Monday, September 29, 2008

Let's talk about Britcoms

If you've never seen a British sitcom, you're really missing out. There's something decidedly different about British humor from American humor. I can't put my finger on what it is, but it's not for everybody. Think of Monty Python. You either love it or you hate it. Me? I frickin' love it.

I don't know how my Britcom obsession started. I'm pretty sure it was with Ricky Gervais' The Office. I had heard good things about it. It was the surprise winner of a Golden Globe for Best TV Comedy in 2004. I don't base what I watch on what award shows give prizes to, but I decided it was time to check it out. And once I did, I never looked back.

British television is very different from American. Humor (or humour, as they might write) aside, British shows very rarely (with the exception, it seems, of Dr. Who, which I believe the dinosaurs and cavemen used to watch together) last more than two or three seasons (or series, as they say). Each series is very rarely more than 10 episodes. And there can be a lapse of two or more years between series. It definitely lends itself to a different kind of storytelling. When I discover a show I love, this American can be very frustrated that the story ends after only 20 episodes. But it also lends itself, like the Spanish-language telenovela, to more complete stories as well as to fresh stories. American television can often be dictated by economics. A powerhouse show can stay on the air long after it has lost creative steam, simply because viewers are still watching (and hence, ads are still selling). Ok, enough about that. That is your television lesson of the day. Back to Britcoms.

Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant are geniuses (genii?) and the two series and Christmas special of The Office quickly made it into my DVD collection. I don't remember in what order the other Britcoms followed, or why these turned up in my DVD collection as opposed to others, but my best friend and I devoured Absolutely Fabulous (Eddie and Patsy were so Sex and the City before Sex and the City even existed!), Coupling (which was Britain's answer to Friends, which the US then tried to turn back into an American series that seriously failed, but the British version's Jeff Murdock is one of the funniest television characters of all time), Little Britain (an American version with the same stars just premiered yesterday on HBO but I have yet to see it), Extras (Ricky Gervais' hilarious follow-up to The Office), and Jeeves and Wooster (which if you're a fan of House but unfamiliar with Hugh Laurie's background, you might be surprised to know that he is in face a British comedian). There have been various Britcoms thrown in that failed to tickle my fancy and a few dramas as well (Bob and Rose, the Pride and Prejudice miniseries to name two). We recently finished watching Spaced, after becoming obsessed with Simon Pegg following the movies Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz.

There's an episode of Friends (well, two actually...wait, no three, a two-part season finale and the next season's premiere) when Ross and Emily were going to get married that was filmed in London. I didn't know it at the time, but the stars of many of these Britcoms I would come to know and love showed up in guest spots on these episodes - including Hugh Laurie (which, he had a total of maybe three lines but so nailed them that I instantly fell in love), Jennifer Saunders, and June Whitfield. So maybe I should really credit Friends with initially expanding my comedy horizons to across the pond. In any case, there's a world outside American television, and some of it is actually bloody fantastic!

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