Look, we’re really sorry for the delay. We’d written a massive update last week, really we had, but then our dog went and ate our computer. Or something. Anyway, here are three thousand words about eight television programmes.
Oh, and also, we’re aware all this is getting a bit disjointed if you want to read the entire rundown in one go. We’re working on compiling them into a more manageable format. Stay tuned for that.
Craig Cash and Phil Mealey took the concept integral to the success of The Royle Family – dipping into the life of a working class family in north-west England for unexpurgated half-hourly spells – and relocated the action (such as it is) to small Manchester boozer The Grapes. Each week saw, well, not very much actually happen. One character might get a little more self-confidence with regards to asking out the woman he fancies, another character might move another half-inch closer to getting back together with his wife, but in general, nothing really happens. Only the finale of each series hinted at any real excitement – and even then, as with the trip to (and return from) the races at the end of series one, any action taking place outside of the pub simply wasn’t shown.
And yet – as you might have guessed, what with it being on this list – it all worked really rather well, despite the non-involvement of Caroline Aherne, as had originally been planned. Shifting the action from a single family to a public house allowed for a greater range of characters, able to dip in and out of episodes wherever necessary. John “The Cops” Henshaw put in a marvellous performance as landlord Ken, aided to varying degrees by his step-daughter Melanie, barmaid Tanya and his scheming mum Jean, with miserable old sod Tommy, dim but relentlessly cheery couple Eddie and Joan, Joe and Duffy, two blokes stumbling blissfully unaware towards middle age (played by writers Cash and Mealey), and flirty single mum Janice generally to be found on the other side of the pumps. Throw in weekly visits from crooked coppers Phil and Nige, alongside acerbic cleaner Winnie and Melanie’s current beau (played by James McAvoy in the first series), and you’ll realise how much can be done without anything really happening.
Early Doors bags a place at the deep end of our list mainly due to the magnificence of the first series. While the second series was still very enjoyable, it did tend to slip into autopilot a little too often – indeed Craig Cash seemed to have forgotten to give his own character anything to do, generally only being there to mutter “bluddy ‘ell” as a footnote to someone’s else's comments. Nitpicky misgivings aside, Early Doors was a brilliant little show, and hopefully one still ripe for a comeback.
See also: Sunshine (BBC One, 2008). Also written by Craig Cash and Phil Mealey, this miniseries saw Steve Coogan’s character – Manchester binman Bob “Bing” Crosby – struggle to cope with his gambling addiction, with quite entertaining consequences.
“And now on BBC Two, it’s time to… Look Around You.” A glorious tribute to television of yesteryear, no matter which of the two series you’re looking at. The first series of shorts, a parody of 1970s/1980s ITV Programmes For Schools And Colleges (replete with white-on-blue-background countdown clock and musak), was absolutely packed with funny little blink-and-you’ll-miss-‘em asides, like the bottle labelled “music”, the band names scribbled on the pencil case containing Garry Gum, or the answer to a puzzler being “an eighthpence”. The second series took a different direction, parodying early 1980s Tomorrow’s World style primetime science programming. Perhaps understandably, what with the extended thirty-minute timeslot, the latter series wasn’t quite as packed with gags, but there was still plenty to enjoy for the keen-eyed viewer, such as the rundown of programmes for St. Frankenstein’s Day, or “HRH Sir Prince Charles”.
Because we’re objectionable TV spods, we can’t help but point out the fact almost all of the presentation was spot-on as well, with authentically lo-fi captions, the old “==2==” BBC-2 ident before each episode, and the programme was even broadcast in the 4:3 aspect ratio. No mean feat in the age of (gngh) “BBC End Credit Guidelines” and the like.
A horror-drama that quite frankly deserved better than to be chucked out on consecutive nights on E4. Remember E4? The channel that was meant to be “Britain’s HBO” when originally planned? And which now contains little more than repeats of Scrubs, Hollyoaks, Friends and anything else Channel Four have got cluttering up their US imports cupboard? It’s still going, apparently.
