Fresh Feeling? (Fresh Meat, Channel 4)
For many people watching Fresh Meat, it will serve both as a warning and a tantalising suggestion of the squalid glamour of university life. For others, it is a reminder of things we would often prefer to forget, be they grotty student houses or clichéd campus comedies.[i] [ii]When a sitcom is focused on such a narrow slice of life, one’s experiences and expectations of its subject-matter are going to play an important part in how one feels about it. It’s not just a matter of perspective, though. After all, Fresh Meat has garnered generally positive notices from reviewers whose salad days are presumably behind them. Hopefully it’s not just ageist bias or a fuddy-duddy distaste for Young People Today that’s at work when I suggest that this meat is a little undercooked.
Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong’s ouvre includes the peerless Peep Show, which at its best perfected a blend of awkwardness, stupidity and pithy dialogue. Their latest offering takes the same ingredients and pours them into a house with seven students, plus forays to the pub and an English tutorial. But Peep Show worked not because of the first-person gimmick or because it was set in a particularly interesting situation, but because the main characters were developed far enough beyond their respective stereotypes. With this in mind, we should give Fresh Meat a chance to uncover any nuance hidden in its humdrum setup. But going on the first episode, the signs aren’t great. Most of the characters seemed pretty thin, their interactions rarely sparked, and perhaps oddly for a show with such a tight ‘sit’, it lacks as yet the focus of a central conflict or relationship.
Joe Thomas (Kingsley) and Jake Whitehall (JP) came closest to providing a fulcrum. Whitehall’s public-school monstrosity had the best lines going, Thomas the most properly-developed character. It is telling that their exchanges most resembled those familiar from Peep Show; if any of the housemates are going to lodge themselves in the popular consciousness à la Mark and Jeremy, my money is on these two.
None of the other characters seemed to be figured out. Greg McHugh (Howard) – one half of Will and Greg, one of my favourite sketch shows – over-sold every line, perhaps under instruction to appear weirder than anyone else. The most obvious pitch at awkward comedy, the exchanges between Vod (Zawe Ashton) and Oregon (Charlotte Ritchie) didn’t work for the opposite reason. Neither character was sharply defined enough to create the tension required. Ritchie was too polite to be nervous, Ashton too relaxed to come across as taking advantage of her.
Early days, you’ll agree. But speaking as someone who has to teach specimens not too far removed from those on display here, I can tell you that you learn to sniff out the over-achievers and no-hopers quite early. Fresh Meat falls into neither category, as of yet. For all that, I have my suspicions.