Gender agenda: Jacob Knowles-Smith on men without women, dysfunctional families, and killer whales
After many years of not watching Friends on any of the Channel 4 family of stations, since they flogged it to Comedy Central, I’ve suddenly been spending entire Saturday afternoons watching episode after episode. Now that the show is no longer the running gag of Channel 4’s schedule, it would seem that it’s actually the funniest thing, along with Frasier, on Comedy Central. The performances, the gags, the timing: all of these should make the writers of contemporary sitcoms flinch with shame. Mike & Molly and Two and a Half Men are such new comedies and are, presumably, meant to be big draws for Comedy Central. The problem, of course, is that they aren’t funny. Mike & Molly consists mainly of – and one can glean this from simply watching the promos relentlessly book-ending segments of Friends – racial stereotypes and homophobic slurs combined with a celebration of America’s obesity problem. And whilst there may always be a certain slapstick laugh to be gained from a fat man falling down, you can’t base an entire series around it. Two and a Half Men, however, gets most of its laughs from misogyny – this was never terribly funny with Charlie Sheen at the helm and now, with Ashton Kutcher, it’s just embarrassing.
All of this is merely a prelude to the sigh of relief that must surely have escaped from comedy fans’ lungs when it was announced that a new season of Arrested Development (Fox) would be arriving ahead of a final (?) big screen farewell to the Bluth family. Shunted (as it was in Britain) to the doldrums of late night BBC 2, Arrested Development was not only a classic comedy in its own right, it also paved the way for other ‘higher comedies’, if you will, such as 30 Rock (NBC) and HBO’s Bored to Death. Both shows are undervalued by the wider audience (and more on 30 Rock next year) but Bored to Death with its short-running seasons of eight episodes is almost too easy to miss.
Centring around a novelist who blunders his way into becoming a private detective, the show is a fine blend, full of witty little literary and crime fiction references, casual drug use and a bromance like no other between the three principal characters. Jonathan Ames, our writer/PI, played by Jason Schwartzman and a fictional version of the show’s creator of the same name, Ray (Zach Galifianakis), a pot smoking comic book artist, and George Christopher, a hodgepodge of American journo-grandees (fore- and surname taken from Plimpton and Hitchens, respectively) played exquisitely by Ted Danson. Innocents all, they manage to navigate an imagined New York City on acid – fine, just New York – with the insouciance of Laurel and Hardy dusting themselves down after the building collapses on them yet again. They rebound pretensions and glib assertions off one another at such a pace that one has to resist the temptation to go back and catch the lines again. If they were simply horrible people, they wouldn’t be able to pull it off but we can forgive them for their self-involvement and living like a “demented god” because the friendship and acceptance between the trio is one that we – men, at least – would all like to have. Who among us doesn’t yearn to smoke pot and spoon with two close friends?
Just as no one seems to be particularly bored in Bored to Death, the women of Wisteria Lane never seem too desperately in need of anything. Indeed, the lives of the characters in Desperate Housewives (ABC) – perhaps, at a guess, the ultimate ideal of female friendship – only seem to be disrupted when the new killer or other bad element moves in to disrupt suburbia – and who’s killing whom this season? Perhaps the series has run too long, but this is the last season and they seem to be giving it a better shot than the last and, more importantly, it’s still entertaining and can easily raise a laugh. Desperate Housewives has always been the highest of guilty pleasures and may ultimately be missed when it’s gone. The show’s main skill is switching with unbelievable pace between the tragic and the comic. This is chiefly achieved through the music: just when the violin strings start tugging the heart strings in the direction of divorce or cancer – cue a jaunty variation of the theme music to herald a bon mot. Despite touching on nearly every subject from class to women’s rights and alcoholism to gay rights, Desperate Housewives has never been a ‘challenging’ drama. It is something more in between farce and black comedy but I’d much rather have it than another episode of the obdurately ‘challenging’ Treme.
A couple of years ago, the BBC ran a set of aggrandising and slightly smug promotions that all carried the slogan “This is what we do” – i.e. so pay your bloody license fee. However, David Attenborough is demonstrating, as usual, exactly what the BBC does and what it does better than any other broadcaster in the world: nature. In his latest documentary series, Frozen Planet, Attenborough shows us that we should be far less worried about James Murdoch being part of the mafia than if the killer whales decided to start taking care of things. Their hunting methods are so calculated and chilling – strike pun – that one is inclined to think that rational thought is at work, rather than a magnificent killer instinct gifted by nature. If the BBC starts hiring them to collect license fees, call me Ishmael.