When American Dad! began in 2005, it was a satire of post-9/11 America under the Bush administration, using the ultra-conservative character of CIA agent Stan Smith (Seth MacFarlane) to poke fun at the right-wing zealots that the show’s creators believed were running the country.
During its first few seasons, the series tackled many controversial issues, such as the threat of domestic terrorism (in Season 1’s Homeland Insecurity), gun control (in Season 1’s Stannie Get Your Gun) and government surveillance (in Season 2’s I Can’t Stan You). Now in its 10th season, American Dad! has long since abandoned political satire in favour of surreal riffs on popular culture. While still amusing, it increasingly resembles the zany Simpsons replica its detractors have always accused it of being.
The Season 10 première, Steve & Snot’s Test-Tubular Adventure, is a parody of various science fiction films that focuses on nerdy teenagers Steve (Scott Grimes) and Snot (Curtis Armstrong) attempting to clone a pair of high school girls in order to lose their virginity. When the clones emerge from their pods, helpless and looking for guidance, Steve and Snot find themselves torn between paternal love and raging adolescent lust.
The plot is as distasteful as it sounds, but writers Jordan Blum and Parker Deay manage to avoid turning the episode into a hateful piece of misogyny. It’s clear that Steve and Snot are meant to be the butt of the joke, as they struggle to cope with the consequences of having the sex they so desperately crave, and the show repeatedly highlights the stupidity of female objectification through the characters of Hayley (Rachael MacFarlane) and Roger (Seth MacFarlane). In most cases, the absurdity of the episode’s storyline makes it too silly to be genuinely offensive, and lines such as “oh my God, I wish I had your eating disorder” succeed on audacity alone. However, the sequence in which Stan inflicts violence on the clones, who exist solely to fulfil the male characters’ sexual desires, is more problematic and undermines the episode’s larger message. It’s almost as if the writers are trying to have their cake and eat it, laughing at violence towards women while disingenuously telling viewers that they don’t really mean it.
Steve & Snot’s Test-Tubular Adventure is a so-so episode of American Dad! that sticks closely to the show’s familiar formula of bad taste gags and fantastical plots. The homages to Weird Science, Blade Runner and many other iconic sci-fi films are well executed and will entertain movie buffs, but the main storyline feels tired (Steve has been concocting elaborate schemes to lose his virginity since the pilot) and simply an excuse to run through a catalogue of pop culture references. Season 1’s A Smith in The Hand dealt with teenage sexuality far more successfully, examining a contentious political issue with satirical humour in order to make an important ideological point. That episode followed Stan as he learned self-acceptance through the joys of masturbation and, in so doing, realised the importance of proper sex education for young people. There is nothing with that level of insight in Steve & Snot’s Test-Tubular Adventure.
A subplot involving Stan and a cloned Dodo in this episode is symptomatic of the show’s biggest flaw – it’s no longer interested in anything except wacky adventures. Far removed from the climate of fear and paranoia that existed in America in the mid-2000s, MacFarlane’s satire of the War on Terror and neoconservative politics feels outdated and irrelevant. Recognising this, MacFarlane and his team should either have brought the show to an end or found new political targets to lampoon, instead of relying on ever more surreal scenarios to keep viewers entertained. As it enters its 10th season, American Dad! is a shadow of its former self – sporadically funny but long past its best.
American Dad! Season 10 Episode 1 is on Fox at 10pm on 01/01/2015.
*Warning: Contains spoilers*
The Christmas special of Call the Midwife is the first without Jessica Reine and it isn’t diminished for her absence. Jenny Lee may have been the locus point of the action, but Call the Midwife has always been an ensemble piece. Jenny is still there in one form, with Vanessa Redgrave as the narrator who now receives a bit of screentime as she considers writing her memoirs.
The books that the television series is based upon are a good deal darker, nastier and more sinister than what we get on screen but you can still count on Call the Midwife for a bit of seasonal misery. This year, the theme is archaic and inhumane institutions of the early 20th century. Very festive.
And so we are reminded that the poor are always with us at Christmas. This year’s paupers in question are the always excellent Kacey Ainsworth and her lover. They are both former inmates of a lunatic asylum and they live a life of desperate poverty. Thankfully for them, a nurse has come along to patronise them and feel sad on their behalf. You can’t eat moral platitudes, Cynthia, but thanks for that.
