Thursday, October 26, 2006


Prefect SlogLast time it was all about drama. This time, comedy.
Comedy is something Doctor Who can do perfectly well of course, but it'’s also something it can do very badly. It tends to work best when it arises naturally out of the characters and situations (Leela at Litefoot'’s dinner table in Talons Of Weng Chiang, "“Harry Sullivan is an imbecile!"” in Revenge Of The Cybermen, Sarah Jane'’s run-in with Rose in School Reunion, or any number of situations featuring Leela or Harry). And, contrary to popular belief, it tends to be at its poorest when consciously sending itself up (the *cliff* *hanger* in Dragonfire, the Master'’s ludicrous disguises, anything with the Slitheen). But essentially I'’m oversimplifying there for the sake of brevity. The main point is that Doctor Who -– Classic or New -– has had a variable comedy career, ranging from satire to panto, stand-up to sit-down to fall-on-its-face. Season 17 was even something of a sitcom, albeit a poor one with more than the usual number of set locations. And the New Series, to be fair, has had its share of laugh out loud moments, the vast majority of them intentional -– because, unlike its Classic predecessor, there are no hubcap spaceships, CSO caverns or Action Man tanks on the chuckle menu.
Its flaws and failings, where they aren'’t easily forgiven in the good tradition of Doctor Who viewing, are more likely to elicit groans. That'’s the nature of both the business -– i.e. there'’s really no excuse these days for poor visuals and amateur fx etc -– and the flaws/failings in evidence -– i.e. they'’re generally script-related.
But in case anyone imagines my disappointment in the New Series is the result of a senseofhumourectomy, I thought it might be worth taking a look at some of the comedies that have tickled me lately and earned their inclusion under this Better Than Doctor Who banner.
Between seasons of New Who, my wife and I got ourselves Freeview -– as an integral feature of our Hard Drive recorder -– which gave us access to everything abc1 has to offer. Hmm. With its endless rotations of Home Improvement (ugh), Hope & Faith (!) and Rodney (?) this might have been like a season pass to all major traffic accidents -– but luckily it led to our chance to sample Scrubs right from the beginning and to our discovery of SportsNight. Double whammy!
Scrubs would seem like a certain winner for me, what with my love of ER, but like a lot of other potentially good TV, it had simply managed to slip me by until this year. (As I'’ve said before, there's just not enough time to watch everything!) John Wells has said of his ER staff: "“If you have been in an automobile accident and you are in the back of an ambulance, when the doors of that ambulance open and you'’re coming out on the gurney, these are the people whose faces you want to see."” Not so the staff of Sacred Heart -– they'’re all neurotic, for starters. Still, within its half-hour slot (clumsily chopped up with ad breaks on abc1) Scrubs manages to pull off quite a balancing act, slipping seamlessly into passable medical drama between all the craziness, and as much as a friend of mine drew attention to the weekly helpings of schmalz, I haven'’t found that at all off-putting so far. '‘So far'’ being two seasons at this stage. Whatever sentimentality or moral message it chooses to pitch, I'’ve found more than enough bedpan humour, tickled ribs and belly laughs to mitigate all that. In fact, it all seems to combine successfully as part of the series'’ charm. It'’s never been so mawkish as to have me reaching for the sick bag.
And just as the show can veer off into surreal humour (mostly courtesy of its central character'’s daydreams) and still pull off a human story or two, the characters are wonderfully exaggerated while still remaining honest-to-goodness, well-drawn characters. JD and Turk who, if it weren'’t for their respective medical careers, would surely be revelling in some lowly Men Behaving Badly existence and even then they do okay as far as that goes, aided and abetted by their stuffed dog, Rowdy. Elliot, whose face you might want to see when wheeled out on a gurney, but all the same you really wouldn'’t want her taking care of your physical well-being. At least not in any medical sense. Carla, as the more sensible of the four, you might trust with some light nursing duties, but you'’d want to be aware of whatever boyfriend troubles she'’s currently having -– she'’s with Turk, poor girl. Then there's the uber-sarcastic, hyper-neurotic Dr Cox, who makes ER's Benton look the most laid-back of taskmasters, scary Dr Kelso who is, I suppose, the Kerry Weaver of this outfit and his whipping boy, the long-suffering lawyer who's part of an a cappella quartet in his spare time. Perhaps the icing on the cake is the predatory Janitor, who lurks on every hospital corner and stalks JD like some mop-wielding Freddie Kruger with a heart of gold -– or so he'’d claim. Whatever, it'’s all played to perfection and there'’s a great energy and chemistry to the whole thing.
And, at the end of the day, any show that features Men At Work's Colin Hay strumming away, performing an acoustic version of "Overkill" all the way from admittance to the morgue merits full attention. And, since that'’s in a Series 2 episode, Scrubs had won mine well before that.
Then there'’s SportsNight. I hate sports, I do, but I'’d heard good things about the show and it has Felicity Huffman in it so I thought I'’d give it a whirl and, what do you know, it turns out that the fact that I hate sports doesn'’t even enter into it. I mean, okay, some of the sports-related banter goes -– whoosh! -– straight over my head, but a) so did a lot of the medical jargon in ER until I made an effort to gen up on it a bit, b) I just know I'm never going to make that kind of effort where sports are concerned and c) I zone out when some of my mates talk about football but they'’re still friends.
Perhaps unsurprisingly given its credentials, SportsNight is an ensemble piece absolutely loaded with the same sharp-witted, fast-paced office patter that characterizes The West Wing. Unlike its Whitehouse-based cousin, I warmed to most of SportsNight'’s characters fairly immediately, but that'’s to be expected -– or at any rate, hoped for! -– from a comedy: these people are making you laugh on a more frequent basis. As with Scrubs, it walks the line somewhat between comedy and drama, but -– how shall I say -– the tightrope is closer to the ground. The tone is more that of a drama and the characters more grounded, and it has enough of a soapy element to hook you into the ongoing story, but it's all done with *class*. Not only is there Felicity Huffman (did I mention?), but hubby, William H Macy shows up at one point. This is almost certainly not the way this show came about, but it'’s like when a friend is relating all the insane, frenetic things that go on at their workplace and says "“someone should write a sitcom about this place"” -– where sometimes you nod but know it's just never going to happen and if it did there'’d possibly be enough material for a pilot but never six whole episodes, or somebody goes ahead and writes it and it becomes The Office (meh) or The Brittas Empire (oh dear god), or you get a SportsNight.
It clicks. I love it. And -– fairly naturally, given that -– it only ran for two seasons before it got canned. Added to which, owing to abc1'’s erratic system that some TV channels would refer to as a schedule, I'’m still not sure I've seen all the available episodes or, for that matter, in the right order. There are gaps to be plugged, I'’m sure, and I intend to plug them, because when there are only two seasons'’ worth of such a quality show you really have to see them all.
And while we'’re on the subject of comedy, I should also mention My Name Is Earl (which I mentioned before I had been enjoying) which, with its great collection of Coen Brothers characters, completed a consistent, successful first season and did manage to leave me wanting more. Now, whether it can deliver and whether the good central concept has the legs to run for very long (and here, sorry, but I can'’t prevent the picture of Earl'’s one-legged shotgun-toting ex springing into my mind) remains to be seen and like many a good thing, given the choice, I'’d rather have it end before it took a fall. I'’ve thought the same about Doctor Who (yes, even the Classic series!) before now. Suffice to say, as it stands Earl had a great sit and plenty of com, which is what you want.
Anyway, the less said the better in a sense. For one thing, I'’d rather enjoy comedy than subject it to an in-depth analysis and for another I'’d best not jinx anything by saying things like "“I hope Earl'’s just as good next year"” or "“I hope Season 3 Scrubs is as good as what I'’ve seen so far."” That would just be tempting fate, eh. Also and perhaps more to the point, given the subject header, we'’re very nearly at the point these little articles have been leading to all this time. Yes, Next Week On... Better Than Doctor Who, our New Who Season 2 overview and some sort of conclusion to all this nonsense. Even if, in writing it, I have no fresh insights to offer there should at least be a few laughs, intentional or otherwise.


