Did the BBC get starstruck?

Gary Napier offers a theory to where Episodes went wrong

I was really looking forward to Episodes, even after the cheesy Matt Le Blanc head-turn in the promotional trailer – I know they have to maximise audience figures.I was hoping for biting satire of British comedy being lost in the translation of their American remakes. Although written by Crane of the 'pin-headed' [Will Self] Bright-Kauffman-Crane team who produced the saccharine Friends, perhaps the Americans would acknowledge the frequent artistic redundancy of remakes. Carried off with panache and subtlety, it could have make for ruddy trans-Atlantic banter.

To be fair, a lot of this was present – the writers were swept along by a duplicitous producer and Richard Griffiths was absurdly made to jump through the hoop of re-auditioning for his part. And the creative Brits, too, are sniped at: money and the trappings of LA naively lure them into a vapid world of TV.

But, alas, the execution of said satire was dire. The dialogue was clunking and dumbed down. Gags were lame and thin on the ground, as James Cook pointed out on these pages yesterday.

There's another reason why it doesn't work, and it’s the elephant in the room. Episodes suffers from the British Entertainment Inferiority Complex. They've hoist themselves by their own petard in commissioning the writer and the star of Friends to work on a show that has the ingredients for wry satire. Maybe I'm forcing my British sensibilities onto the premise though; after all, the writers can do what they want with their raw material.

But I'm sure the BBC could not resist the big names wanting to work with them. There was a scene in this week's episode in which the US producers were humoured for their over-excitement at getting Matt Le Blanc to be on the show. Ironically, I'm sure the same thing happened in reality, only this time at the BBC. I'm now not so sure the cheesy promotional head-turn was done with irony. Now it just seems like someone going: ‘Look! It's him off Friends! On our little BBC show!’

I have to admit, the evidence for this is circumstantial. But I keep getting little snippets of British comedy's unhealthy self-deprecation. This morning it came from nowhere when the announcer for I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue, referring to Episodes, pluckily resolved not to be ‘outdone’ by the ‘big names brought in from America’.

I don't want to make the hackneyed over-laboured points about American versus British comedy. Nor to say that comedians go to America for the money and fame – though this must, given human nature, creep into it. Nor do I want to suggest that America is the nation that ought to, culturally and comedically speaking, feel inferior. In a population of 300 million it's likely there'll be some sophisticated comedy, much of which is rightly championed by Ricky Gervais. And comedians can of course have a go at acting if they want.

Steve Coogan defended himself in a radio interview by saying he ‘goes where the work is’. Leaving aside my cynicism for the moment that ‘work’ means ‘money’ it does seem that Coogan wants to be in America because it is perceived by him and other comedians to be the hub of creativity.

I find this odd, given that Coogan's major successes were due to his own creativity. It was self-generated work, and therefore was located wherever he was. By following the crowd he's made himself look like a kid in the playground at last able to join in, even if it's for five minutes on Curb or dressed as a miniature Roman, neither of which were funny.

We speak the same language and have overlapping senses of humour. It makes sense that British and American comedians get together from time to time. But it's a wasted opportunity when the decision is made to chum-up for the sake of it without thinking through the implications of the decision itself.

British comedy is robust enough and funny enough that it should realise its pinnacle does not necessarily lie in having famous people involved as a crutch, American or otherwise. It's a temptation that is more often than not detrimental to the comedy, the assumption being that the work has been done for you by their involvement alone.

I'm sure the BBC’s decision to commission was not taken lightly, but Episodes suffers from this weakness. Big names do not necessarily big hits make, nor big laughs generate. Their own show should have told them that.

Published: 12 Jan 2011

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