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.


Related posts:

Nightingales
PhoneShop
Peep Show

30 comments:

  1. It's not so much David Brent that Georg reminds me of: it's Gordon Brittas. Even allowing for the more traditionally British, semi-madcap nature of "The Brittas Empire", it's nevertheless Gordon who seems to me most like our new Icelandic friend(?)

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  2. Quite apart from tone, I think there is an essential difference, based on what I've seen so far of The Night Shift. Brittas (like Mainwaring) is a fundamentally decent person who may make misjudgements but who cares deeply about what he's doing; Georg seems more of an out-and-out bully whose supposed zeal is part of a power trip. But in fairness, maybe it's better to reserve judgement till the end ...

    Tony aka Pismotality

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  3. As an Icelandic watcher, I say you are in for a treat... the night watch is only the beginning of a tale, then comes the Day shift and the third season happens in a prison, that season is golden, its the funnies thing you will ever see :) It is then followed up with a full length cinema movie about George. I hope BBC will continue and show the other seasons because they really add meat to the bones of the characters :)

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  4. Well, I don't know... I was thinking of the first series of Brittas, in which Gordon was a much more unsympathetic character than he became later on, once we'd seen more of his vulnerabilities.

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  5. this program is a rare treat! I'm so hooked and very happy that there is 3 series and a film to look forward to. I really hope that the BBC continue showing it.

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  6. Night shift is a joy, and all the more impressive as it has a rather tragic undertow that gives it a rare depth. and the performances are spot on. Great

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  7. I love this show too. I tuned in out of curiousity and realised that even though it is slow at the beginning, I wanted to know more about the characters and kept watching. I now can't wait to watch every night and have a soft spot for Georg even though he seems a bit of a tool.
    I think his behaviour is a cover for a big softy on the inside who has been hurt and/or messed around a lot himself and there are tiny snippets of his having a soft spot for Olafur under the horrible bullying.
    You have a feeling as you watch that there is so much more to come from all of them and and chuffed to hear there are more series and a movie. My teen son watches Nightshift with me and he loves it too, which says a lot because he is quite particular in his tv programmes.
    Lally

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  8. I am addicted and want to hear more of the wonderful punk music

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  9. Having lived in REYKJAVIK for 15 years and knowing the particular petrol station on the main road into the town centre i find it very entertaining and funny and brilliant.
    Icelandic humour is special
    Good work to BBC 4 for showing these hope it becomes a regular showing??
    GEOFF ROBERTS

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  10. It is brilliant and developing nicely in terms of character. Essential viewing in our house and I am delighted to discover that there is more to come.

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  11. I came upon this series by accident while channel hopping. But what a find. Brittas empire, mixed with a little early Red Dwarf. But more than the sum of those parts, this extends instead into a rolling entertaining comedy of characters. I've watched all the episodes so far, up to episode 6 anyway, and it appears to be building to an entertaining conclusion. Fingers crossed anyway, but the prospects are good.

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  12. Keep waching, it just get better. Did you know that the actor playing Georg (the boss) is now the mayor of Reykjavik?

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  13. Thanks to the many Icelandic readers who pointed this out. (What next - Olafur as Minister for the Arts?)

    Tony aka Pismotality

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  14. This is a great show. And there is a movie too. Don´t watch the movie untill you watched the show. It will be better that way. The mayor of Reykjavík, who plays George, is a really cool guy and nothing like his character. He mixes politics and humour in a unique and strange surreal sort of way, but its real cool. He is unpredictable and different, for example last gay pride he showed up in drag inself, dressed as an old lady. His wife is Bjork´s best friend. She composed one of her most famous songs for her. So this is one cool dude. Best thing about him, he is real deep and a real artist too. And a brilliant actor, although self-taught in that as in everything else, cause he´s got big time ADHD. But he turned out all right! Proves ritalin is nonsense! Just some fun gossip for new watchers in the UK :) Have fun!

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  15. Great watch, and what is slightly overlooked is that some of those customers that enter the garage shop are well know faces in Iceland too, Birgitta Haukdal for example. Characters are great and Jón Gnarr as sadistic Georg make the comedy dryer than a bottle of gin. But oh, don´t you just feel for Oli? Poor guy.

