TV, Writing

Escaping Reality: The Feel Good TV Effect

Reality has been tough lately. The world feels like a powder keg of polarisation, violence and economic spiral, certainly if you poke your head over the parapet and engage with the day to day.

Can we therefore be surprised that we have seen, in the last couple of years, a resurgence of what we might describe as ‘feel good’ TV? Ted Lasso, Sex Education, Grace & Frankie, Trying, the list goes on – modern series which present to audiences worlds that exist on the fringes of the reality we all experience. Worlds in which we might see favoured characters undergo emotional and spiritual changes, many of them painful and difficult, but through which we are reasonably confident these people we have come to admire and show genuine affection for will be okay in the end.

Whether these series have been devised specifically for this purpose is an open question. My instinct is that the answer is both yes and no. It is hard to imagine any creative, from Jason Sudeikis to Marta Kaufman to Laurie Nunn, truly writing and developing their show specifically for the ‘feel good’ designation. These things tend to happen organically and by osmosis, even if—as in the case of Ted Lasso—your entire series is deep rooted in ideas of kindness, teamwork and hope. The question that interests me is this: do we need these shows right now because we need to escape reality? Are they the television equivalent of taking the blue pill offered by Morpheus?

Maybe the rabbit hole, right now, is just too existentially grim to face. Maybe we need to feel good in these fictions because they are, for many, our only escape.

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The Office, TV, Writing

TV Review: THE OFFICE – ‘Downsize’ (1×01)

The opening episode of The Office establishes, in broad strokes, the majority of storylines and thematic ideas that will run across the entirety of the two series and fourteen episodes of the show’s run.

Downsize first and foremost introduces the key, signature character of David Brent, our protagonist as played by co-writer/director Ricky Gervais, and placed him in context. Brent, almost immediately, works as a comedic creation. Gervais, and co-writer/director Stephen Merchant, provide an opening scene which gives us a very clear flavour of who Brent is – a self-aggrandising joker desperate to impress, yet without the arrogance that would distance him from the audience. Gervais plays Brent so painfully cheesy and wilfully, blissfully unaware of how uncool he is, that you can’t help but immediately find him funny. His opening monologue, delivered to an incumbent forklift driver called Alex, is a perfect introduction.

Gervais and Merchant then swiftly introduce the office setting that will be crucial in their depiction of a workplace purgatory; a status quo of middle England static inertia, characterised in how drab Slough—the location of paper merchants Wernham Hogg—is presented in the credits. Concrete edifices, a holdover from the brutalist architecture of the 1960s that infested towns across England; roundabouts; eternally overcast skies; and finally the view of an office building that could be any industrial estate in the country. The interior is equally unremarkable, and indeed was constructed as a set around a largely defunct office space that Gervais & Merchant wanted to retain the shabbiness off – a sense of eternal coffee stains and badly cleaned interiors. The employees themselves appear lifeless and drained of energy for their work.

It is perhaps the introductory to camera moment for Tim Canterbury (Martin Freeman), one of the audiences’ relatable surrogates, that perhaps sums up the initial impression of the setting of this new comedy. “I’m a sales rep, which means that my job is to speak to clients on the phone about quantity and type of paper, whether we can supply it to them and whether they can pay for it… and I’m boring myself talking about it…”

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Film, Partisan Cinema, Writing

Partisan Christmas Cinema: LOVE ACTUALLY (2003) – A Fairytale in Downing St

In a recurring feature called Partisan Cinema, A. J. Black looks at movies from a political slant, gleaning insight from them about how they relate to society then, and indeed now…

It would be fair to say that Richard Curtis’ crowd pleaser Love Actually is not hard hitting political discourse, but one of its central plot threads does warrant closer examination.

Curtis’ film is a loose-knit, Altman-esque character piece under the central umbrella of ‘love’, mostly involving Curtis’ traditional retinue of cloyingly middle class Londoners living in a fantasy version of Britain’s capital where everyone has money, time to navel-gaze, and doesn’t worry about laws such as breaching airport security gates and things like that. It is, simply, a load of sickeningly twee nonsense inflated, bizarrely, into some kind of totemic Christmas film that only humbugs suggest might not just be rubbish, but also contain numerous creepy plots and almost sociopathic characters.

You only have to look at Andrew Lincoln wooing Keira Knightley with cue cards on the doorstep of the house she shares not only with her boyfriend, but his best friend.

Leaving that aside, there is one plot line in Love Actually that bears looking at, given outside of Emma Thompson’s genuinely moving performance as the wife of a cheater, it probably stands as the only thread in the film that is easy to stomach: the romance between Hugh Grant’s incumbent British Prime Minister and Martine McCutcheon’s cockney Downing Street tea girl. There is a charm about their characters that belies the rest of the film, even if it bears almost zero reality with anything else in British politics, bar the thinnest of tangential nods and winks to both the Blairite and Bush eras – fitting as the film was made and is set during their tenures, and at the point tensions were fraying.

Love Actually might here be political fantasy, but it has one foot in post-9/11 reality.
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Film, Partisan Cinema, Writing

Partisan Cinema: CARNAGE (2017) – Liberal Veganism

In a recurring feature called Partisan Cinema, A. J. Black looks at movies from a political slant, gleaning insight from them about how they relate to society then, and indeed now…

As mockumentaries go, Carnage may well be the first one to genuinely lampoon the culture of veganism while also making a very powerful, liberal prescient point.

Simon Amstell is a British stand-up comedian, probably best known as former host of popular BBC music panel show Never Mind the Buzzcocks. His first film as writer and director, Amstell doesn’t appear but provides near-constant narration as the omnipresent guide through a ‘future history’ where the vegan has inherited the Earth. Set in 2067, in a United Kingdom where the very idea of eating meat is an abhorrent abomination to an almost-utopian, youthful society, Amstell’s fake documentary tells the story of how we went from a savage, carnivorous culture to an enlightened, animal-loving species. If you’re laughing at the absurdity of this, that’s ok. That’s the intention.

And yet, Carnage is noticeably pro-vegan while being enormously capable of mocking the pretension of a following which, historically, has found itself tethered to the hippy, new age trail. Amstell, who wrote as well as directed this, is as keen to highlight the madness of being a meat-eater as well as enjoyably sending up the intense vegan legions who, in this future, are considered the norm.

You may be surprised to hear Amstell, in doing so, utilises almost as much stock footage from a range of sources pre-2017 as he does future scenarios beyond the present day. It helps make his point.
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Essays, TV

BritBox: Local Telly for Local People

One of the first questions raised by the announcement of BritBox, a new, jointly-created streaming service by the BBC and ITV, was whether this is television for post-Brexit Britain. It’s a question as polarising as it is potentially unfair.

BritBox is not a new creation, something the majority of common or garden readers probably do not know. BritBox is technically being imported after successfully launching as a service in the United States; it offers a selection of British shows from the modern day and yesteryear which are available separately from services such as BBC America, allowing American audiences the chance to dip their toe in the arcanum of staid British drama and quirky, offbeat British comedy. It is, to them, jolly old England neatly encapsulated.

You can see why commentators might suspect BritBox is the service the divided, post-EU Britain deserves. It doesn’t exactly sound the most cosmopolitan, stridently Euro-centric television proposal. It’s basically suggesting we kick off the 2020’s with access to bucket loads of Rising Damp and Dalziel & Pascoe.

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