OPINION: BRITISH S(H)ITCOM?
The British Sitcom. It’s a staple of our culture, the meat and two veg of the comedy world. It’s where we get to show off our best assets and bathe in our smugness at being a far superior comic land. The right one can become an instant national treasure. We grab hold of them and nurture them through the years, relishing the odd Christmas reappearance and mythologise their importance to our national identity. My granddad still bangs on about Dad’s Army forty years later and that level of influence is remarkable. We should all have in our possession a soliloquy we can recite from heart or a go to quote that eases a tense room.
Not to be over-dramatic but (cue X Factor strings) they should mean something to us, signify a certain time in our lives, and be a marker for who we are, after all you can tell a lot from a person by what sitcom they like, they’re the band T-Shirt for the television. Without fail there is always one that lies especially close to our hearts. For some it is the eternal creepiness of The League of Gentleman, for others it may be the shambolic chaos of Black Books. Whatever your choice, there’s no denying that sitcoms help make up the fabric of our collective personality.
With such a long tradition, however, comes the temptation to stick with the formula. Derivation then turns to dilution and although you may have started with Only Fools and Horses, you’ve sadly ended up with Mrs. Brown’s Boys. I know, I know, it’s a feckin’ easy target but it’s nonetheless a screaming example of where sitcoms are going wrong. Am I just a snob? Am I resting my glasses on the tip of my nose because I simply think I’m above such low-brow drivel? People obviously like it so there must be some kind of demand for it. But a dread crawls over me when I think that this is perhaps what people now imagine when you refer to a British Sitcom. It does not represent our diversity, intelligence, innovation or creativity. However, it’s also a scapegoat for a much broader issue.
For the past five years there has been a slew of misfired sitcoms that are, more often than not, a multicamera, live audience, laughter track, family based format. It’s über-traditional, appears instantly outdated and unless done to perfection, is completely restrictive in its commitment to be conventional. America can just about get away with it, with the likes of Cheers, Friends and Frasier backing themselves up with brilliant writing, leaving their somewhat static surroundings unremarkable. The problem with British attempts is that writing seems to be of little concern. TV channels have become reliant on this crutch of familiarity, of believing that if it worked fifty years ago then it must still work now. This precedent for innocent, “whoopsy daisy, aren’t we all daft!” nonsense has become unavoidable and Reggie Perrin, In with the Flynns, Outnumbered and the recent addition of Father Figure are all guilty of this.
It’s not about disliking the mainstream for the sake of kudos. There will always be popular shows and they don’t have to be shit (see Gavin and Stacey or The Imbetweeners), it’s about not settling for middle-of-the road. For every Fawlty Towers there has always been a Keeping Up Appearances which is fine, but when this is preventing riskier, more exciting ventures from gaining their moment, there is no excuse for settling with something fine when there is ample opportunity for great. The importance of structured, iconic characters that we are almost innately aware of from birth have been abandoned for an easy way out and what’s most frustrating is that the talent is there. Jason Byrne, Pappy’s, Brendan O’Carroll have all been given these opportunities for a reason, they’ve earned their right and it’s a waste to see it executed with such misguidance.
So why has there been such an upsurge of this style? Is it a presumption that in these dark and austere times we need to be reminded that our own unconventionality is acceptable? Are they the constant in an ever changing world? No, we have the Bake Off for all that. To be honest, I can’t quite get to the bottom of why they are in such high quantities at the moment, or why we want our telly smoothed out and fluffed up. We’ve lost our edge, our mojo, we’ve started wearing Marks and Spencers instead of Topshop; We’re stuck in an identity crisis. Settling for an absence of experimentalism means we have nothing from recent times that we can legitimately add to the canon of sitcoms that most Britons can reel off by heart. There are obviously exceptions, and they may probably outweigh my opinions, but there still needs to be a readjustment of our comedic expectations.
Most likely to blame is a misguided loyalty to nostalgia which needs to be forgotten. You don’t have to look and sound like something from the 70s to reach the same iconic status. You take what makes them great and make it relevant. Last night saw the start of James Corden and Matthew Baynton’s new creation, The Wrong Mans, which seems to have twigged on to this idea perfectly. It’s instantly distinctive and funny, both conventionally and untypically, and is a complete breath of fresh air.
From the start it looks more like an episode of The Killing rather than a classic British caper. But that’s the joy. It swish and sophisticated, polished and sharp, but at its heart the show is crammed full of the cosy British nuances we crave, right down to the classic mistaken identity trick. The balance here is just right and a compromise has been found between our quintessential sensibilities and solid comedy. It follow two unsuspecting men who become embroiled in the seedy criminal work of… Berkshire and are muddling their way through, sushi rolls and all. It’s about as wonky as living out your own action thriller in your head and it seamlessly marries different genres and styles together with great effect. It’s exciting and absurd, and lets the charm of the underdog play out on its own. Whatever you may think of Corden, he is ambitious. The show is, if nothing else, a shining example of someone trying something different.
A big heart and baffled protagonists is about as essential as British comedy gets, so there is hope. The Wrong Mans highlights just how important, and possible, it is to strike a balance between the gentle, silly, inclusive and broad comedy that there is no shame in liking, with writing that will stand out and last and this needs to be encourage more. At the moment we’re backing the wrong horses. Programmes like Him and Her, Fresh Meat and Roger and Val Have Just Got In are being shunned to the back benches because they’re a bit quirky, a bit thinky or a bit subtle. They are, most importantly though, original. Both new and familiar, they are what we should be embracing. America is seeing its own revival in sitcoms that have a true sense of themselves, trailblazing a bold and brave creativity with the likes of Louie, Girls, Orange is the New Black and Arrested Development proving effortlessly that there is no need to cling on for dear life to old formats and bad habits. Sod the rules, screw conventions, go out on a limb and do something unexpected.