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  16. great show, loved it. has it been released (with the sequels) on dvd or is there plans for one, either in iceland or worldwide yet?

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  17. Yes, The Night Shift and its two TV sequels (not sure about the film) have been issued on separate DVDs with English subtitles in Iceland and can be ordered from at least one Icelandic website (but not, as far as I know, from any UK or US-based sites at present).

    The Night Shift DVD, which I have ordered, costs about £25 including postage to the UK, so it might be worth waiting to see whether the BBC broadcast leads to a cheaper British release. I will add a note about the DVD here when it arrives but until then won't mention the site by name. You can find it easily enough by googling the original Iceland name for the series.

    Thank you to the many people who have added comments so far - hope you are still enjoying, as I am, the unfolding story.

    Tony aka Pismotality

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  18. This has got to be the funniest series I've seen since Fawlty Towers. I caught episode three by accident and have been totally hooked. Three great characters who I'm sure many people have worked with or who are incarnations of!

    Bring on the Day Shift, Prison shift and Bjarnfreðarson - BBC 4. An inspired choice of Programming.

    Brad

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  19. Naeturvaktin (Night Shift) DVD now safely received and checked. It was ordered from Shopicelandic.com using paypal and arrived within 5 days.

    Cost including postage was 30.44 euros: a little over £27. So yes, it is pricey, and English viewers, at least, aren't given anything in the way of extras or commentaries as additional enticement.

    But it does mean that, depending on your level of fanaticism or bank balance, there is a way of acquiring this and the two follow up series (Dagvaktin and Fangavaktin, also available at similar prices) if you can't wait for BBC 4.

    Tony aka Pismotality

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  20. As a night shift worker, I absolutely love this series. For me, it portrays really well the dissatisfaction, self-delusion and obsessiveness that I would say quite a few people doing these kinds of jobs experience. Traits which are precisely brought on, encouraged and developed as a result of working nights. I really hope we get to see more of this.

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  21. If you enjoyed the night shift can you please show your support by posting a comment on the BBC4 “your say” page.
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/bbcfour/yoursay/
    Feedback on that page does get back to BBC4 management and having positive comments posted there could help with getting the other “shift” series shown.

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  22. Have now investigated the Iceland-only section of the DVD: lucky Icelandic viewers get commentaries on several episodes, a fifteen minute documentary with contributions from the actors and other members of the team (no subtitles so I can only guess). An additional extra has what appear to be clips from early rehearsals contrasted with the broadcast results. If there is an official UK release, or a later edition, perhaps these extras could be subtitled as an additional incentive for UK viewers to purchase the DVD.

    Tony aka Pismotality

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  23. Am I the only one then who doesn't find it funny? Ten episodes in and I haven't laughed out once. I've smiled at the TV quite often - but more from seeing how they connect the story lines together. That's good drama, and good writing, but not necessarily good comedy. I will keep watching though...

    As a drama it is a tragedy; three entirely disenchanted beings bullying, resenting and loathing one another. Each is both prisoner and prison warden of the other, although the real prison is the dead-end job and the place of work itself. Ironically, those of us who do such a dead-end night shift job, can't watch it when the BBC schedules it. We have to record it or watch it on the iPlayer.

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  24. I suppose there is a hint of soap opera or drama about the storylines, but then again bullying, resentment and loathing aren't exactly unusual elements in sitcoms.

    And the idea of being trapped, "Each ... both prisoner and prison warder of the other" goes back to Steptoe and Son.

    But I think what makes this undoubtedly a sitcom rather than a drama series is the evident self delusion of two of the main characters, Georg and Olafur and the sense that however they feel about each other the main characters are interdependent, thus forming a quasi-family in best sitcom tradition.

    Tony aka Pismotality

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  25. For those still to watch the final episode on iplayer the following comment has been edited for spoiler alerts.