Stuart Douglas said...

SAF: "I hate sports, I do"

{Sigh} And I've always looked on you as eminently sensible and wise.

It's like finding out Kelsey Grammer is a Republican... :-)

Sports Night is great though, isn't it?

Stuart Douglas said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
SAF said...

Stuart: "It's like finding out Kelsey Grammer is a Republican... :-)"

Ha! I like that. And hopefully the fact that I like that will buy me back some respect :)

Yes, SportsNight is tops. A great discovery. Who knows, maybe if I gave actual sports a try, I might be similarly pleasantly surprised. (Yeah, like that's gonna happen ;) )

Stuart Douglas said...

The Robin Hood theme more than makes up for your lack of sporting interest.

I'm nothing if not fair :)

Anonymous said...

Finding out Kelsey Grammer is a Republican is about as surprising as learning that Tony Blair is a Socialist.

To catch more sport you really should get a TiVo ;) It's meant to have this incredible AI that looks at what you watch and what you don't then it goes away and makes suggestions. Except TiVo watches what it wants to watch - and TiVo loves sport.

Get a new TiVo, plug it in and watch as bizarre suggestion after weird suggestion rolls in. American TiVos always latch on to home improvement programmes and - American football - presumably their target audience is real men fully in touch with their feminine side.

Slap it down and TiVo starts getting very strange ideas about your viewing habits - breasts feature very heavily ('Run Eliza! Run!') - but only in medical programmes featuring the largest, smallest, migratory or predatory breasts.

This phase is very embarrassing, at no point should you suggest 'Let's see what TiVo has recorded?' You'll get an eyeful of something resembling Hieronymous Bosch's brief porno career - or Channel 4 primetime as its better known.

After that every TiVo develops a tanker fixation - if it floats, it floats TiVo's boat.

I think I've finally weaned mine off Fred Dibnah, but very foolishly I then went and watched ten minutes of 'The Two Towers' - I'm going to have goblins wall to wall for the next six months; 'And now on Channel 4 - Celebrity Elf Squeezing with Graham Norton and Liza Minelli.'

You forgot to mention that abc1 does have repeats of the incomparable 'Moonlighting' - 'Run Cybill! Run!'

SAF said...

For more on "Run, Eliza, run!", see the final article in this little series of mine. :)

Meanwhile, I don't think we do get Moonlighting on abc1 - it's a Freeview version of abc1 and shuts off at 6pm every day, so maybe Moonlighting gets shown after that?