In the past few years, American television has gotten uncommonly good. We’ve seen some of the best dramatic programming since I, Claudius (including a stellar final season of The Sopranos, The Wire and Mad Men); some wonderfully unhinged science fiction, like LOST and Battlestar Galactica; and some great comedy, like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and The Daily Show. But while things are looking up (Jersey Shore aside), it’s hard to dispute that the British still do sitcoms better than us.
That’s not to say that we don’t have some great ones, like the aforementioned Sunny. It’s just that they’re doing slightly better. We’ve got 30 Rock, but they’ve got Darkplace. We have Curb Your Enthusiasm, but they have The Thick Of It (see the above video, and also go see the film version, In The Loop, undoubtedly the Dr. Strangelove of the Bush years). And we have The Office, but they have, well, The Office.
Actually, the example of The Office is pretty instructive when it comes to why UK sitcoms are ahead of the curve. The American version is a fine show, but there’s no denying that they sanded down some of the rougher edges from the original, transforming Ricky Gervais’ pathetic, aggressively insecure David Brent character into Steve Carrell’s adorable, warm-hearted Michael Scott. In other words, they made it safe; Michael Scott’s antics are way too outlandish to make you as mortified as Gervais ever did at the show’s peak. And I guarantee you that you’ll never see a scene in the American version like when (SPOILER) David Brent gets fired in the UK version’s second series and breaks down in tears.
That was an amazing moment, and not just because it showed a complete devotion to the verisimilitude of the mockumentary conceit (it’s inevitable that a boss that incompetent would have to be gotten rid of eventually). It also demonstrated that Gervais understood what few American TV and film writers (besides Gary Shandling and Burn After Reading/A Serious Man era Coen Brothers) have figured out: that some of the best comedy can be found in abject, soul-crushing misery. The end of Series 2 of The Office was almost totally devoid of laughs, but in all of the darkness, Gervais and co-writer Stephen Merchant revealed a desperate, human side to the show’s chief comedic foil that elevated the show above practically anything else on television at the time. Plus, it set us up for a killer Christmas Special.
The lesson is: Pathetic is funny. Desperate and depressed is funny. And if you confront them unflinchingly, then even if you give your characters a happy ending it will feel earned.
Enter Peep Show. A friend of mine introduced me to this particular British sitcom during the last week of vacation, and I got so hooked I ended up doing about a season a week. The premise is pretty standard: two roommates share a flat. One of them is a narcissistic, perpetually upbeat musician (Jeremy), and the other one is a tightly-wound, mopey office drone (Mark). But three things elevate this show above practically any other sitcom I’ve ever seen: the great chemistry between the two lead actors, the way the show wallows in the misery of the two main characters, and the way it forces us to get inside their heads in a way I’ve never seen on television before.
95% of the camera angles on the show are first-person perspective from one character or another, and the episodes are filled with voice-overs by the two main characters of their running internal monologues. So we get to hear exactly what they’re thinking, including their reactions to the most horrible things life throws at them. Choice quotes include: “This is like pornography. Except I can’t see anything. And I want to cry.” and “That’s alright. This will only haunt me for the rest of my life.”
As you’ve probably gathered by now, the style of the show is mostly humiliation comedy for people who don’t find Curb Your Enthusiasm to be excruciatingly awkward enough. Highlights from the show include Mark stalking a co-worker he’s desperately in love with, and Jeremy emotionally abusing his own mother in a desperate attempt to get his great aunt’s inheritance money. But the show never descends into cartoonish It’s Always Sunny territory, mostly because the humor is less broad and the characters remain believable, and even, somehow, sympathetic. Their pain is our pain. And amazingly, when the semi-sociopathic Jeremy starts to actually feel compassion for other people in the sixth series, it feels real, and even kind of touching.
It’s been floating around that Spike TV might be picking up an American adaptation of the show, but I’m not terribly optimistic for that. Spike isn’t exactly HBO, for one thing, but I also just don’t see a big enough American audience for the kind of laughs from existential anguish that Peep Show traffics in. But who knows, maybe I’m wrong; The Office had a cult following in the US before it got adapted, and is currently running on Adult Swim. And they’re keeping on the original writers, who will hopefully be able to prevent it from becoming a Sunny knock-off, or toothless bromantic comedy.
In the meantime, if you want to see some of the funniest soul-crushing despair ever put on television, you can watch full episodes of the original series here.