When the capes are off

ITV is calling for better sitcoms. But is a comedy about off-duty superheroes the answer?

By Julian Hall
Sunday 23 October 2011 01:53

The cast list for ITV2's first sitcom is impressive. A comedy about the personal lives of off-duty superheroes, it stars Patrick Baladi (The Office), Nicholas Burns (Nathan Barley), James Lance (Teachers), Claire Keelan (Nathan Barley) and Rebekah Staton (Pulling).

Its writer, Drew Pearce, a self-confessed graphic-novel geek, came up through the ranks of television by working on The Big Breakfast and The Frank Skinner Show. He assembled his stellar cast knowing that a sense of realism was almost as much of a priority as was comedy: "I wanted to get the best people from the comedy scene, but it was comedy actors that I gravitated towards for the central characters. With a superhero comedy that's attempting to be naturalistic – a bit of an oxymoron, admittedly – what you need your cast to do, as well as selling the jokes, is to sell the idea that they do what they do and that they are friends and that there's a connection between them."

That many of the cast members, all well-versed in dramatic roles as well as comedic ones, already knew each other before working on No Heroics accelerated this process, says Pearce: "It really helps because, in between takes, they go into their own world together rather than parting ways, so during set-ups the cast are singing songs together rather than reading books in different corners."

Burns, who plays Alex/"The Hotness" (a character who controls heat and, in one scene, microwaves a meal in his hands), concurs: "You don't have to go through that awkward first few days of not knowing where someone's barriers are, and that makes it easier to muck around and improvise." Lance (who plays Don/"Timebomb", a psychotic gay Spanish retired superhero who can see 60 seconds into the future) adds: "When you've got that shorthand for someone, it's a lot more fun."

All of the cast expect to work together again, but there's an inevitable humility in the face of a Britcom-pack label. As Lance puts it: "You get cast in things, you turn up, try not to bump into the furniture, and crack on." But when I ask him if I'm shoehorning him into a category, Lance (a man described by Drew Pearce as "the nation's secret comedy heartthrob") says, "Shoehorn away, sir."

Meanwhile, Burns admits that, as a group, "we share the same kind of sensibilities, a similar sense of humour, and, despite different backgrounds, we have a lot of pop-culture references in common, and enjoy mucking around and being silly, which is essentially what comedy is." He adds: "While there's a need for characters in their thirties trying to rediscover their youth, I will probably be up there as one of the people they think of, and it's nice to be considered part of that fraternity."

Assuming that No Heroics can live up to the call by Peter Fincham, director of ITV, for the channel to beef up its comedy output (he told senior executives at ITV that sitcoms need to be a key priority for the channel), there's every chance that its "Britcom" pack may be picked to work together again by Pearce, especially if his personal influences are anything to go by. Paramount among them is Judd Apatow. Like Woody Allen's regular ensembles, Apatow mixed and matched cast members from his teen comedy drama Freaks and Geeks in his later films, such as Superbad and The 40 Year Old Virgin.

The off-screen bonhomie inevitably affects the on-screen result, and the Friends culture is a massive clue to Pearce's other comedy influences: "Two kinds of sitcom stick out in my mind. You have the one that makes you cringe and keep watching because you can't believe how awful the person at the core of it is; and there's the one where you want to come back and hang out with that group of people again. You need that when you are watching week after week." Sex and the City, Entourage, and Friends are all comedy influences.

In No Heroics, the Central Perk equivalent is The Fortress, the social club/bar where the superheroes come to unwind, compare notes, and play out rivalries. Aside from the Batman reference (one of many in-jokes in the show, another being the Captain Marvel-inspired beer on offer at the bar, "Shazamstell"), The Fortress was inspired by an aspect of the entertainment industry itself: "There are strong links between The Fortress and The Phoenix, the actors' bar on Charing Cross Road," says Pearce. "I wanted the feel that there were years of the unfulfilled dreams of superheroes lining the walls, but that it was a 'face place' for those kinds of people to go to, bitchy on the one hand, quite warm and snug on the other."

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Pearce knew that his sternest critics were likely to be the fanboys, but a recent "geek" screening has reassured him that the lack of blockbuster special effects isn't going to get anyone's cape in a twist: "No Heroics is a mission statement in a title, which was useful when I was writing it. The surly negativity of it is a warning: don't expect to see £150m special effects – you have PG-rated blockbusters for that." Jame

The fact that No Heroics is more of an 18-certificate product allowed Pearce to acknowledge the dark side of superheroes, but at the same time subvert it: "Superhero comedy is seldom, if ever, well done in live action. The best superhero comedy is The Incredibles, and that's a cartoon. There have been some good attempts, such as Larry Charles's The Tick and Ben Stiller's Mystery Men, and a film called The Specials. All had good ideas but fell at the campness hurdle. I was interested in a British take on superheroes, and I think that take was to undercut it and hang out with the unfulfilled of that world; to exercise a kind of 'judo logic', where their weaknesses are actually their strengths."

Humanity, which could be considered a weakness in superhero terms, is an important strand in the show, and nowhere more so than in Staton's character, Jenny/ "She-Force". Staton, known for playing Louise in Pulling, admits that both roles have a lot in common: "They are both rotund women having difficulty with men and always finding the wrong ones. It was the context of being a superhero and having these problems that attracted me to the role. I find it sweet that she has super-strength but is actually quite fragile and vulnerable as a real person."

That contradiction is evident on a number of occasions, such as when Jenny tries to get a normal office job but suffers at the hands of so-called "cape-haters" (those biased against superheroes), and when she awkwardly tries to have prison-intercom sex with an ex-criminal mastermind on whom she has a crush (Mark Heap), and manages to turn it into a marital fantasy.

Another very human weakness, fame, is very much a driving force for the No Heroics narrative, particularly for The Hotness and Baladi's delightfully smug Delvin/"Excelsior", top of the superhero pecking order but with an attitude to match Finchy in The Office, Baladi's notable foray into comedy. "However ambivalent the characters in No Heroics seem towards fame, it's driving the story and there's a constant jostling over who is getting the most attention, reflecting modern culture," says Pearce.

Pearce once played slide guitar in a country-rock band, so his final analogy on his creation is from a world he knows well: "Lots of the show came from being in a band and sitting around with band mates, bitching about other bands, reading the NME, and questioning how it could possibly be that a certain band got nine out of 10 for a certain album."

If ever Pearce finds that, in sitcom terms, he is at that "difficult second-album" phase, he will at least have several experienced former colleagues he can call on for help.

'No Heroics' comes to ITV2 this autumn

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