Anyway, Dead Set. Big Brother meets Shaun Of The Dead, if you must. Writer Charlie Brooker restricted all of his stock “you stupid titted idiot!” sarcasm to the one character, shitbag producer Patrick, allowing everyone else to concentrate on running around, getting killed, fighting back, or standing around being completely oblivious, depending on where they were during the initial outbreak. Yes, yes, Davina McCall was better than you might have expected in it, but we were more pleased to see Kevin Eldon’s character make it all the way to the final episode, given we were sure he’d be killed of after doing something stupid in episode two.
In Peep Show, Mr Mitchell and Mr Webb regularly delighted the million or so viewers who tuned in every week. But, for some reason, rarely many more than a million, even when Mitchell and Webb appeared on Soccer AM to plug the third series (during which Tim Lovejoy claimed he loved the show, but hadn’t seen the then-current series as he was Sky-Plussing them all to watch in one go later on, which is special TV presenter speak for “I have never seen your programme”). When it was announced Mitchell and Webb would be taking on a BBC Two sketch show , Peep Show fans were – we’re assuming without an ounce of proof – a little apprehensive. After all, Peep Show saw the duo play characters not a billion miles away from their own individual personas – could they slide into a variety of wacky characters convincingly? And there was to be a pool of writers for the show – would it lose the coherence that Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain brought to Peep Show?
(Reader’s voice: “Stop saying “Peep Show”. You’re not writing about Peep Show yet.”)
Well, as people sexy and brilliant enough to have watched The Mitchell and Webb Situation on Play UK and to have listened to That Mitchell and Webb Sound on Radio Four could have told them, “yes they could” and “no it wouldn’t”, in that order. Well, maybe a tiny bit with the latter, but not enough to really matter. When it comes to BBC Two sketch-based comedy, our quality benchmark is generally A Bit Of Fry Ampersand Laurie. After enjoying “…Sound” hugely, the first series of the television translation went reasonably well. Maybe we’re still a bit grumpy that when radio sketches were re-used, they tended to choose the slightly less good ones. Even so, the enjoyable but slightly uneven first series(really, was there a need to shove out Numberwang every blimmin’ week?) wasn’t too far behind the similarly not-quite-there-yet first series of ‘A Bit Of…’ (really, did they have to end that many sketches by breaking the fourth wall?).
2008 saw a second series, which we’d say dipped below the standards of the first (where, as every schoolboy knows, Fry & Laurie really stepped up a gear for their second set of shows – don’t make us put all this in a chart), but with the third series of That Mitchell & Webb Look, we saw a real improvement. Indeed, by series three, the translations of some brilliant radio sketches were practically being tossed away on The Red Button extras (aka “Tough Luck If You’re Recording The Series And You’ve Got Sky Plus, As You Can’t Record The Red Button” extras). Maybe we do need to put all this in a chart.
There. So, we’re scoring series two of Fry & Laurie at 0.83, with series three of Mitchell & Webb very nearly matching it. A remarkable result. As everyone knows, series four of F&L saw a dip in quality (though it was still very good) – can Mitchell and Webb avoid doing the same? Time will tell.
Wish we’d thought of doing charts about thirty entries ago. It would have saved us loads of time. And as far Mitchell and Webb, it would have been fantastic if they’d had the gall to do a television version of the radio sketch (Series 2, episode 2) where the party planners basically slag off Greg Dyke for four minutes.
Used as one of the flagship shows for the then-new Virgin1 channel in the UK, The Riches followed the exploits of the Malloy family, a group of travelling con artists who, taking on the identities of the recently deceased Rich family, try to fake their way through life in Edenfalls, an exclusive gated community. Eddie Izzard and Minnie Driver put in impressive performances as husband and disillusioned drifter Wayne (or “Doug”), and recently paroled recovering meth addict wife Dahlia (or “Cherien”), alongside kids Cael (played by Dirk Kuyt lookalike Noel Fisher), Di Di (Shannon Marie Woodward) and Sam (Aidan Mitchell).
