Saturday, November 10, 2007

No Laughing Matter!

Whatever happened to British television comedy?

Once upon a time, you could always count on at least one or two sitcoms and a clutch of sketch shows each week guaranteed to raise a chuckle or two. From the chilly vantage point of Autumn 2007, those days seem a very long way off in the distance. The great British sitcom has all but bitten the dust, replaced by an increasingly desperate string of fourth-raters usually emanating from BBC Three - maybe it's a generational thing, but the likes of the inexplicably popular Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps [unpleasant 20-somethings shouting loudly at each other for half an hour a week] and Gavin & Stacey have both left me cold and sketch shows like Tittybangbang, Touch Me, I'm Karen Taylor and the truly awful Little Miss Jocelyn are often as incomprehensible as they are unfunny. Even the return of two of the giants of British sketch comedy, Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse in Ruddy Hell! It's Harry and Paul proved to be agonizingly embarrassing.

But it's not all bad news. Amid the hours of dross that pass themselves off as sitcoms these days [yes Not Going Out, The Green Green Grass, After You've Gone, Ideal et al, I am looking at you] there are the occasional gems to be found, chief among them the brilliant The Mighty Boosh [returning for a third series this very week] and the subject of one our current competitions, Peep Show.

A vehicle for David Mitchell and Robert Webb, it takes the same basic ideas as The Odd Couple and takes them off in unexpected directions. The basic idea is that two twenty-somethings, Mark [Mitchell] and Jeremy [Webb] who met at university are now sharing a flat in Croydon, south London. What makes the show stand out is the way that the various stories are all told from a first person perspective, the camera switching backwards and forwards between the viewpoints of the two main characters as they go about their daily lives.

Peep Show could so easily be dismissed as unnecessarily gimmicky on first viewing which would be doing this marvelously inventive and often incisive show a grave disservice. And far too many people did it seems - Series Four [currently running as a competition prize over at the main EOFFTV site] almost didn't happen at all when bosses at broadcasters Channel Four were unsure of commissioning a fourth batch of episodes due to consistently low viewing figures. Thankfully, they opted to go for it and Season Four proved to be a much stronger set of episodes than those in the rather tired-looking Series Three.

The themes of loneliness and alienation that ran through the first couple of years of Peep Show have here been replaced by the fear of being trapped in a relationship that is patently doomed from the very start. The series kicks off in high style with the wonderful Sophie's Parents, in which Mark reacts to a weekend at the country estate of his new girlfriend's parents in the only way he know how while Jeremy adds to the chaos by sleeping with Sophie's mum. From there on, Series Four charts Marks increasingly horrible realization that he's heading for a marriage to someone he actually hates.

Series Four ends with closure of a sort which makes it odd and perhaps regrettable that a Series Five has already been commissioned - great news that we're going to get to see more of Mark and Jeremy but worrying that it might undo the sense of an ending that Series Four provided.

Peep Show has been running on Channel Four since 2003 and demonstrates that the once daring and innovative channel [celebrating its 25th anniversary this year] hasn't entirely succumbed to tedious reality shows and endlessly recycled American imports. Other recent Four winners have included the brilliant Black Books and Garth Marenghi's Darkplace. Blessed with spot-on performances from Mitchell and Webb [so much funnier here than in their hit-or-mostly-miss sketch show That Mitchell and Webb Look] and genuinely witty, always insightful and even sometimes coruscating scripts from Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain, Peep Show suggests that there is hope for small screen British comedy, that it's not all going to be talentless people shouting at each other in silly voices or lame retreads of already well-worn sitcom ideas.


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