I finally got round to watching Sky 1’s Spy the other night. I had all six episodes on my Sky+ box and was assuming I would begin with episode 1. But decided not to. There are number of reasons for this. The main one is that first episodes are often, sadly, full of set-up and backstory, which normally fights against the comedy, and I didn’t want to sit through that. I wanted to get to the funny.
But secondly, I was putting the show to the test – can you pick up the show from episode 2? Or 3? If you can, have a proper sitcom, which is about regular characters in repeating scenarios. You can, of course, have story arcs, but they have to be very slow and cleverly explained by a character in a line or two near the start of each episode; or you can 'cheat' and use a voiceover by Ron Howard (Arrested Development), or a whimsical Gordon Kaye sitting in his café talking directly to camera (Allo Allo).
Let us remember that confusion is the enemy of comedy. An audience that is baffled won’t laugh. You can baffle an audience if you like – that’s called a mystery or a thriller – but it won’t be all that funny.
Now, I had an unfair advantage on this show. I’d heard some months earlier about this show and what the premise was, but I put it out of my mind, and put on Episode 2. What I found was nice, zippy dialogue, quite a lot of jokes, some good characters and some brilliant performances - most notably for me, the consistently fabulous Tom Goodman-Hill, as well as the ever-brilliant Darren Boyd. Robert Lindsay and Rosie Cavaliero were funny too.
But, sadly, I was a bit confused, which slightly got in the way. The show opened with a session of mediation. Darren’s son lives with him, but the son’s mother is trying to get custody. The son is ice-cool and old before his time (cards on the table – I find this super-smart portrayal of children really tiresome, but now’s not the time). The son was hypercritical of his father, and his father seem to play this down and shrug off the criticism. So it wasn’t clear why the son wasn’t just living with the mother which would be more normal.
The biggest problem was there was no sign of any affection between the son and the father. At all. Why was the father trying to keep his high-maintenance son around when he was such a cold fish? I was confused. And this got in the way for me. Maybe these questions were answered in Episode 1 – but if so, that’s cheating. It all has to be in there in Ep 2. As well as 3, 4, 5 and 6.
Send in Reinforcements
For the first two series, I’d say, begin every episode assuming the audience haven’t really seen the show, or have completely forgotten what happened before. It’s a fair assumption. After all, their lives don’t revolve round your show. Only yours does. By all means, stick in jokes for hardcore, die-hard fans, but bear in mind that even after several series, lots of viewers (myself included) can’t remember names of most of the characters, and, when explaining a show, describe their favourite characters as ‘You know, the short one’, or the ‘dappy one’ or ‘the guy with the shirts’.
The key is to make sure each character is doing and saying stuff in character from the start of every episode – not doing neutral, uninteresting things that anyone could be doing. Rebuild characters each week. Clarify relationships. Use props and visual cues to reinforce. It may feel cartoony and clunky, but you can pull it back if you need to. But if it’s not in the script, it won’t be in the show – and it won’t be clear and they won’t laugh. And that, friends, is your job as a comedy writer.
There were some other bits of confusion which, for me, got in the way. The show was, at times, cartoonish. I love cartoonish (eg. Black Books). But at times, it was much more nuanced and played straight. So it felt lumpy. I couldn’t quite work out how seriously to take some bits so again, I was a little confused. I’m sure that’s fixable in Series 2, if there is one. (It would seem harsh to recommission Trollied and not this show)
Also, for some reason, Robert Lindsay’s character looked exactly like Alan Sugar. Identical. It was weird. I kept wondering if that was intentional which, again, got in the way for me. His interplays with Darren Boyd were very funny, though. But it’s worth noting that if something isn’t a joke, but looks like a half-joke, get rid of it. (For on that stuff, see here)
In the end, I watched episodes 2, 3 and 6. Another highlight for me was a cameo from Dominic Coleman in the last episode as a judge who’d just got back from travelling round Indonesia. Again, it stretched credibility, but he was hilarious.
The other thing I really liked, that is worth learning from, is that after the opening credits each time, Darren Boyd would press a button to enter MI5 and there’d be a different joke about it each time. Lovely, clear and funny which really set the show up and made you feel like everything was going to be alright – and that is no small thing.