The initial premise – family of travellers try to get by in an uptight community without being detected while Wayne struggles to hold down a job as a legal counsel at a large real estate firm – could easily have been enough to see out a good few seasons, but thrown into the mix are the remainder of the Malloy clan – most notably the sociopathic Dale, cousin and intended husband of Dahlia, who is determined to take revenge on Wayne by any means necessary. Meanwhile, the three Malloy children struggle to fit in at the uber-snobbish Rosemere Academy, and everyone is wary that people from the past lives of the real Riches could turn up at any moment.
The sight of Izzard playing an American – and thankfully, he does a much better job here than he did in Mystery Men – takes a little getting used to, but it’s something you soon get used to, especially once Wayne/Doug turns on the charm in his new job. Minnie Driver slides into the role of Dahlia/Cherien brilliantly, with the character struggling to fit into her new pretend persona whilst still having trouble juggling the numerous problems Dahlia has been hiding from her family. The characters of Cael, Di Di and Sam are anything but an afterthought too, with the actors playing them making the most out of their individual situations. Shannon Marie Woodward is especially good in her role of Di Di.
Throw in the well-rounded personalities of neighbours Jim and Nina (Bruce French and Margo Martindale) – both growing weary of living a lie of their own, and the various characters at Panco Real Estate, and you’ve got a drama series that really deserved to survive for much longer than a mere one-and-a-half seasons. Due to the 2007-8 WGA strike, season two lasted for just seven episodes, leaving the action in what would have been mid-season. Sadly, lacklustre viewing figures led to FX cancelling the show, leaving the plot hanging in the middle of what we believe is called a “game-changer”. Hopefully, plans for a one-off movie to tie up all the loose ends will come to fruition, and we won’t have seen the last of the Malloys.
We’ve gone on about Craig Ferguson a few times before now, which is handy because we can just re-use bits of our earlier posts on The Late Late Show.
After early stand-up performances as Bing Hitler, occasional guest appearances in shows like Red Dwarf, Chelmsford 123 and One Foot In The Algarve, and a one-off Sunday night pilot for ITV, Ferguson landed his first full series on BBC2 in 1993, called The Ferguson Theory. Despite imdb claiming two series existed, we’re fairly sure it only lasted for one, and that we only managed to catch the last episode of it. Providing it is the show we’re thinking of, it ended with a musical montage of clips, followed by the exchange “That’s your party tape?” “Aye. The party’s crap.” We may be wrong, there.
In 1994, Ferguson moved to the USA, taking in a few small parts in sitcoms before landing a key role in what we’ll forever refer to as The Criminally Underrated Drew Carey Show. Despite putting on what he gleefully admits to being a terrible English accent throughout much of the shows eight seasons, he was a hit, and was soon a minor darling of the talk show circuit, occasionally standing in as guest host (for Craig Kilborn) on post-Letterman jabberfest The Late Late Show.
In December 2004, Ferguson became the full-time host of The Late Late Show, replacing a Hollywood bound Kilborn. And do you know what? He’s bloody good at it. Thanks to YouTube we can check out how Craig Ferguson will happily open shows by miming to They Might Be Giants records, by calling non-voters morons, or (and this is an important bit) by performing one of the greatest opening monologues ever:
The YouTube video we’ve linked to right there is the reason we’ve got a huge amount of time for Craig Ferguson. That and the fact he still avoids pronouncing his first name as “Creg” to try and fit in with the US audience (seriously, we’d have expected it to be one of the conditions of his US citizenship). Annoyingly, Craig Ferguson’s chat show is the only one of the “big four” never really given an outing in the UK. Whereas weekly compilations of both ‘The Tonight Show’ and ‘Late Night’ pop up on CNBC at weekends, and Letterman has been tried out about half a dozen digital channels to diminishing audience figures, we think the only time The Late Late Show with Britain’s own Craig Ferguson has been seen at all over here is when a specially recorded monologue clip made up part of the Family Guy episode “We Love You, Conrad”.
And do you know what? It’s a shame the size of three buses. Given how most of each show is just Craig Ferguson being relentlessly and wonderfully silly, it should go down a storm to the fifty thousand viewers or so likely to give it a go (hey, it’s hardly going to be a ratings smash, and this is a nation where a show with 2000 viewers can make the weekly top ten for some digital channels). Come on, someone. Give it a go.
