It Was The Best Of Times, It Was The Worst Of Times Daaaaave...
Back in 2009, when I was still relatively interested in reviewing current television rather than going on and on about wiped black and white shows until time itself gets so fed up that it folds inwards and unwipes them, I was asked to contribute a couple of entries to a fairly heavyweight review of The Decade In Television. Although hardly Revolt Into Style, this was still quite an interesting project, as in retrospect the turn of the millennium marked the real starting point of a quest amongst programme makers for 'newness'-for-'newness'-sake at all costs, valuing technology and concept above quality, and creating a lasting malaise from which television is still only just staggering away.
Unfortunately, by the time I got around to actually contributing, the only shows left on the editor's list of the previous ten years' televisual landmarks that I felt even remotely qualified to say anything about were one that I was initially a huge fan of and then went off very dramatically, and one that I hated full stop from the outset. As such, it was a bit of a struggle to find something positive or defining to say about either (though I did just about manage to be civil), but it was nonetheless interesting to look at the legacy of both shows with a couple of years' distance, and indeed to look at those conclusions again now. All that 'Mong-gate' stuff was still yet to come...
The League Of Gentlemen
The four-man comedy team had already enjoyed one moderately successful series on BBC2 when, in the opening days of 2000, they really tore through the fabric with a macabre new character who took an unsuspecting audience by surprise. Yet despite his popularity, Papa Lazarou was ultimately just one component of an expertly-judged second series that deftly straddled the line between comedy and horror and restraint and excess, and by the end of the year had taken the cult performers to the level of Christmas tie-ins and sell-out tours. As a result, ‘dark’ was suddenly the new television fashion, and not just in comedy – the next couple of years saw a much bleaker tone descent over everything from drama to music shows to, well, Channel 4 broadcasting a live autopsy, revelling in grimness and explicit gore seemingly for the sake of it. Needless to say this was mostly done without the panache of the show that inspired it – indeed, even The League Of Gentlemen lost their way a bit, with a sprawling third series that seemed to value cruelty and shock above any tangible ‘jokes’ – and it’s telling that two huge comedy successes that came later in the decade were deliberately conceived as a contrast to the surfeit of ‘dark’ humour. Nowadays, things are looking far ‘light’er, and as the decade concludes, perhaps it’s fitting that one of the most talked about shows of recent times is Psychoville, a sitcom by two former Gentlemen that keeps its shock material very much secondary to its funny material.
Though some retrospective claims about the launch of Ricky Gervais’ sitcom, such as that it had inconsistent and late-night scheduling, are demonstrably untrue, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that a sitcom shot in an unfamiliar naturalistic style and starring a virtual unknown was something of a gamble for the BBC. But it was a gamble that paid off – The Office became a runaway success like few others before or since, eclipsing the more energetic and exaggerated comedy of The League Of Gentlemen and Spaced with its more subdued and understated approach. Yet though this style was certainly popular with viewers, few seemed to understand why. It had clearly struck a chord on account of its acute observation of workplace life rather than its style as such, but it was that style that was adopted en masse by anyone hoping to achieve similar popularity. A handful of shows, notably Peep Show and The Thick Of It, managed to apply this approach to a solidly-conceived look at another recognisable aspect of life. A great many others – amongst them such long-forgotten efforts as The Robinsons, The Last Chancers, and a deafeningly soundtracked mangling of radio comedy Absolute Power – simply slapped a ‘naturalistic’ style onto scripts that either didn’t suit it or just weren’t good enough to begin with. Even now, nearly a decade after its creator astutely wound the show up after two series to prevent it from becoming stale, there still exists a steady stream of copyists that look about as ‘fresh’ in comparison to The Office as Up Sunday did to That Was The Week That Was.