Friday, July 15, 2011

The Complete Black Books (2000 - 2004)

Bernard Black is a vile, selfish, reprehensible misanthrope, a perpetually chain-smoking drunk who owns a small independent bookshop in London. Worse than that, he isn't even a likeable old misanthrope...he seems to be just a rather nasty person, and you can't think of a single reason that anyone would want to be around him for more than a few minutes before they ran screaming off into oblivion. Unless, of course, you've ever encountered another human being in your lifetime. Then, you can see him for what he is; the person you sometimes WANT to be, but, due to the fact that you are a decent human being, can't allow yourself to be. ESPECIALLY if you've ever worked a retail job in your life. Bernard is a frustrated intellectual, angry that the world doesn't place more importance on people with HIS abilities, and rather focuses all of its attention on people who run up and down fields kicking balls or acting badly in pointless movies with no plot. As miserable as a person as Bernard is, you can IDENTIFY with him, and that contributes to his appeal...even though, technically speaking, he has none.

Bernard is portrayed by Dylan Moran, and the character is a not-too-distant cousin of Moran's own onstage persona when he is performing stand-up. When he isn't violently ejecting patrons from his bookshop, he's drinking with his friend and trinket-shop-next-door owner (at least in Series 1...) Fran, played terrifically by Tamsin Grieg. And to balance out all of Bernard's negativity (and to possibly explain why ANYONE in their right mind would ever venture into the bookshop in the first place) is Manny, portrayed by another British stand-up comic of tremendous renown, Bill Bailey. In many ways, Bailey and his character actually steal the show, for while he frequently reacts to Moran's character the way a normal human would (usually leading to some humorous events, sometimes an entire episode's worth), he himself is also capable of some of the most outlandish and bizarre (and incredibly funny) behavior when left to his own devices.

Black Books is a sitcom, and never pretends to be anything more than that. It uses many of the standard sitcom clichés. There are pratfalls aplenty, people running towards or away from things in varying degrees of panic, and other staples of the genré. But it's the clever way these are used, or the letter perfect timing, or just the wonderful way in which they're actually performed, that makes them still funny. There are some inventive twists as well, including a hysterical camera-angle-reveal joke involving Manny being interviewed by an INCREDIBLY drunk Bernard in a bar for the job at the bookshop in the very first episode. Outlandish scenarios are always popping up (look for a great Frankenstein sequence with Moran and Bailey as the Doctor and Igor trying to create a bottle of wine instead of reanimate a person), but the writing is tight, efficient, and strong (and always funny), so everything has a certain logic to it.

As a bonus, the first two series have all 3 main cast members sitting together doing a commentary track for each of the first 12 episodes. Very little of the commentary track has anything to do with what's actually occurring onscreen, but because Moran and Bailey are such inventive comedians with minds that look in the world in a unique way, the tracks comprise an entire new set of comedic material, well worth the price of the 3 DVD set alone. One must also watch the 2 and a half minute short film "Bernard's Letter", a 3rd disc bonus tour de force in which Bernard deals with a rejection letter of his novel in a brilliant way.

The show only runs 3 series of 6 episodes of roughly 25 minutes each, but that's one of the great things about the British and their sitcoms. There are only 18 episodes in total because they believe in QUALITY over QUANTITY. They know when enough is enough, and they leave well enough alone before it becomes stale, repetitive, unimaginative, and most importantly, just not funny. Each episode was written at least partially, if not completely, by Moran, and it shows in his understanding of how humans fail to deal with each other properly. He just has an incredibly funny way of pointing this out to the viewer, thankfully.

No comments:

Post a Comment