Saturday, 17 August 2013

More stuff about sitcoms

On the general subject of new or newish sitcoms I have been unimpressed with two of the latest, Family Tree and Big School. The former is directed by Christopher Guest, and I've never been that keen on his films, so perhaps enthusiasists can discount what I have to say. But I'll try to say it anyway in case anyone else has been underwhelmed.


First of all, the topdressing of dialogue feels improvised. I mean, I know it is, but for me it feels that way: there's a cuteness and a knowingness about it. There's a broad narrative structure which allows for a kind of shaggy dog tale about exploring family roots - and yes, the title isn't exactly misrepresentation - and yes, there's no reason why a story has to be rushed along.

But I find the overall effect annoying, even so. It feels like the story is simply a large mattress on which the actors are bouncing and capering, and that's what we're being invited to admire. They do have charm (although Guest's regulars seem to be giving us their usual schtick), but it isn't enough on its own. The actor who plays Newman in PhoneShop seems to be making bricks out of straw here. And interestingly PhoneShop, which I've written about earlier, is another show which uses improv, though I think that is restricted to the rehearsal process (I could be wrong). Anyway, I shall persist with Family Tree, but it does make me see why Curb Your Enthusiasm is a good show by comparison: the tightness of the plotting.

Now Mr Guest could retort that his show is a different animal and a Larry David-style approach wouldn't allow us the leisure to enjoy his characters' quirks. Maybe so. And I have, in quite a few posts about sitcoms on these pages, indicated my preference for character-led shows. But at some point someone has to wield a scalpel and it feels (to me, at any rate) that at some point in the process Family Tree has missed that.

I have read different accounts of Big School. For me, it didn't work. The writing credits didn't come up till the end: David Walliams, its star, and the Dawson brothers, about whom I know nothing. A superb cast, but various problems for me. Walliams' performance suggested cariacture along the lines of his Little Britain roles. Some others seemed a bit more naturalistic. And in lots of small ways the tone didn't seem quite consistent.

But maybe it's not fair to judge yet, although I did think that the production values sort of worked against it: it felt like it needed a studio audience. Anyway, we shall see. Family Tree has now been around long enough to make a more considered judgement, as above.

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