Tuesday, 10 May 2011
Why new Icelandic sitcom is straight from the fridge (The Night Shift, BBC 4)
As a further contribution to this blog's intermittent series of non-musical posts, allow me to draw youir attention to The Night Shift, a sitcom set in an all-night garage in Reykjavik which promises to be, on the basis of the first two episodes broadcast last night on BBC 4, pretty good.
Yes, the basic elements are familiar enough from British series: obnoxious boss, likeable chump of an employee plus one more sensitive specimen, an ex-student (top) lately brought into the set-up and still trying to get the lie of the land. Sort of a cross between The Office and the late Paul Makin's Nightingales, minus the latter's surrealistic streak.
Like The Office, there is no studio audience, so the performances don't have to be big - and so far some of the best moments are about reactions, especially when emissaries from the outside world (customers, police, the boss's disenchanted son) are witness to the goings-on.
There is also a girl who works in what appears to be a mini-mart type of set up attached to the garage. One pleasing moment: introduced to the new employee - not exactly handsome but more of a prospect than the dumpy worker she already knows - she unconsciously bares more of her shoulders.
In another scene, the dumpy one engages her in pointless conversation then shifts into a sort of oblique chat-up routine, informing her that he is planning to get a piercing but is not sure about which part of his body to choose. She shoots him down, unconsciously or otherwise, by relating the tale of someone who had a c*ck ring which became infected, leading to a severely truncated member.
So far so good. There is, however, one potential drawback to The Night Shift, although I'm waiting to see how things pan out over the twelve (I think) episodes.
At present the boss (looking not unlike a chubbier Lenin) is wholly obnoxious, and clearly has grown used to bullying the chump under the guise of zeal for the job: demonstrating self-defence, he causes the chump actual physical pain in Episode 2, and it's interesting to watch the ex-student hesitating before common humanity obliges him to point out that enough is enough.
The boss is a divorcee with a young son on the premises who clearly has no interest in playing the role of a quasi-employee and monitoring the CCTV for no pay. In retaliation his father, with the ostensible object of keeping him fit, sends him out at three in the morning to collect empty cans nearby and he is picked up by the police.
That divorce is a good detail, because it suggests vulnerability, however well suppressed during most interactions, and I do hope we are given more chinks in the boss's armour.
My friend and writing buddy late of North Berwick used to say that the trouble with Ricky Gervais's character in The Office was that he knew he was a b*stard - by which I think he meant that he was too one-dimensional, that there was no prospect of him ever changing or being troubled by self-doubt, and so your interest was really all in how others reacted to him, whereas the joy of a Basil Fawlty, say, is that our sympathy ebbs and flows: yes, he's an emotional car crash, as one critic put it, but quite often he's dealing with unreasonable people (not least his shrewish wife or Joan Sanders' imperious guest, below) and we can, however briefly, sympathise. (Sadly, my friend did not survive to see the end of The Office and Brent's unexpected and rather touching redemption, which might have caused him to qualify his view.)
Anyway, I do hope we'll get more insight into what drives the boss in future episodes. He certainly looks very sheepish at the end of Episode 2, which is a good sign.
I will also be intrigued to find out more about the police as the sitcom continues, and further evidence of their attitude to the boss. Although they obligingly deliver a letter to a sister garage in return for some - literal - bread, they don't seem to be shaping up like the workshy pair in Early Doors (below) who treat the pub in that series as their own exclusive club and hideaway from their official duties.
I suspect the question, as The Night Shift progresses, will be how far they can be *rsed to intervene when faced with further evidence of the boss's unhinged nature: the second episode ended with the chump sprayed by the boss as part of his self-defence lessons, screaming in pain, with the ex-student finally making an executive decision and declaring he was taking him to casualty; although the police, already dazed by the boss's treatment of his son, seemed horrified by this example of violence-as-training it wasn't not clear whether they were about to take action.
I do hope it won't be an Alan Partridge situation, where we can all feel a bit or a lot superior - and the fact of the child's being part of the action suggests other possibilities (Alan's Fernando is referred to but never appears). The ex-student hid from an old university friend who recognised him in Episode 1, so maybe there will be more to uncover there too.
And it may be unfair to call the chump the chump; he manages a group (or does so in his head, anyway) and such details as his putting the sound down on his walkie talkie when there is a further diatribe on some trivial matter from the boss hint at the possibility of eventual rebellion (he is also being royally scr*wed on the matter of wages with an elaborate but arbitrary system of fines, so there may be a time when he reacts against that, too).
In short, it's impossible to tell yet precisely how good it will be, but the elements of this undoubtedly character-driven comedy are already simmering away nicely, and a) if you can access bbc iplayer here (be warned the availability of TV content on the iplayer, unlike that of radio, is limited outside the UK) and b) are a student of sitcom or c) a graduate or continuing victim of a boring job with an officious line manager - then try this Icelandic mini-saga. It promises great things.
In fact, if I might be permitted a lapse into the vernacular, I'd go so far as to say that on the evidence of these opening episodes The Night Shift could prove to be - forgive me - really cool.