So, it’s a new year, with new programmes and new hopes from TV executives all round that they’ve found the new hit and won’t lose their jobs along with the ratings.
A few years ago, BBC Two hit a ratings goldmine with the Great Britons series, using a mixture of public vote and celebrity-fronted documentary to determine just who was the Greatest Briton. Then, following its success, they repeated the same formula with The Big Read. Now, the same format of public involvement and celebrity advocacy brings us Balderdash & Piffle, a quest to assist the Oxford English Dictionary in uncovering the origins of various words. Like its predecessors, it’s a worthy and ostensibly educational cause, though unlike those, the only winners will be determined by the OED rather than a public vote, sadly scuppering our plans to get a new definition of ‘sharperner’ added to the dictionary.
Attempts to modify the dictionary aside, it’s an interesting, if somewhat scatterbrained, programme, jumping all over the place to show us how certain words emerged into their current usage. The problem was that each of the individual films on the origin of words didn’t seem to add up to a greater whole. While Victoria Coren did a decent job anchoring the programme and attempting to convince an OED panel of the value of some of the evidence discovered, I couldn’t help the feeling that the BBC might have been better off running the individual films separately and scattering them around the schedules, instead of lumping them all together, though I suspect they may end up like that as a regular method of filling BBC Two’s ten-minute gap at 9.50 every evening.
Also trying to educate the British public in the finer use of language, Shameless returned for a third series on Channel 4, determined to ensure that we’re all aware of the finer points of finer points of swearing, cursing and debating in the Frank Gallagher method. Perhaps the best drama series currently running on British television, there were worries before this new series that it just might be slipping from the Olympian peak it had reached during the first two series, with concerns that the departure of Anne-Marie Duff and James McAvoy to other projects might remove the emotional heart of the show and place too much pressure on the other actors and characters to fill the void. We needn’t have worried, because not only do the scripts have you forgetting how important those two were to the story, but also the acting has, if anything, raised itself up a notch with David Threlfall showing he may just be not only the best actor working in British TV today, but well deserving to be high up on an all time list too. Frank Gallagher could have been just a buffoonish drunken caricature of a feckless father, but Threlfall turns him into a real person, completewith hidden depths and tragedies, most notably this week in his drunken rant at God when he believes his son to be dying from cancer.
The rest of the cast follow his lead, managing to ground even the broadest comedy in realism (as an aside, Kev’s car splitting in half is an early contender for funniest scene of the year) with Jody Latham and Gerard Kearns easily rising to the occasion now that their two brothers are the central focus of the Gallagher family. It’s interesting to note that, as the Gallaghers are based on Paul Abbott’s own experiences of growing up with absent parents, Lip appears to be based somewhat on his own story and that as more episodes are written by people other than Abbott, he’s having to face more of the consequences of his actions.
Which takes us neatly onto My Name Is Earl, the latest American comedy to find a home on Friday nights on Channel 4. Under pressure to be a hit on both sides of the Atlantic with both Channel 4 and NBC suffering following the end of Friends and Frasier and looking for a new comedy to fill the void. So, it’s no doubt a relief to them – and to me, given the conclusion to my comedy post a few weeks ago – that Earl is not only original, but funny at well. Having persuaded Jason Lee away from the movies to star in a TV series, it would have been easy to have just created a traditional star vehicle for him, played out in a studio in front of an nitrous oxide-fuelled audience and multiple cameras but instead the laugh track is dispensed with and we get a location-shot comedy about one man’s rather idiosyncratic quest for redemption and good karma. It shares with Shameless, not just a desire to show a broady sympathetic depiction of an underclass rarely show in a positive light on TV, but also an ability to find humour in situations normally only depicted with dark and gritty realism. Beyond all that, it’s funny as well as showing the potential to grow and become even better as it develops, which is all one can ask for in a comedy.