With that inelegant title out of the way, allow me to apologise for not having written anything in about three weeks – I’ve had quite a lot of work to get through, which shouldn’t really surprise me as much as it did – and to make up for it with a brief, tokenistic round-up of what’s been on TV recently that isn’t Fresh Meat.
Louis Theroux, knowingly summarised as the closest thing to ‘a white British superhero’ by the people at Stuff White Brits Like, surfaced repeatedly in my life in France last year as a stick with which to unfairly beat Americans. Our US friends were of course much more open-minded than the usual cast of characters on the average Theroux documentary – racists, criminals, or just common or garden lunatics – and his recent adventure, America’s Most Dangerous Pets, features a reassuringly terrifying amount of blinkered egomaniacs. Tim from Indiana, for example; a man who announces in front of his wife that he doesn’t trust or respect her, or ‘any human being on this planet’, before demonstrating his understanding of what can be trusted and respected by surprising Louis with a Siberian tiger on a plainly-inefficient leash. ‘We should probably have talked this through,’ he stammers, presumably less than confident of the efficacy of his famous Socratic irony against a set of sharp feline teeth.
But by far the most interesting interviewee is the one who conforms least to type; Joe Exotic, owner of an Oklahoma animal shelter in which more than 150 tigers are arranged around his brother’s grave. Joe seems to have a genuine love for animals, rescuing them from clearly inappropriate enclosures in private homes to live out their already-ruined lives in relative peace (though PETA might disagree). The problem is that in order to fund his rescue programme, he is in the position of having to breed new pets – ‘surplus tigers’, as Louis describes them – to sell to irresponsible rednecks at a tacky roadshow. The show could go deeper into the cognitive dissonance between Joe’s deep affection for his charges and the financial necessity of his collusion in a system that creates their misery; it’s a psychic split of the kind that forms the heart of multiple Shakespearean tragedies. In which case, how much blame do we assign to the thoughtless and frequently unstable owners, hovering at the edges of Joe’s tale like Macbeth’s witches?
I’m discussing tragedy partly because of a conservation I had in August, at an Edinburgh Q&A with Ricky Gervais and Warwick Davis about their new sitcom, Life’s Too Short. My question was about the masterful Extras Christmas special, and for that matter those of The Office, and how its writer handled the script’s gear-shift from comedy to ‘serious’ drama; what interaction he saw between the modes of writing. His response deepened the respect I already had for the thought and artistry that goes into his best work; in brief, that his stories follow the form of a friendship, where all the months spent in joking and banter with another human being are what make it possible for them to comfort you through the loss of a parent. Attending the event with a friend whose father had recently died, we were both moved by Gervais’s answer, and left the venue with a new appreciation of how moving the best comedy can, and ought, to be. (Cf: Fresh Meat, Community). All of which makes it hard for me to review the premiere of that series, recent ill-timed forays into the thorny intersections of disability, language change, and ‘offence’ in comedy aside.
There is very little that is actually offensive about Life’s Too Short, as anyone familiar with what Gervais and Merchant’s writing actually does, outside of media caricatures, ought to expect. Yes, there’s some physical slapstick when a short man falls out of a big car – but the joke is not at the expense of his height, but at the delusions of grandeur leading the character to buy a vehicle so impressively large that it is not suited to his physical needs. Likewise, when the fictional Davis (uncannily, and some have said predictably, like a shorter David Brent) is unable to reach a door-bell, the humour comes partly from the frustration of living in a world not designed for the disabled, and partly from the character gag that Davis is so irritating to the office’s occupants, a fictionalised Gervais and Merchant, that they have deliberately moved it out of his reach. Of course, this is comic cruelty, but the point is that it isn’t the work of an effaced creator setting up inevitable pratfalls; as always in Gervais, we see characters being cruel to each other because of their own flaws and failings; we see characters acting in an offensive manner because of their own inability to learn and adapt to the codes of a changing society (Brent’s unthinking racism, Maggie’s repeated squeamishness) rather than because an unseen author thinks being racist has a pure and simple comic appeal. None of which excuses the obvious misjudgement of Gervais’s own Twitter antics, offensive, ironically, because he fell prey to the same trap as most of his creations.
The problem here, however, is that Life also falls short of the structure Gervais’s own comments in August made clear; the balance between comedy and sadness is, from the start, off-kilter. The character of Davis, like Brent, is unlikeable, but unlike Brent, for the first twenty minutes, says very little that is linguistically or situationally funny, and very much that is sad, depressing, and bleak. There is no comedic stair-rail to lead us down into the tragic basement that appears to have become Warwick Davis’s life, and as such we jump straight into full-on sadness without the jokes and funny conversations that bring us smoothly to an acceptance of its place. To use his own rhetoric, it’s like finding out someone we don’t know has died – undoubtedly upsetting as it is, it doesn’t fit into our own life story, and as such it seems isolated and separate, an end without a beginning or a middle. It’s a sad fact that this kind of discovery is all too easy to move on from. And then Liam Neeson turns up, announcing he wants to become a comedian, and we get ten minutes of deadpan hilarity that could have come straight of Extras. It’s great, and I’ll watch the series for these moments alone, although of course I do still want to see how the tone and balance develop. But at the moment, it’s out of place – it’s great, but it belongs elsewhere.
Equally out of place (seamless) is Adam Smallbone in the second series of Rev, by Tom Hollander and James Wood; a fundamentally good-hearted Anglican vicar trying to negotiate the moral greyness and godless distractions of the apathetic, secular modern world. It’s a comedy with heart and soul, in all senses, and although compared to Gervais it might seem low-key – a sentence it seems strange to write – the writing is consistently strong, warm and far from pious. It has a core of sadness that comes from the murkiness of ethical reality, of juggling soul and body, work and relationships, belief and doubt. It’s better for it, and, though slightly out-of-sync with the concerns of much recent comedy, I assure you it’s funny too.