Life on Mars managed to be something which has been all too rare on British television – a high concept crime drama that remains captivating and popular over a prolonged period. Anyone for a box set of Crime Traveller? Space Cops? Paradox? Thought not. When it came to the escapades of DI Sam Tyler, the audience was largely hooked from start to finish, even when the plot of each episode started to get a little formulaic (oh, it turns out the only character we’ve been introduced to this episode, but who hasn’t had much to do yet, did it? Gosh).
Instead, the most compelling aspect of the show wasn’t really the crime of the week, but rather the situations it would put Sam, Gene Hunt, Annie, Ray and Chris into. Each episode’s “next week” trailer would allow us to roll the thought of marvellous situations – like Sam and Annie going undercover at a wife-swapping party only for Gene Hunt to gatecrash with a floozy in tow – around in our heads for a week until we could see how it all pans out. Precisely how they’d arrive at these situations didn’t seem to matter too much – the crime could have been reported to the station by a cartoon duck as far as we were concerned, as long as it’d give Gene Hunt an excuse to dish out bollockings and one-liners.
It certainly helped that the both lead actors John Simm and Philip Glenister, with Liz White not too far behind, put in brilliant performances each week. This is highlighted by the glossy-but-underwhelming US remake, which aside from having a better money shot in the first episode (US Sam realises he is back in 1973 when he notices the still-standing World Trade Center looming over him, UK Sam merely gets a slightly unrealistic billboard announcing a new motorway), is inferior in pretty much every regard. Compare Philip Glenister’s authentic tough guy portrayal of Gene Hunt with Harvel Keitel’s ‘angry short bloke with Napoleon Complex looking to start a pub fight’ remix of the character, then throw in Jason O’Mara – Sam Tyler as former high school jock. Wrong. And that’s before you look at the respective endings each each version – one involving (SPOILERS) the suicide of the lead character, one involving an actual manned trip to Mars. You can probably guess which is which.
See Also: Ashes To Ashes. The inevitably disappointing follow-up to Life On Mars, but once this had found its feet, it blossomed into a very, very good programme it its own right. Admittedly, Gene Hunt had become a little more sitcom-cop than he had been previously, but the second series was almost up there with the first series of Life On Mars. If you’re one of the many to have given up on Ashes after the first few episodes, give the second series a go before the third and final series kicks off.
What was that we’d said about high-concept crime drama? Awkward, geeky, floppy-haired, writer’s-block-stymied drifter, who finds comfort in reading Raymond Chandler novels decides to bluff his way through being a modern day Philip Marlowe on the streets of Brooklyn, if only so he'll meet people in his cold, emotionless city that he can really talk to. Ignoring the fact HBO might well owe us compensation for image rights, this is a brilliant premise for a show, and happily, the execution is as good as the idea.
Jason “Oh, Sorry, I Thought You Were Demetri Martin” Schwartzman stars as Jonathan Ames, with stand-up Zach “Copy-Pasted Surname” Galifianakis as his best friend Ray, and Ted Danson putting in a great turn as George, Jonathan’s neurotic and eternally bored multi-millionaire editor . Schwartzman is perfect in the role of The Stoned Detective, bumbling from one case to another, trying to seem as rugged as he can in front of female clients whilst ordering a glass of white wine at the bar (“I avoid the wagon by drinking white wine. It actually has a very low alcohol content”), or fretting over whether the dame he’d just bedded had an orgasm. Ray helps out where possible, providing his girlfriend lets him borrow her SUV, while George is always likely to distract Ames at the most inconvenient of moments, demanding his company on the flimsiest of pretences.
The entire programme fits together wonderfully well, with entire episodes able to pass by without the central premise even being touched on (as early as the third episode, too – a brave move for a new show), without it becoming any less entertaining. Hopefully, this is one that can run and run. Given its impressive ratings for HBO, reportedly adding new viewers with every episode, this will be the case. Fingers crossed for it being picked up by BBC Four soon.