The second storyline concerns a home for errant girls, where young women in the family way used to go to discreetly give birth and pass their children on for adoption without arousing the sneers of the neighbours. This home is run by a bad woman. We know she’s bad because she immediately declares herself to be a stickler for hygiene and that’s a clear insanity signifier. As it progresses, she reveals herself to be cruel, imcompetent and a gin-soaked lush. Thankfully, all it takes is a bit of sass from one of the pregnant girls and she’s away with the wind and the girls from Nonnatus House are on their way to provide maternal care, morally dubious emotional blackmail and lashings of ginger beer.
Call the Midwife is essentially an exercise in nostalgia for a time that never existed except perhaps in Ann Widdecombe’s wet dreams. The good and the bad are easily distinguished, and all it takes to vanquish evil is a jolly good ticking off, poverty is a tolerable inconvenience and sometimes even a blessing, love is pure and forever and every woman is a perfect mother in waiting. Or a nun.
Yes, it’s sentimental, mawkish and morally vacuous at its worst but it’s almost impossible to dislike. There is no malice or cruelty and it has a heart which makes it more than bearable. Besides, it’s an impressive feat to make blood, guts, gore, destitution, and unyielding human misery into something so sweet and wholesome.
Call The Midwife is on at 7.50pm on BBC1 on Christmas Day.
When it comes to comedy 2014 has been a year of revivals and remakes. You had the Monty Python reunion, ITV has revived Birds of a Feather, and on Radio 4 they brought back Dead Ringers and re-recorded some episodes of Hancock’s Half Hour that were missing from the archives.
On Boxing Day 2013 another classic comedy was brought back; Open All Hours. However, like with Monty Python there was the minor issue that one of the stars was now dead. Is it at all possible for such a show to maintain a high standard even when a major figure cannot be brought back? Judging by the viewing figures from last year, yes. The pilot for Still Open All Hours attracted over 9 million viewers. Given that this just about outdoes almost all other sitcoms around today, it is not surprising that a full series has been commissioned.
Still Open All Hours is still set in Arkwright’s corner shop in Doncaster, albeit with the late Albert Arkwright (Ronnie Barker) no longer behind the counter – although everyone seems to believe that his spirit and miserliness has become manifested in the shop’s dreaded till. Arkwright’s picture still hangs in the backroom of the shop, looking over everything and everyone. Now Granville runs the shop, inheriting his uncle’s miserly tendencies, assisted by his illegitimate son Leroy (James Baxter).
Granville is trying to woo his long-term love Wavy Mavis (Maggie Ollerenshaw), but her sister Madge (Brigit Forsyth) seems intent on preventing any relationship between the two. Granville still has some of his regular customers like Nurse Gladys Emmanuel (Lynda Baron), and the black widow Mrs. Featherstone (Stephanie Cole), who is constantly trying to court him. There are some other relatively new customers such as henpecked Wet Eric (Johnny Vegas) and intestine-troubled Gastric (Tim Healy).
This first episode of the new series, which like the pilot is on Boxing Day, confusingly is set on Valentine’s Day. In it Granville tries to have a night out with Mavis, while trying to match up Gastric with Madge in order to create more opportunities form himself and Mavis – this storyline become a recurring plot in later episodes in the series.
It has to be said that Still Open All Hours is rather good. While Ronnie Barker is of course sadly missed, much of what still makes the series funny is still around: we still have most of the main characters; many of the jokes are recognisable, but not too obvious; the new characters are also funny and played by reliable comedy performers. Aside from Vegas and Healy, there are also people as varied as Nina Wadia and Barry Chuckle (under his real name of Barry Elliott).
Much of the credit has to go to the writer Roy Clarke. It must be said I was slightly worried when he decided to revive Open All Hours originally, because while Clarke is a funny writer, he is not good at deciding when a project should stop. His other famous work is Last of the Summer Wine which may be the longest-running sitcom in the world and one of the most repeated shows on British television, but was past its prime a long time ago. Open All Hours suffers from this problem a lot less because there were only four original series, so when it was revived there was plenty of time to develop new ideas.
Many people complain that reviving such sitcoms shows a lack of imagination on the half of TV commissioners. I would argue that if this show can still pull in the viewers, modern comedy writers need to up their game in order to attract people’s attention.
