Television. What is it good for? The medium the first BBC director-general, Lord Reith, once declared “a potential social menace of the first magnitude” has always been out to do more than inform, educate and entertain. That’s for sissies. Television also aims to have you hiding behind the sofa cushions, begging for mercy. I’m not just talking about the banter on Breakfast. Television’s more excruciating moments live on when much that has emanated from this most ephemeral of media has faded. As Michael Parkinson once said, “The only thing I am ever remembered for was being attacked by a f—ing emu.” The puppets and the muppets. Who can forget that vintage Paul Holmes interview with Dennis Conner; John Key on Letterman; anything involving Paul Henry …?
Sometimes the pain is intentional and brilliant. If there had never been Basil Fawlty, there might not have been Ricky Gervais’s David Brent or Flight of the Conchords. Antipodean cultural terrorists like Norman Gunston and Dame Edna paved the way, God help us, for Ali G and Borat.
Like most other things in modern life, it has all got completely out of hand. What’s on in primetime these days makes Dominic Bowden drinking his own urine on Shock Treatment seem disappointingly subtle. Embarrassing Bodies, Embarrassing Teenage Bodies, Embarrassing Fat Bodies … When such billings as “Nick has painful piles” and “Dr Pixie meets a woman who has suffered from sweaty feet for over 20 years” are designed to attract viewers rather than send them screaming from the room, you know civilisation is as good as over.
Still, the disinhibiting atmosphere of the internet has turned awkwardness into an art form. See Awkward Family Photos, Awkward Family Pet Photos and those sites featuring the terrifying results when parents text, tweet or facebook. Much of this is hilarious, possibly therapeutic and goes to the heart of the absurd proposition that is the human condition. I cringe, therefore I am.
So, we’re spoilt for choice, really, when it comes to television built on the notion that there’s little hope for the human race. The master remains, after all these years, Seinfeld creator Larry David. If you can survive a season of Extras back to back, you may be ready for David’s appalling Curb Your Enthusiasm. David plays an insensitive, socially lethal, somehow endearing version of himself.
Walter: You know what you are, you are a self-loathing Jew.
Larry: Well, I do hate myself, but it has nothing to do with being Jewish.
Larry is effortlessly offensive, stealing flowers from a friend’s roadside memorial or telling his wife, facing possible imminent death when her flight hits a storm, “You couldn’t have called at a worse time. I’ve got the TiVo man here.” Much of the humour arises from the sort of idiotically banal chitchat about the outrageous that cannot be reproduced in a family magazine.
David also takes on the big stuff. There was the infamous The Survivor, where the show’s trademark miscommunications see a cast member of reality show Survivor facing off against a Holocaust survivor: “I’m a survivor!” “No. I’m a survivor!” It’s apocalyptically tasteless but as good a critique of the relationship between life and reality television discourse as you’ll find.
Just as close to the wishbone is the episode in which Larry samples the delicious food at a restaurant called Palestinian Chicken.
Jeff: What those people ought to do is send their chicken over to Israel.
Larry: For the peace process. They’d take down all those settlements in the morning. Believe me.
He ends up sleeping with a Palestinian woman who gets off on abusing him for being Jewish. Hey, the sex is good.
Also not for the faint-hearted is the misleadingly wholesomely titled It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, which has been described as Curb Your Enthusiasm on methamphetamines. Mere social anarchy becomes wholesale, Dada-esque sitcom annihilation. Imagine Friends if Monica, Joey, Chandler, Rachel et al had been a bunch of loser delusional narcissists. Not much of a stretch, admittedly. But Philadelphia’s group of friends, “the gang”, who run a place called Paddy’s Pub (see the episode where it accidentally becomes a gay bar) are truly disturbing, even to each other. Typical display of social skills:
Dennis: You’re not even listening to me.
Mac: I’m listening to you. You said a bunch of words, right?
Sample excruciating situation: the gang buy a decomposing houseboat. The awful Dennis sees an opportunity with the ladies. “It’s so much more romantic in the middle of nowhere, where we can be alone and you can make rash decisions based on fear.”
Aided and abetted by a particularly feral Danny DeVito, Philadelphia is a good test of that old television maxim: what doesn’t send you screaming from the living room can only make you stronger. z
IT’S ALWAYS SUNNY IN PHILADELPHIA, FOUR, Sunday, 10.40pm.
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