I finally got around to finishing watching the second (and alas, final) DVD of one of the funniest British TV series I've ever seen. One of the funniest, period. It's People Like Us.
I happened on the series by accident, wandering through Netflix one day. I've recommended it one friend who loves British comedies, and I thought he might enjoy it. He didn't "enjoy" it -- he inhaled it, watching both DVDs in a matter of days. Me, I wanted to savor the thing over time.
The series was quite popular in England, based on a BBC radio series. But when it came time to renew it, the Beeb had to decide whether to stick with it, or go with another new program (sorry, programme...) they had some confidence in. That was a show called The Office. And so, People Like Us bit the dust. Why they couldn't have done both, I have no idea, that's between the BBC and their God.
People Like Us is a satire of documentaries that have a pretentious sense of self. Each episode focuses on a different profession, following around in a person in that field to show what their world is like, and how, in the end, they are just "people like us." The jobs include a real estate agent, minister, policeman, mother, school principal, journalist, lawyer, and more. There are 12 in all, each a half hour.
Beyond having sharp, wonderfully-witty writing and very clever photography (more on this in a moment), what sets the show apart is its off-screen narrator, Roy Mallard, played remarkably by Chris Langham. What's so brilliant is that though you never seen Mallard, he's a very real character, one who participates in episodes, usually accidentally, and whose life we learn about bit by bit throughout the episodes. (One running gag is that a subject will offhandedly make a comment, "Well, for instance, you're married, right?" And whenever Mallard answers that he is, the guest always pauses, looks confused and says, "Really?")
We also see parts of Mallard's body when he gets in shots, and once or twice there's a reflection of him, but that's it. That's the clever photography I was referring to, the way they work the unseen Mallard into the frame very naturally. Fumbling for an offered cookie and knocking over a plate. You have to watch the show as much as listen to it, to get all the humor.
But though unseen, Mallard's character is as central as the subjects themselves. In one, someone in an office has to get fired, but no one wants to do it. By the end, it's left to Mallard. In another, he gets some acid spilled on him, and as the episode progresses, his clothes get more and more shredded, and he gets increasingly in agony, people asking him if he needs help. One episode that requires security clearance has the company getting his name wrong on the ID tag, but they have to keep it, so for the entire show everyone keeps identifying him incorrectly. He also becomes part of episodes when he thinks others are talking to him. ("We're ordering lunch, what would like?" We hear him answer, "Oh. Well, perhaps a chicken sand..." "Not you.")
In what might be the funniest episode, the last one, in which they follow an airline pilot, Mallard keeps insisting to inquiries that he's not afraid of flying, But as the show progresses in flight, sitting in the cockpit, he gets increasingly freaked out by things that are utterly normal to the pilots, but he is sure are disastrous. ("The landing strip is too small!" "It's not, it's just fine." "No, no, it's too small!!") Without giving away more, the episode gets increasingly lunatic.
Though the narrator Mallard is central to things, it's the subjects that carry the plots. And yes, they do have plots. There wasn't one that wasn't joyfully funny, but some do work even better than others. Several of the guests looked a little familiar, but In only one episode did I know the actor. It was the always-terrific Bill Nighy playing a man who changed careers to become a photographer. A career change it becomes increasingly clear he never should have made.
The verbal humor tends to come differently from two directions in the documentary footage and the narration.
In the documentary footage, it often come from confusion or bewilderment, either when the people are doing their jobs caught on film or being interviewed by Mallard. In a police office, we see a car accident victim filing his report. The policewoman asks, "How fast were you going when you crashed?" The man thinks a moment and then answers, "Zero."
Being shown around a security office, the guide tells Mallard --
GUIDE: "The area we're going to is called OPS."
MALLARD: "'OPS.' And that's short for...?"
There is a a sequence in a bank, when a loan officer is trying to explain how loans work to a young couple (which involves borrowing 20 pounds from Mallard as a visual aid), which turns in to a banking equivalent of "Who's on First?", ending with the bewildered couple angry at Mallard for getting off better than them in the deal.
The voice-over narration, though, is where a lot of the even-more subtle humor comes in. If you don't listen carefully, it sounds very informative and normal. Only when you pay close attention, do you hear the verbal twists
"When fatherhood came along, he was completely unprepared for it, which fortunately he was prepared for."
Ultimately, Mallard's voice-overs are a satire of All-knowing God-Like Narrators, as he tries to sound like he's more informed than he really is, usually covering his lack of real knowledge with florid bombasts. In order to make something seem meaningful to the audience that they can related to, he'll come up with analogies that are just lunatically convoluted, In describing the airline co-pilots, he puts the two men in perspective by saying --
"Richard and Paul are like actors working between the wings to begin a play they've performed hundreds of times. The audience is in, the lights are dimmed. And like all actors, they know that if they forget their lines, they'll simply die."
Giving examples doesn't do the show justice. Each episode is 30 minutes of dead-serious wit, impeccably done. The shows are written by John Moron, who also co-wrote the fake-documentary show seen here on BBC America, Twenty Twelve about England's preparation for the Olympics.
Alas, there are only 12 episodes. But there still those three seasons of the radio series. I sense that this works very well on radio (since, after all, it was successful enough to transfer to TV), but it seems particularly well-suited for television, having the added visual humor. Regardless, I have my treasure hunt ready and do hope to find them some day...
One note: if you do go to Netflix to find the series, know that there are several productions with the same title, notably a feature film last year. So, make sure you're getting the 1999 British TV series. To make things easier, here's the link.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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