Gather round, gather round! Bring your family and friends and come join me at the hearth with a warm glass of cocoa (is that still a thing anymore?) to watch the festive edition of Mrs Brown’s Boys!
I wish that were how I could honestly begin this review, but the truth is that the Christmas special is a bit like an awkward family gathering at Christmas; it can be okay at times, but there’s almost certainly something else you’d rather be doing. The special is a watchable, light piece of TV, but it’s unlikely to appeal to anyone outside its established fanbase.
The problem with the episode is arguably a problem with the format of the show. For those unfamiliar with it, Mrs Brown’s Boys is performed live in front of a studio audience, and any mistakes made are caught on camera and kept in the television broadcast. The show is at its funniest when someone forgets a line and the rest of the cast improvise around them; and the frequency with which this happens in previous series is what makes the show easy to love. It shows that there are real people behind those performances and we laugh at their misfortune. But therein lies the rub; it’s easy to laugh at Mrs Brown’s Boys but it’s difficult to laugh with it.
The cast’s ability to adlib is one of the show’s greatest strengths. Yet for almost certainly its biggest audience of the year, the cast have stayed rigidly on script. As a result, a lot of the humour is lost and a weak script that relies too much on innuendo and fourth wall breaking for laughs doesn’t provide any relief. The innuendo quickly becomes repetitive and tiresome. The jokes are often predictable, and even when there are ideas with great potential (SPOILERS: a talking Christmas tree), the comic opportunity is squandered and quickly descends into cringeworthy farce.
The Christmas special is some mildly amusing if unsatisfying comedy that’s an easy watch if you want to put something on the TV, but this is a present that’s best put back under the tree.
Mrs Brown’s Boys Christmas Special will broadcast on BBC One on Thursday 25 December at 10.05pm.
The popular opinion about Ricky Gervais is that he co-wrote and co-directed one of the greatest sitcoms of all time, but that he has produced mediocre work ever since. While Gervais’ output since The Office has lacked that show’s incisiveness and originality, to dismiss Extras and Derek as substandard vanity projects is to miss out on some quality writing and fine comedic performances. Besides, if Gervais hasn’t created anything quite as good as The Office in recent years, then neither has anyone else and his “mediocre” work is still superior to many writers’ best efforts.
Set in a nursing home full of eccentric residents, hard-working carers and socially-awkward volunteers, Gervais’ offbeat Channel 4 sitcom Derek tells the story of a kind-hearted outsider (played by Gervais) and his struggle to answer life’s big existential questions while coming to terms with various emotional traumas, from the death of his elderly friends to estrangement from his long-lost father.
In what may be Gervais’s most melancholy and sentimental piece of work since the Extras finale, Derek: The Special wraps up the series with an hour-long episode based around Hannah (Kerry Goldiman) and Tom’s (Brett Goldstein) unconventional wedding. As the bride and groom prepare for a grim, no-thrills reception in the nursing home, cartoonish supporting character Kev’s (David Earl) longstanding battle with alcoholism and depression reaches crisis point and Derek is forced to confront the possibility of losing his best friend.
It’s not traditional sitcom subject matter, but then Derek isn’t a conventional show, using its odd blend of naturalistic faux-documentary and broad farce to explore heavy themes of grief, loss and survival in the face of despair. It mostly works, with the cast’s uniformly impressive performances smoothing over occasionally jarring transitions in tone, from touching sentiment to gross-out toilet humour. Godliman in particular is excellent, grounding the show in a reality that is otherwise missing from its outlandish scenarios and gallery of oddball characters.
Gervais is still capable of writing funny lines (“butterflies are the gayest insect”), and his imaginative staging of scenes, particularly Derek’s romantic candlelit dinner surrounded by on-looking pensioners, ensures that the laughter quotient remains high. It would only take a slight misstep to turn the series’ jet black humour into full-blown horror; and several sections of The Special are painfully bleak, but Gervais manages to successfully walk the fine line between tragedy and comedy.
