Richey Nash says there's a gaping hole in the schedules where innovative Brit sitcom should be
British sitcom is stuck in a rut and it’s going to take more than the latest offerings from Jack Dee and Ricky Gervais to save it. Okay, so Lead Balloon and the second series of Extras are both groundbreaking in terms of what this country’s produced before. Both Dee and Gervais are playing fictional characters that are, essentially, worse versions of who they are in ‘real life’: surly struggling stand-up Rick Spleen and struggling sitcom scribbler Andy Millman respectively. But we’ve seen both done before and done better.
Jack Dee is only just starting to bring to the sitcom what Larry David has been doing for over five years with Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Larry David did it better. Don’t get me wrong, I really like Jack Dee, but his show doesn’t quite ring true. Is his best friend in real life really an annoying pearly-toothed American? I doubt it. And in any case, there’s always the knowledge that Dee isn’t being Dee, just a ripped-off reconstituted version of himself.
In CYE, on the other hand, you believe that Cheryl is Larry’s wife and you believed Jeff is his manager. And because Larry David is playing Larry David, you believe more in the main character too. If you are going to have people getting into awkward situations, then the more believable they are, the better.
And the second series of Extras harks even further back, to Larry David’s other masterpiece: Seinfeld. This year Gervais has written a show about a guy writing a really bad sitcom, but Seinfeld was doing it better in 1992.
Gervais is using the sitcom in Extras to take the piss out of bad sitcoms. But when Seinfeld and George Costanza go to NBC in the third episode of the fourth series and pitch a ‘show about nothing’, it is clear they are also taking the piss out of the show they are already on.
If it were a competition to find the funnier idea, Seinfeld would win easily. First, audiences warm to self-deprecation. And second, laughing at Seinfeld makes the audience feel clever while laughing at Extras makes the audience feel stupid. On the rare occasions I felt like laughing at the second series of Extras, I had an ominous feeling that Gervais would push his finger through the TV and castigate me for doing so.
Ultimately Lead Balloon and Extras have shown that sitcom has gone too far towards the ‘sit’ and away from the ‘com’. While the jokes were as important as the situations in The Office and I’m Alan Partridge, now the jokes have been sidelined as we try to watch people try to squirm out of awkward situations. But watching the squirming is not always funny so ideally there should be something more.
But trying to imitate what Larry David has done shows up a far bigger problem for British TV comedy: there aren’t any mavericks. Chris Morris used to be held up as one, but is unlikely to ever come back with anything as good as The Day Today or Brass Eye.
So who is out there doing something completely fresh? The League Of Gentlemen have started making crap films, the Father Ted guys have lowered themselves to The IT Crowd, and though Peep Show is good, at heart it’s really quite conventional. And while The Thick Of It was good, will it ever return? Nobody knows. But one thing is clear: in a world where Little Britain can sell out stadia, where you can’t get through a night of TV without being confronted by Jimmy Carr’s evil insidious presence, then something is dreadfully wrong.