Saturday, 23 January 2010

The Persuasionists

Here’s the short version: I rather like it.

Here’s the longer version:

The problem with launching a new sitcom is that most viewers compare your Episode 1 against their favourite episode of their favourite sitcom. We all have our favourites - and we love those characters as if they were members of our own family. Frankly, I would like to hug 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon and tell her everything’s going to be okay. Or we’d like to smack the characters because they’re making the same mistake week after week. Seinfeld said their rules were No Hugging and No Learning - but pretty much every sitcom has that second part. Sitcom characters don’t learn. Mainwaring and Hancock are pompous, always. David Brent thinks he’s funny every week. And so on. And so usually we find ourselves chuckling before they’ve even done the joke. Sitcoms that are up and running have a crucial momentum that keeps us laughing.

And so getting a new sitcom off the ground is like launching a rocket. Once the thing is moving and orbiting the earth, you just need to nudge it the right direction. But getting the darn thing of the ground, that takes a lot of energy.

Why am I saying this? You may well be ahead of me. I’ll fess up and say that I didn’t really like episode 1 of The Persuasionists, and some of this is because of the reasons above. I just didn’t know the characters. There are other reasons, which I’ll mention in a moment. But I did like episode 2. I’ve watched some scenes several times over and laughed a lot. And I’m looking forward to seeing episode 3. Put it this way: I watched Episodes 1 and 2 on iPlayer. But for episode 3, I’ll try and make an appointment to view - or at least tape it on my PVR and watch it within 24 hours (high praise in my house).

Why did I like it? I liked it because it was a big silly sitcom with jokes in it. It sounds rather daft to say that, but I do worry, sometimes, that some people think jokes are beneath them or just too obviou, or that a show is all character and story, and the laughs are simply organic. In one sense, they are. But you need them all the same. It’s another reason why writing sitcoms is so hard. You need to create characters, relationships, a situation, a story that hangs together - and then write about a hundred jokes that make a roomful of 200-300 people laugh out loud. Oh and three million people at home, give or take. That’s why the money is quite good when you get it right.

The Persuasionists is, then, a knock-about comedy set in the world of advertising. Are the characters believable? In a sense, but they’re obviously larger than life. And they’re clearly meant to be that way. And as with most office sitcoms, and audience shows, you tend not to believe that any actual work goes on in the office in question - but nobody minds that. It’s a sitcom. The audience understand that real life isn’t that funny. And that an office of 25 people tends to have more than 5 people who actually talk to each other. Sitcom is a contrived format by its very nature. But it works.

Clearly, the recipe for this particular show didn’t work for some people. The reviews and comments were almost entirely negative. It’s all rather sad. Reviewers, bloggers, and tweeters single out comedy for the vilest of comments. In a way that shows they care about comedy. It also shows that people are prepared to hide behind the internet to say horrible things that they would never say in real life. But the relentless stream of twitters say “Worst show ever” and “I’ll never get that half hour back” is pretty depressing. Apart from anything else, most TV is dreadful. Even successful shows. But we digress from the matter in hand.

Here’s my main worry about the show - the mix of characters. There are five characters, all with fairly strong traits. And since the show is set in the world of advertising, most of the characters are, what tv execs call ‘unsympathetic’. They shout and rant and are generally mean to each other. The exception is the Adam Buxton character - who is the optimist and nice-guy. The other characters are more grotesque, which is fine, but it makes them less believable. And so every single line those characters say has to be really funny. If it isn’t, we’ll stop laughing and think to ourselves “I don’t buy this”. Occasionally, you need a character to say things like “Hey, we have to get this done in time, or else” or “I hope my mum doesn’t die” or something that they have to mean. We all know it’s made up, but if the we don’t even believe that the characters believe in anything, the whole thing falls apart into a deconstructed heap on the floor.

I’ve run into this phenomenon writing Hut 33, which is a sitcom for Radio 4 set in Bletchley Park in World War Two. One character is called Minka, played by Olivia Colman. Minka is a psychopath who believes that violence is the solution to all problems. And she’s very handy and has all manner of weapons secreted about her person. She’s a preposterous character, keeping weapons in places where they couldn’t possibly fit, but it works - as long as she’s not carrying lines of exposition or doing what the other characters do. The problem comes when you have a whole show of those big characters. They have to gag their way in and out of every situation, and if one joke misfires, it can fall apart. If two jokes misfire, it hurts.

In Episode 2 is because the jokes fired. They worked - especially the lunatic stuff Keaton said and did, and the wonderful scene in which the boss explained to the popstar why Australia wasn’t ordinary. It was great, and bits like that really carried the show. There were other lovely moments when the popstar looks at Adam Buxton from afar and he’s sniffing his hands. And then he says how boring he is saying “Even when I hear my own voice, I think ‘O God, not him again’.” Lovely. The question is whether episode 3 can pull off the same trick. I hope so. I do enjoy laughing.

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