Much has been written about Gervais’ lead performance as Derek, with critics disagreeing as to whether the character is intended to be learning-disabled, and then whether his performance casts disability in a positive or negative light. Guardian journalist Tanya Gold once wrote that “[Gervais] feeds bigots their lines”, and that his comedy “feels more like lazy cruelty than satire”. Prominent disability campaigner Nicky Clark disagrees, saying of Derek: “I’ve laughed and cried…I haven’t seen cruelty, I haven’t seen Gervais “playing disabled”. For his part, Gervais has always denied that the character of Derek is supposed to suffer from a developmental disability. Watching the series, this denial feels more like an attempt to deflect criticism than an honest analysis of his performance, as Gervais’ Derek is reminiscent of every famous screen portrayal of autism from Tom Hanks as Forrest Gump to Dustin Hoffman in Rain Main.
However, to fixate on whether or not Derek is disabled is missing the point. It’s apparent from the outset that Gervais is attempting to champion the marginalised and vulnerable members of society, rather than mocking them. Over Derek’s 15 episodes, the show has continually extolled the virtues of kindness and compassion over cruelty, selfishness and greed. This message is either mawkish and patronising or profound and inspiring, depending on your point of view, but at the very least Gervais deserves credit for moving on from his ironic egotism to something approaching heart-on-sleeve sincerity.
If you’re already a fan of Derek, there is plenty to enjoy in The Special. It’s a downbeat, if cautiously optimistic, ending to a show that has always been preoccupied with life’s darker aspects. It may prove too gloomy and peculiar to win Gervais any new fans or to impress his doubters, but that may be the point. After all, he stopped paying attention to popular opinion a long time ago.
Derek: The Special is on Channel 4 on 22nd December 2014 at 10pm.
BLIMEY BUT THERE ARE SPOILERS IN THIS
It’s an odd idea, a “Black Mirror” Christmas special – one starring Jon Hamm and Rafe Spall, no less – but Charlie Brooker’s Amicus-style, festive anthology revels in its incongruity. In the story’s first segment, Hamm is a dating guru, dispensing “The Game”-worthy advice to nervous would-be players. The role is pretty typical for him, but that seems deliberate. The character is your internal cool-guy fantasy, externalised and given the face of Don Draper. Because that’s how you always pictured him, right?
It’s the first example of a theme that runs through “White Christmas”: social media as a metaphor for relationships. The wingman on your mobile, couples ‘blocking’ each other out. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram don’t replace social interaction: they make it almost constant. We live in public (and that will prove to have a tragic flipside later in the story).
In the second segment, we learn Hamm’s day job is duplicating the minds of rich customers and conditioning those copies to work as home hubs. Brooker acknowledged in the Q&A that followed last week’s preview screening that this could be read as a comment on Western consumers’ easy reliance on slave labour, but there’s also a fascinating question in there about ‘artificial’ intelligence.
If we make computers as smart as humans, can we still treat them like computers? To steal the words of science fiction author Lance Parkin, the mind isn’t what the brain does: it’s what electricity does while it’s in the brain. You don’t really even need the meat bit. Only last week, the OpenWorm project announced it had successfully simulated a worm’s brain and placed it into a Lego robot. Duplicate a music file and you’ve got two music files. Putting aside the comforting, obfuscatory hogwash of ‘a soul’, why should a duplicated human mind not be a human mind all the same?
In the concluding chapters of the story, we learn that, while Hamm and Spall might not actually be in the same situation, they do share a fate: social isolation. In our modern, constantly connected world, it is a cruel punishment. The pair exist in full view of others while divorced from them. Hamm’s character, a charismatic guy, constantly in control, meets that with confusion: a player isn’t much use if he can’t interact with the people he wants to play.
For Spall, it’s crueller still. He is, as Hamm’s character observes, a good man. That doesn’t mean he isn’t capable of doing bad things, but it does mean he understands with vicious pain how bad they are. The mental torture of the ill deeds done against him, jumbled up with the guilt of what he has done. His dreams, his pain, do not matter except to condemn him for what amounts to eternity. The cruellest sting of his isolation is the knowledge that he deserves it. Begin unpacking that final scene, and you’ll never sleep this Christmas night.
Black Mirror: White Christmas iss broadcast on 16 December at 9pm on Channel 4.
Rik Mayall’s comic persona was a pathetic, rubber faced loser fizzing with frenetic energy and drunk on his own arrogance. This character was alive, completely unbelievable and yet somehow credible. Others may have been influenced by Mayall’s blend of complete social inadequacy and self-indulgence but he was inimitable in performance. More than that, he was contextually significant. Along with the rest of the alternative comedy movement, Mayall marked the moment that British comedy evolved, grew legs and became culturally important.
