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.

[i] Not Campus. Campus would have been doing very well to reach the level of a clichéd comedy.
[ii] A bye-law seems to have been passed forbidding reviews of Fresh Meat from omitting mention of either Campus or Peep Show. This blog plans to tow this line, Vichy-style.


Paris Match (Midnight in Paris)

Like all sentient beings from this planet and beyond, I prefer Woody Allen’s earlier, funny films. Actually, I tell a lie – my favourite Allens are found in the decade between Annie Hall and Hannah and her Sisters. Since then it’s been, to paint in very broad strokes, a long decline, with (increasingly fewer) excellent offerings (Crimes and Misdemeanours; Everyone Says I Love You), amusing miniatures and genre pieces (Curse of the Jade Scorpion; Bullets Over Broadway; Sweet and Lowdown), good ideas that only work to a certain extent (Hollywood Ending; Melinda and Melinda[i]) and some downright stinkers (September; Match Point; Vicky Cristina Barcelona[ii]).

Midnight in Paris is a hard film to fit into any of these loose categories. It has many of the expected Allen touches (star turns; a writer dissatisfied with both his commercial success and his relationship; loving shots of historic buildings and boulevards, presumably arranged in conjunction with the tourist board of the relevant European city). The conceit – Owen Wilson’s frustrated scribbler finds himself able to travel back to the Paris of Hemingway, the Fitzgeralds and the Lost Generation – is both lovely and recognisable as a variation on plot devices in other Allen films (most obviously The Purple Rose of Cairo). It’s also developed in a way that both brings out the theme and is easy to follow, proving that Allen is still capable of coming up with engrossing plots.

The passages between the present day and the gilded past are sweetly achieved – no effects or attempted explanations, just an old-time taxi cab crawling around a corner. The 1920s scenes are a little bit name-droppy, at times an elaborate game of émigré lit talent-spotting – Djuna Barnes pops up at one point – with artists ranging from Man Ray to Modigliani getting walk-on parts or mentions. I rather enjoyed this aspect of the film, but I can imagine if you’re in the wrong mood it would come across as smug, or even desperate to impress. Not a great deal happens in these scenes, but the atmosphere is every bit as bright and fragile as you’d expect. Watching them, I really wanted to be there, which is surely the highest praise you can give a film depicting high-class carousing.

The bigger problems are also familiar from Allen’s recent work. Some of the characters are too eager to state the point the film is obviously making; the treatment of Gil’s wife and her family is perfunctory to the point of being annoying; and, while very enjoyable and occasionally amusing, it is not particularly funny. One feels compelled to class it as a comedy, but perhaps an adjacent genre – light fantasy? – would more easily accommodate it. It hardly matters though; Midnight in Paris is, if not a triumph, then at least an accomplishment of charm over substance.

[i] Well, I thought it was a good idea anyway.
[ii] Face it, it was awful. Stop living in denial.


Toby or not Toby?

If asked for an antonym of ‘comic’, one might plump for ‘serious’, but it’s never been obvious to me that each excludes the other. Not only does some comedy concern serious themes, but it can be a serious examination of them, rather than frivolous light relief. The best character and situation comedy usually has a sincerity about it. Not only will the comedians, writers or actors take the characters seriously, but the piece will work only if the audience take them seriously as well. Hancock (the character from perhaps the first recognisable sitcom, not Will Smith’s grungy superhero) is in many ways a ridiculous character, and takes himself too seriously by far, but for the show to work the audience have to empathise with him.

I saw a lovely example of this approach to comedy in the second-last show I caught at the Fringe, Lucky, by the sketch duo Toby. Ostensibly, Lucky is a sketch show about a troupe struggling to put on a sketch show, falling out with each other over creative differences which are really personal, and so on. This is a familiar device, to the point where any troupe using it need to add some sort of spin of their own to make it worth their (and our) while. One easy way to do this is by making the characters in the sketch troupe, the ones struggling to stage the show-within-the-show, as oddball and different from each other as possible.

Toby do this, in that the on-stage characters are very different; they are also sisters (Sarah and Lizzie Daykin), which itself adds a certain frisson to their exchanges. The basic dynamic between the two is relatively simple: Lizzie’s resentment simmers as Sarah hogs sketches and proclaims her greatness to the audience. However, the duo also do something much more interesting: they take these characters very seriously. This is the first sketch show of this sort I’ve seen where the characters struggling to stage the show are written and acted with enough detail and concern to make their plight genuinely poignant. It’s still comedy, mind, but it’s slow-burn stuff, particularly during the numerous pauses and awkward moments between the two. These are employed to wonderful effect in the sketches the two stage, where the relationship between them warps the performances without, for the most part, being referred to. (Lucky is one of the few sketch shows of which it can be truly be said that none of the material would work as well performed on its own.) In the sketch where they play a married couple, Sarah (the wife) browbeats her husband, who for the most part sits silently. Lizzie’s one lengthy speech in this scene, a story told to the unseen waiter, is a lovely little character detail, showing us the character’s predicament without having him or his wife refer to it it. The hugely exaggerated pause while his wife reads the menu is the funniest bit of the sketch, but it is all the funnier for coming from such a finely crafted scenario.

There are probably a dozen other moments in the show like this one, where the characters don’t do or say anything funny but the comedy comes anyway, from who they are, their mannerisms, and the show’s inevitable spiral into disaster. It’s a high-risk strategy, eschewing the basic set-up/punchline structure for something more slanted and tangential, but Toby make it work every time.


I Know, It’s Serious (Coma Girl, Channel 4; Totally Tom, E4)

Television showcases, box of chocolates, never know what you’re going to get – you know the drill.

Channel 4 and E4 screened what were in effect two very different pitches to commissioning editors. Coma Girls, written by Abigail Wilson, went for the slow burn, with a lot of character detail and humour pitched in a generally low key (small incidents, generating smiles rather than laughs). It benefitted from an exemplary cast, and showed a willingness to play with sitcom conventions, particularly in the portrayal of the comatose Lucy (Anna Crilly, whose onstage partner Katy Wix plays one of her friends). It also wasn’t afraid to spend long stretches fitting the situation together without throwing out a joke every twenty seconds to keep our attention.

The danger with slow burn comedy is that the fuse goes out before anything has a chance to explode. This, unfortunately, was the case here. There was no moment at which the awkwardness and the difficulty of how the characters had been brought together emerged as the uncomfortable comedy which was threatened. It all felt too polite, and not as interesting as it appeared – the use of the soundtrack was rather faux-indie-movie, as were the scenes with Crilly. It might be that this needs a longer running time to tease out the ideas (this is often a feature of very character-based, relatively slow-paced comedy). But it is also possible that the ideas might not be sharp enough to be stretched over a full run.

Totally Tom, on the other hand, made it quite clear that they craved our laughter, bombarding us with silly accents, cultural references and outsized acting galore. Toms Palmer and Stourtan are both capable performers, but some of the relatively lengthy sketches (particularly the riff on Trainspotting) could have benefitted from more sober direction. But a larger problem was the rather familiar feel of the material and the approach taken (take familiar television/movie scenario, insert silliness and/or inappropriate locale, ferment comedy). Coma Girl, whatever reservations one might have, is clearly a fully thought-out show, with an unusual take on the sitcom format. Totally Tom felt like a (well-made) first draft, with little to distinguish it from many other television sketch shows. This isn’t to say it’s rubbish – worse shows have been commissioned (and recommissioned). But I wouldn’t have any great desire to see any more of this, at the moment anyway; whereas I think I would watch another episode of Coma Girl.