Top 3 British comedies you need to see

March 25th, 2010

3. Garth Marenghi’s Dark Place

(Photo via Channel 4)

Starring: Matt Holness, Richard Ayoade, Matt Berry, and Alice Lowe.
Written by Matt Holness and Richard Ayoade
Show length: 1 season, 6 episodes, 2004
Favorite episode: #2

At first glance, this show appears to be a poorly done 80’s British prime time drama that incorporates elements of the supernatural. In a way, that is true. Garth Marenghi’s Dark Place was actually created in 2004 as a parody of bad made-for-tv adaptations of horror novels (coughstephenkingcough).

It’s a little confusing to describe the plot because it is a show-within-a-show. The four real actors (listed above) play four fictional actors who in turn play characters on a show. The real actors are never explicitly mentioned – the opening credits and back story specifically refer to the fictional actors as if they’re real.

The premise is that in 1984, successful horror author Garth Marenghi (Matt Holness) decides to take his talents to the television world. Garth is egotistical and fancies himself a great writer, when in fact he is quite terrible (he claims he’s written more books than he’s read). Despite this, he produces, writes, and directs a show set at a haunted hospital called Dark Place. It focuses on the same supernatural-style plots that his books revolve around. In this “show”, Garth Marenghi himself plays the lead character, Dr. Rick Dagless. Other “cast” members include Dean Learner (Richard Ayoade), Todd Rivers (Matt Berry), and Madeleine Wool (Alice Lowe).

Character breakdown is:

Matt Holness —> Garth Marenghi —> Dr. Rick Dagless, MD
Richard Ayoade —> Dean Learner —> Thornton Reed
Matt Berry —> Todd Rivers —> Dr. Lucien Sanchez
Alice Lowe —> Madeleine Wool —> Dr. Liz Asher

After producing six episodes, the show was immediately canceled in 1984. Garth Marenghi always held a grudge about this, but was happy to be invited to resurrect his show twenty years later. In 2004, he rebroadcasts his original season, finally feeling that he will get the acclaim he deserves. Garth, Dean, and Todd splice behind-the-scenes “interviews” into each episode, providing insight into the production and other aspects of the show.

The great thing about this show is its attention to detail. It’s actually quite hard to do a period piece, especially one as specific and comical as this. Everything down to the video quality reeks of the 80’s, but in a very melodramatic way…as if this is what Garth Marenghi would have thought was stylish and dramatic for a prime time show. Some intentional flubs include: boom mikes in shots, actors looking at the camera, breaking the fourth wall, fake sets, fake car, continuity errors, attention to the wrong details, poor composition, etc.

You may or may not recognize some of the people on this show – the principal cast themselves are considered hot names in British comedy right now, and they’ve had several guest stars who are also quite popular, including Stephen Merchant (co-creator of The Office), Julian Barrett (The Mighty Boosh – “Old Greg”), Noel Fielding (The Mighty Boosh, The IT Crowd), etc.

Admittedly, this is a love it or hate it show. I’ve never met too many people that were on the fence about it. I can’t find an embeddable clip, but if you want to check it out for yourself, several pieces of the show are listed on Youtube.

2. The IT Crowd

(Photo via Wikipedia)

Starring: Richard Ayoade, Chris O’Dowd, Katherine Parkinson
Show length: 3 seasons, 6 episodes each; 4th season coming out 2010
Favorite episode (so far): Season 2, Episode 1

The IT Crowd is a more traditional sitcom with subtle elements of absurdity (or…just British humor).

Moss and Roy (played by Richard Ayoade and Chris O’Dowd) are described in the first episode as “standard nerds.” They work in the IT department (basement) of a successful corporation, Reynolm Industries, rarely seeing the light of day during working hours. They often feel neglected as valuable employees, despite all the work they put into maintaining technical systems and fixing company computers for the staff. It’s really not all that bad though – since no one checks on them in their basement office, they usually get to do what they want in between making service calls, and they are often slacking off or playing video games.

Jen (Katherine Parker) is trying to climb the corporate ladder and is stoked when she gets hired by Reynholm Industries as head of the IT Department. She doesn’t actually know anything about computer tech, but she is desperate to get a good job position. Her new coworkers are immediately suspicious of her technical knowledge, and wonder why she has authority over them.

The odd mix of Roy, Moss, and Jen is quite refreshing in tv land. Their personalities are just relatable enough that you can identify with the situations, but they are also truly unique and original, which keeps this from being another stuffy sitcom. Roy is your average guy, good with computers and bad with girls. He doesn’t eat well or exercise, and lives in a shabby apartment. He is genuinely a good guy, albeit a little dopey at times. Jen is intelligent with most things but technology, and is a hard worker although sometimes flighty. She decides that her niche in the department will be handling customer service and personal relations since the guys are so bad at it. Moss’ high aptitude for computers and technology is underscored by his severe lack of social skills. Awkward and nervous, he can’t handle talking to girls, seeing a spider, or eating certain types of food. He is 32 years old and still lives with his mother, a fact that he doesn’t like but also can’t seem to get out of.