Rik Mayall: Lord of Misrule is a retrospective of the legendary comedian who died on the 9th of June this year. The documentary makes great use of the volume of archive footage of Mayall from his stand up days, through the Young Ones and the Comic Strip, Kevin Turvey, The New Statesman and his scene stealing appearances in Blackadder. And with Mayall as its subject it simply couldn’t fail.
In capturing Mayall’s public comedic persona, the documentary doesn’t put a foot wrong. But whilst there are backstage contributions from the likes of Lenny Henry, Ben Elton and Alexei Sayle among others, any real insight into his private persona is thin on the ground. Conspicious by their absence are the comedians we associate him most closely with – Jennifer Saunders, Dawn French, Peter Richardson, Nigel Planer and, of course, his best friend and long-term collaborator, Adrian Edmondson.
Early in production, Edmondson spoke of his decision not to be involved in the project. He felt that the whole thing was too wacky and too flippant to do Mayall any justice. You can’t help but have sympathy for his stance and he isn’t wrong. This is a flippant documentary but it’s difficult to see how it could have gone any other way. If there’s a problem with Rik Mayall, it’s just that he was too damn funny. He is incapable of inspiring unhappiness or even poignancy. He just makes you want to laugh. And really, what better compliment for a comedian is that?
Rik Mayall: Lord of Misrule will be broadcast on the 20th December at 10.05pm on BBC2.
Steph and Dom Meet Nigel Farage is exactly what it sounds like. The concept of this programme is a married couple, who were on Gogglebox, inviting a famous person to their hotel, arguing with each other and getting drunk. It’s being touted as a totally new form of television interviewing and it is, in the sense that it’s not actually an interview but three posh people sitting around slurring their words for half an hour.
This week’s special guest is Nigel Farage. It starts off with promise as Steph and Dom ply him with alcohol as soon as he enters the lobby. He has a beer because he fucking would. Then he goes to the pub and has a couple more. He brags about the strength of his cigarettes as though that’s directly proportional to the size of his dick and waffles on in a boring, self-righteous way about not being able to smoke indoors.
Man of the people image confirmed, he gets back to the guesthouse and stuck into the pink champagne. Sufficiently lubricated, Steph and Dom begin to question him. Steph and Dom are naturally hilarious and their questions are as astute as any political journalist, since political journalists don’t ask Farage a lot anyway. But they don’t ask him anything he hasn’t been questioned on before and he doesn’t offer anything new either and they’re both far too polite to push him.
Farage throughout is palpably nervous about getting wrecked and sticking his foot in his mouth and that’s a fate he manages to avoid. That being said, at one point he announces with bizarre conviction; “I don’t find Hitler very funny.” He then pauses and, lest he be thought humourless, he reassures his hosts that he does find other things funny. “Mussollini can be quite funny.” For me that raised more questions than it answered but Steph and Dom didn’t take the bait. Instead, they just looked at him like he was a drunken guest rambling on about nothing of significance. Which, in fairness, is what he was for the entire duration of the programme.
And that’s the lot. Steph and Dom are watchable enough and they manage to carry the show but it was all a bit pointless and bland. Hopefully, next time they’ll get someone properly plastered and embarrassing. Presumably that’s what’s supposed to happen.
Steph and Dom Meet Nigel Farage will be broadcast on the 15th December at 10.00pm on Channel 4.
There’s a bit in the Citizen Khan Christmas Special where Mr Khan splays his legs in a birthing pool, makes high-pitched, moaning noises and thrusts his crotch into his son-in-law’s face. It’s as dignified as it sounds. It’s odd, contrived and not actually even slightly funny.
It’s the best bit in the whole show.
It’s a Christmas special, so there’s a vague attempt to float a nativity theme to give the aimless blundering from one inane scene to the next some appearance of structure. The main storyline is that Shazia’s having a baby and she wants a homebirth. Then she has one. For the uninitiated, homebirths are disgusting. They’re all blood and meconium on suede upholstery and exploding placentas. Have you ever tried to wash placenta out of your hair? There are bits of gristly membrane that cling to the follicles and start smelling like a dead animal if you miss any. Anyway, that didn’t happen in this episode, which is a shame, because it probably would have improved things.
