theory of evolution. (Ross: "Evolution is scientific fact, like the air we breathe, like gravity." Phoebe: "Oh, OK, don't get me started on gravity.") Each actor could carry a series on their own - think M*A*S*H with six Hawkeyes and no Father Mulcaheys. But their interaction is blissful, just as long as it retains an edge. The first episode of this series had what looked suspiciously like a girlie group-hug. That way nausea lies.

For now, let us admit that giving each programme the title by which it would come to be known anyway - "The One Where Heckles Dies", "The One With The Breast Milk" - is the biggest breakthrough in sitcom episode- naming since the minimalism of The Young Ones ("Boring", "Interesting", "Oil"). The only real problem is noted in the Men Behaving Badly spin- off book: "The boys never try to get a snog in nor do their eyes follow the girls' bottoms whenever they walk around the room."

It's this perspective which has helped to make Men Behaving Badly (BBC1) so hugely acclaimed. And it's this acclaim that has helped to make the current shows so disappointing. After three series of Blackadder, the script was famed for its outrageous similes - "all the painting ability of a blind hedgehog in a bag," etc - and the fourth series ended up being crushed under a stack of them. Men Behaving Badly is suffering from the same ailment: an overdose of its own press. It has often been corralled into articles about New Laddism, even though we laugh at Gary and Tony and with the more sympathetic Women Behaving Well, Dorothy and Deborah. Consequently, this series is a New Lad's Guide. Gary (the ever wonderful Martin Clunes) draws up lists of girly words and blokey words, and lectures Dorothy on "bloke dishonour": "We live by a very complicated code, you know. We don't even know what the rules are ourselves, apart from the one about not drinking Malibu in pubs."

Gary and Tony were always self-consciously blokey, but not this self- consciously. Writer Simon Nye now puts so much effort into their laddishness that he doesn't have much time left for plotting. This week, Gary planned to prove his manhood by hiring a Fight-o-Gram, whom he would recognise in the pub by his black leathers and red scarf. And yes, there turned out to be a different but identically dressed bruiser in the pub that night. Considering that the Men spend most of their time watching TV, you'd think that they'd have seen enough sitcoms to know what was bound to happen.

Still, Men Behaving Badly is the best current British sitcom, and the new offerings aren't much competition. Oh, Doctor Beeching! (BBC1) is the latest David Croft comedy with a trademark old-fashioned title, after You Rang, M'Lord?, Are You Being Served? and Hi-de-Hi!. It also has Hi- De-Hi!'s central cast, transplanted to a cosy railway station in 1963. They weren't required to stretch their acting ability. How much work did Su Pollard have to put into creating another breathless, bespectacled innocent with a habit of shouting "Trra!" instead of goodbye?

After a feeble start - the studio audience must have been held at gunpoint before they coughed up the guffaws for such gems as "Oh 'eck," and "two rashers and a fried egg" - it was pleasant enough in an 8.30-on-BBC1 sort of way, with a gratifying number of twists in the track, and the possibility of some satire on rail privatisation. Well, we can but hope.

Back to Friday night, Friends is followed by Frasier (C4), a relaxed, sophisticated construction which must be recommended simply because it is almost the only American sitcom that is not afraid to be snobby. Chortle as we may at Frasier's egotism, he's still the hero. In other sitcoms, anyone caught arguing over classical music could only be the stooge whose girlfriend the hero steals.

Also, the comedy is character driven. The Office (ITV) had no characters at all; just actors, thrown into misunderstandings so quickly that neither they nor we could tell what was happening. That's not to say it wasn't at all funny. It's just that it didn't work as a sitcom pilot, because we were given no idea of whether it could extend into a series. This episode was a traditional British farce, more situation than comedy, with a frantic Robert Lindsay caught naked in the boss's office within the first five minutes. What next? The vicar coming to tea?

Finally, a "mini-series", ie two parts, American, based-on-a-true-story, should have been edited down to one part. Buffalo Girls (C4) was adapted from Larry McMurtry's novel about Calamity Jane. It was the tale of one heroic woman battling impossible odds. That woman's name was Anjelica Huston and, armed only with her superb acting, she had to maintain her dignity when faced with Melanie Griffith's anachronistic silicone implants, and dialogue that was pumped up to even sillier proportions: "She needs the sun and the sky and the Rocky Mountains and she needs me!" She needs a sick bag.

The first episode was as long and empty as the plains. Anyone who stuck it out to the second episode (and if so, you really should think of doing something with these long summer evenings) would have spotted some more fertile ground, as Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show came to England, and all that brown buckskin was set against the Brits' black top hats. An interesting Crocodile Dundee-esque film could be made about an American cowgirl in London. In this production, though, the most intriguing point was how Jane could kiss Wild Bill Hickok without being suffocated by his moustache.

Lucy Ellmann is on holiday.

Comments