There’s a common myth among British TV critics that there’s a common myth among British TV viewers that British TV comedies are superior to American ones. In fact, we know perfectly well that The Simpsons, Friends, Frasier, South Park, Seinfeld etc are superior in terms of consistency and longevity to anything we’ve produced. We buy the box sets, after all. British TV is good at quirky little innovative things like The Office, Spaced or Miranda, fostered primarily in the stand-up circuit (the one comedy area where Blighty really is unrivalled), which briefly burn bright and then die. America produces the mega-comedies. And given the different systems – Britain favouring individual talents; America pumping money and hot writing teams into successes – that’s pretty much what you’d expect.
But perhaps there’s another myth, on the other side of the Pond: an Anglophile American one that British TV is a utopia for the the auteur writer, where the laissez-faire, anti-populist attitudes of the programme commissioners allow talent to flourish unmolested, with soaring quality the result (thus, Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps). That Episodes (BBC2 Monday nights, 10pm) was written by an American duo – creators of Friends and Mad About You – suggests such a myth.
Episodes is David Crane and Jefrey Klarik’s revenge on a Hollywood studio system that is “ ruled by fear”. Made and mostly filmed in England, it follows a husband-and-wife writing team whose classy public school-set sitcom Lyman’s Boys wins critical awards in Britain, gets picked up by an American studio and is subsequently bastardized into unrecognisability by ratings-chasing bosses.
That, at least, is the set-up in episode 1 and if it seems a little comedy-world onanistic, well that’s because it is; and it also employs the modish technique of blurring reality and fiction (with Matt LeBlanc playing a version of himself). All of which could equally be said of The Trip, but the only thing that ultimately matters is: is it funny? The Trip was, and Episodes is too, episodically, as a comedy of Anglo-American manners playing on the “two countries divided by a common language” theme. There are some decent sitcommy gags (a giant bath that takes so long to fill it kills the couple’s desire for some soapy passion), and a rather laboured scene involving an officious security guard, but the key moments are two excellent set-pieces.
The first is the meeting at the TV studio when the couple (Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Greig) discover that the boss who has flattered and flown them to Hollywood has in fact never seen their show (“Um, there is a chance Merc may not have actually seen your show…I’m not saying that he hasn’t seen it.” “Has he seen it?” “No.”) and they get the first glimpse of the utter disillusionment to come.
The second is the audition by Julian Bullard (Richard Griffiths) for the lead role of Lyman. A Royal Shakespeare veteran, Bullard ‘is’ the show in the British version, and has already taken the insult of having to audition in good grace, assuming it to be a tiresome formality. Strolling calmly in, he brings the house down with his impeccable performance as the crusty schoolmaster. But then boss Merc demands he be ‘less English’ because ‘we want people to like him’. Julian attacks it with confidence, but suddenly, with an American accent, he just isn’t funny anymore: he’s cranky or creepy. It’s a brilliant piece of acting by Griffiths, as he runs with increasing desperation through his repertoire of Deep South drawls.
There’s an odd thing about all this, however. Are we meant to just laugh at how ignorant and unsophisticated Merc is? Because I was rather on his side. In the context of an American school the English Lyman would indeed be unlikeable – insufferably snobbish and his gentle ironies would be nasty underhand jibes. Merc was right. If the writers Crane and Klarik intended this degree of subtlely, then it’s impressive.
We’ll see how it turns out, but so far it looks like a contender. Mangan and Grieg do well as the polar opposite of their personae in Green Wing (he’s dopily sympathetic, she’s hard and harsh), and things may well pick up when Matt Le Blanc gets involved next week. Worth a look.