    Tony aka Pismotality

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  26. Night Shift is an absolutely wonderful piece of comedy drama, it reminds me why I bother to pay my T.V Licence at all - for the rare chance to see intelligent, off-beat and original shows on the BBC. Night Shift is a heroic oasis of wry, bleak, character driven comedy, amidst the barren wilderness of the prevailing derivative dross and easy one-liners that masquerade as original comedy and intelligent writing on the telly nowadays. Fearlessly bleak and courageously slow paced, Night Shift bucks the insidious trend of superficial and frenetic sitcoms emanating from the U.S. Yes, it takes a little more concentration to watch, and yes, there isn't an average of three one-liners per minute, but it's all the more rewarding for it. Each of our three anti-heroes: the tyranical but tragic Georg, the endearingly hopeless and gullible Olafur, and the frustratingly meek and self destructive Daniel (he packed in his medical studies to work at a petrol station!) are allowed to develop and reveal themselves as characters. We do more than just laugh at their one-liners - although admitedly there are a few, and they can be hilarious - we long for them to recognise their own foibles and delusions, we get to know them intimately, better than they know themselves, which is a mark of truly great writing. What's even more remarkable is that we actually bother to care. All three of our hapless heroes are failures, in life, love and work, and yet, we can't help but sympathise with them - even the odious and bullying Georg [...] - how can we not sympathise with such a tragic human being? Part of the brilliance of Night Shift is the performances: what should ostensibly be bleak and troubling to watch - two of life's losers, working interminable night shifts in a petrol station on the outskirts of Rekyavik, under the menacing glare of the pathological, malodorous and controlling Georg - is transformed in to the keenest observational character comedy by the sensitivity and depth of performance, at times excruciatingly real, which is of course, what makes it compelling, and crucially, hilarious. Thank goodness for BBC4, and thank goodness for Iceland, for reminding us that that Family Guy is not the benchmark of great comedy, that epithet belongs to Night Shift. Let's hope they show the next two series!

    James Brickley

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  27. Well put James. It would be a crying shame if BBC4 doesn't continue with Dagvaktin and the rest.

    Scott.

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  28. I am new to this medium and having never before posted on a social network - or even texed or tweeted for that matter. And I think it says everything that I have been moved to break my silence by this programme. It is quite simply exceptional, with an almost hypnotic quality that draws you back for more. The characters are beautifully written and almost 'symphonic' in the way they interact. Coupled with the quality of acting and the crafted way the humour is exposed (take Daniel's flight from romance to his flight for Sweden) this comedy is in a league of its own. I have seen nothing of this quality for 30 years or more. To be relegated to the status of a cult following would be a travesty. It deserves every accolade out there.

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  29. The icelandonscreen blog has a Q & A with one of the writers behind The Night Shift and its sequels which makes clear the fundamental importance of characterisation to the process:

    "The Shift series have always been about characters first and foremost. In the beginning, way before we started making plot ideas, we spent months on the three main characters, developing detailed profiles and as intricate back stories as we could muster for each of them. Almost all of the situation parts of the storyline sprang from us wondering what would happen if we’d put them in this or that predicament. Their back stories were endless fodder for awkward situations."

    You can read the whole piece here:

    http://icelandonscreen.wordpress.com/2011/05/18/qa-johann-aevar-grimsson-co-writer-of-the-night-shift-naeturvaktin/

    For readers looking for a guide to the craft, I strongly recommend Jurgen Wolff's Successful Sitcom Writing, which also endorses the character-led approach.

    You can buy it fairly cheaply on a well-known shopping website; the main difference between the two editions is in the choice of sitcoms provided as examples.

    Tony aka Pismotality

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  30. What a fabulous series! I have followed Holly's advice above and added a comment to 'have your say'.
    I watched the last 2 episodes last night and found myself laughing out loud a few times, which is quite rare for me to do when watching a television programme.
    I applaud BBC 4 for bringing international treasures to our living rooms, including Forbrydelsen. I am currently on the verge of purchasing The Day Shift and The Prison Shift from a well known auction site - as said above, for about £23 per series. It would be helpful to know if BBC 4 intend on showing these subsequent series to help save me a small fortune!

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