Instead, there are acres of forced, tiresome dialogue building up to one awful punchline that you could have already picked out ten minutes before its delivered and brief moments of shoehorned slapstick. On the plus side, the canned laughter people are having a brilliant time.
At one point, there’s an attempt at establishing that this is a family comedy and therefore there is real affection between these characters. This could be a saving grace if it had worked, but the characters are so thinly drawn that it’s impossible to feel any attachment to any of them. Alia, in particular, is a hijabi who actually isn’t very devout and likes looking at her smartphone and that’s it. She has no other personality traits whatsoever.
In the past, Citizen Khan has been accused of being offensive and perpetuating stereotypes. It does perpetuate stereotypes and not particularly pleasant ones either. Misogyny, chauvinism, bitter, deep-rooted ethnic tensions. That being said, it manages pull off the trick of not being offensive. The ham delivery and predictable punchlines of all of these jokes are so crass and juvenile that it’s impossible to be insulted. That’s an achievement of sorts.
The Citizen Khan Christmas Special will be broadcast on 19 December at 8.30pm on BBC1.
Beloved of Gareth Keenan types everywhere, Bear Grylls represents the last true bastion of manliness in this soft, feminised age. Where men get their beards waxed, wear designer clothes and never come closer to nature than lounging in London Fields with the squirrels and the pigeons. Or something like that.
Continuing with his tradition of taking celebrities and thrusting them into his world of pain and hardship, Bear has brought along comedy legend Ben Stiller for a two day adventure on the Isle of Skye. Why Ben Stiller?
‘Ben’s a comedy legend but I think behind that talent is a man who really yearns for adventure’
Says Bear. Although I’m not sure where he’s getting that idea from.
Anyway, Ben’s at a whisky distillery, sampling the produce and waiting for Bear to turn up. When he does, he’s on a helicopter, and the two of them climb aboard. But, not inside the chopper, oh no! They’re standing on the undercarriage for no reason in particular, other than that it looks so god-damn cool (although he pulled the same stunt with Stephen Fry last year, who didn’t quite manage it with such style).
The chopper drops them off in the mountains and Bear waves off the pilot like a man who’s just stumbled out of a taxi after a Saturday night bender. Doesn’t give him a tip though, the stingy git.
As they slip and slide their way up and down the mountains, Bear calls out more encouragement and praise for his teammate. “You’re tough,” “you’re a fighter,” “you’re a survivor!’”
Ben, it turns out, is equally confused as we are as to how Bear has formed this impression. Or why he’s plagiarising the empowering lyrics of Destiny’s Child.
Their next challenge is to rappel down into a narrow gully. They have ‘no idea what they’ll find down there’, although luckily there happens to be a film crew waiting to film their descent, which really is a fortunate coincidence. I don’t wish to sound snide, but the constant ramping up of the danger quotient and ominous pronouncements of doom do wear a little thin after a while.
They spend the night in a cave, drinking naturally filtered water and eating flame cooked limpets with wild garlic which Bear invitingly describes as ‘absolutely disgusting’. They swap stories of their families, and it is a genuinely heart-warming scene as they find common ground discussing the challenges of maintaining a healthy work-life balance.
Next morning, they have to Jumar back up the cliff they rappelled down before – a technique involving a pair of metal clamps that can only slide up. Ben is flapping all over the place and really struggling, but to his great credit he makes it all the way up. All that’s left now is a tricky walk along a rocky shoreline, and a leap into the ocean before swimming to the seaplane to complete their adventure.
On the whole, Ben Stiller comes across as an all-round first-class chap. He doesn’t spend the whole trip moaning and whinging and he tackles the challenges head-on, keeping up a cheery demeanour and a good sense of humour throughout. Bear is equally impressed and awards Ben an honorary kilt for his troubles.
It’s easy to laugh at this show, with its OTT set-pieces and concise, 45 minute personal development message, but its heart is in the right place. With a bit more restraint and less pre-orchestrated stunts, it could be a real winner.
Actually, that sounds really boring. I say more extremes, more attitude, more peril! Next week, Bruce Forsyth joins Bear and the French Foreign Legion on a 300 mile hike through the Namib Desert. I hope.
Bear’s Wild Weekend with Ben Stiller is available to watch now online