Come for the refreshing, witty writing, but stay for Richad Ayoade. This guy just cracks me up, and his portrayal of Moss is brilliant. The awkward, innocent naivete mixed with Moss’s technical genius makes for a very funny character. His deadpan mannerisms never get old, they only get funnier. The writing sticks to a traditional multi-camera format (and it’s filmed in front of a live audience), but they keep it just whacky and original enough to combat becoming bored. Site gags and dry verbal wit are staples of British humor that remain quite prevalent in this show, but you don’t have to worry about it being something you’ve already seen a thousand times. All aspects of production truly balance the lines of tradition vs. camp vs. absurdity with flying colors.

I highly recommend this show, and the good news is there’s at least one more new season coming up!

View a clip on Youtube.

1. Spaced

(Photo via BBC America)

Starring: Simon Pegg, Jessica Stevenson Hynes, Nick Frost, Julia Deakin, Mark Heap, Katy Carmichael
Directed by: Edgar Wright
Written by: Simon Pegg, Jessica Stevenson Hynes
Show length: 2 seasons, 7 episodes each, 1999-2001
Favorite episode: Season 2, Episode 5

Spaced is, hands down, my favorite show. Ever. I came across this gem about 2 or 3 years after its original on-air run. It’s one of the most original, funny, and truly heart-felt comedies around. If you’re a fan of Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead/Hot Fuzz), then you’ll want to see this show, because it started it all.

Edgar Wright makes his directorial breakthrough as the sole director of this fourteen episode series. Simon Pegg and Jessica Stevenson Hynes have dual roles as writers and stars. The cast is supplemented by a bunch of people you may already be familiar with, as they make frequent cameos in Pegg/Wright/Hynes’ other work — Nick Frost, Julia Deakin, Mark Heap, Katy Carmichael, etc.

The basic premise is that two strangers, struggling writer Daisy (Hynes) and wannabe comic book artist Tim (Pegg), must pose as a couple to be eligible for an apartment.

They had gotten to know each other lightly at a local coffee shop after they realized they were both going there everyday to skim the classifieds for a new flat — to no avail. They spent afternoons together bonding over their bad luck, when Daisy noticed an ad for a great apartment that had one stipulation: professional couple only. Despite hardly knowing each other, they were both desperate for a place to live, so they agree to “be a couple” in order to qualify for the flat. Amazingly, their plan works, and the rest of the show revolves around their everyday lives in their comfortable little flat while they have to maintain the appearance of being a couple. Their landlady Marsha (Julia Deakin) lives upstairs and visits frequently, while troubled artist Brian (Mark Heap) lives downstairs. Tim’s best friend Mike (Nick Frost) and Daisy’s friend Twist (Caty Carmichael) drop by often.

Spaced is about much more than this simple premise, though.

Off the top, it is dense with movie references and other pop culture parodies (very dense), and showcases subtle but brilliant filming techniques by Edgar Wright — not necessarily cutting edge, but certainly unique and original (primitive versions of what we see in Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz). Kudos also goes to the writers, Pegg and Hynes, who truly seem to grasp how to convey relatable lifestyles of 20-somethings. This show is over ten years old and I still find it fresh and relevant.

Think about you and your own friends now, and presumably post-college: Degrees that you’re not sure how to use, pop culture consuming more of your life than you’d like to admit (and if you’re like my friends, movie quotes and video game jokes occur often), crappy job during the day, hanging out with friends at night doing dumb stuff…or at least this resembled my life at 24 (except for the having a degree part). Old enough to be an adult, but just not quite there yet. Nothing catastrophic or overly interesting happens, but there are definitely enough things that make a good story. And that’s what’s great about this show. Each episode is kind of like a “remember that time when we…” but you never get the annoying, unrealistic, “Friends”-style situations about serendipitous beautiful people interacting. Daisy and Tim remind me of my own friends, and even when the show is silly or absurd, it never loses its gut feeling. You begin to care about the silly people in this show — you root for them when they’re losing, get mad when they’re shallow, hurt when they hurt, and laugh at their jokes. It’s hard to make an audience care so much about their characters, but Spaced does it so well, on top of being blissfully nerdy.

Keep in mind that Spaced came out in 1999, so a lot of the references seem dated. It’s heavy handed on The Matrix and Fight Club and Phantom Menace, etc., but there are some great classic references as well, including sneaky visual cues that are more like stylistic homages. Other references off the top of my head are…Evil Dead, The Shining, Star Wars (actually, LOTS of The Shining and Star Wars), The A-Team, Sixth Sense, Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Robot Wars, lots of PS1 games, skateboarding videos, etc. etc. So many more that I can’t think of, and even more obscure British stuff that I’ll probably never understand. The DVD set actually has a text track that simply lists off references as they happen. I’m a lover of referential humor, what can I say, so I had fun with that. And if you were ever wondering where the idea for Shaun of the Dead came about, watch Season 1, Episode 3 — Tim gets some cheap speed off a guy at a bar and stays up all night playing Resident Evil 2. The lack of sleep causes him to hallucinate and see zombies. Off-camera, they had so much fun doing the zombie designs and makeup, they ended up making a movie about them.

The bottom line is that this show can’t really be summed up that well in words, you just have to see it. I try not to talk it up *too* much…I’m always worried that someone will be disappointed just because I’ve set the bar so high, but I must admit — everyone I’ve introduced to this show has loved it. I’ve got a pretty good record. Hopefully you will like it too, and pass it on. It’s just one of those shows that deserves to be seen. And at 14 episodes total, there’s not too much commitment!

You can watch the whole first episode on Youtube!

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