TV Reviews: The Big Midwife, Or Ladies Go Bang In California

December 29, 2016

By BRUCE DENNILL

 

Big School / 16DL                                                                                         7

Call The Midwife: Season Four / 13DN                                                      8

Hello Ladies: The Complete Series (13DL)                                                 7.5

The Big Bang Theory: The Complete Seventh Season                             7

Californication – The Final Season                                                            7

 

David Walliams has had a sustained run as the focal point of comedies that are sometimes shocking and sometimes ridiculous but always funny. Big School is perhaps his most mainstream effort, but it retains his trademark edginess and the geeky persona he often adopts to make his biting satire seem a touch less bitter. Here, he is a chemistry master with an inflated sense of his own importance and a corresponding need to convince others of his standing. This situation becomes more (comically) complicated with the arrival of a new French teacher (Catherine Tait), who becomes his romantic focus, as well as the target of the school’s thick, macho sports master (Philip Glenister). Their rivalry and the effect is has on the preening absurdity of Tait’s self-aggrandising spinster is constantly funny, if not always in a comfortable way. The balance is provided by Frances de la Tour’s dry-as-dust headmistress, whose cynicism is exactly the opposite of what you want in a professional tasked with looking after your children. The set-up allows for both a familiar structure to each episode and a wide enough selection of scenarios to entertain from episode one until the series wraps up. Stand Big School against Bad Education, the Jack Whitehall-starring series, and the former lopes ahead thanks to both more sophisticated writing and composition and its ability to meld warmth and wit, rather than just shove puerility through a filter and see what sticks.

 

It’s a mark of the consistent high quality of the writing in Call The Midwife that all of the characters feel like friends after just a couple of episodes. This facet of the show matters at the outset of Series Four, in which two new characters arrive at Nonnatus House to take up positions as nurses – one, Barbara Gilbert (Charlotte Christie), a junior; and the other, Phyllis Crane (Linda Bassett) an overbearing senior whose attitude instantly puts the sisters’ noses out of joint. As is always the case with this story, the series then develops to tackle some of the toughest themes the society of the time could throw at its characters, including extreme poverty, broken relationships, homosexuality, prostitution, religious sects, migrants, cancer, alcoholism and medical scandals. That lot should be enough to depress any viewer, but the phenomenal dialogue – clever, witty, gentle, incisive, heartbreaking – and the fact that all of the protagonists are folks called to care for others, who all have a genuinely decent core, means that some brutal content is confronted and dealt with in a convincing, satisfying and generally entertaining way. Inferences to the period in which the drama is set and what really happened in run-down parts of London in the Fifties also weigh heavily on the narrative, setting up what is to follow in Season Five.

 

Ricky Gervais gets the lion’s share of the credit for The Office, and he’s a hyper-intelligent, system-baiting malcontent who thrives on controversy, so his position in the spotlight remains assured. But his creative partner in that venture, Stephen Merchant, is as intellectual and amusing a presence in interviews and – as proved by this series, which sees Merchant partnering with Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg, who were involved in writing and producing the American version of The Office – as entertaining in a lead role as Gervais was as David Brent. Hello Ladies uses one of the same thematic ideas as The Office, being focused on a prideful, self-centred git, ostensibly oblivious to the disdain of those around then and yet quietly desperate for intimacy of any kind. The comedy in each episode of the most piquantly awkward kind possible, with Merchant’s Stuart roaming Los Angeles – what better place is there for superficial people to interact in insincere ways than Hollywood? – looking for companionship and coming up short, which is ironic, given that he’s nearly seven feet tall. The satire of the society in which the story is set is acerbic to the point of being almost bitter. It stops just short, but leaves the viewer in no doubt as to the warped emphases of many modern communities, as well as the emptiness that results in failing to meet the standards set by the supposed role models in those communities. The laughs that result are consistent, but often hollow, and therein lies the strength of Hello Ladies. It doesn’t shy away from being more than one thing simultaneously, which makes it difficult to love without reservation, but easier to appreciate as well-written, subtly performed (yes, “subtle” applies, even in a situation where a goofy giant is trying to throw a pool party for supermodels) work that presses a great deal more buttons than the formulaic laugh-track garbage that crowds such series out of most broadcast schedules. Funny and harsh, clever and crude – worth a look.

 

The longevity and sustained popularity of The Big Bang Theory probably has to do with the fact that no other sitcom can use the same material because there are a very limited number of contexts in which jokes about string theory will work. The writers are also fortunate to have a group of actors who can make a handful of concepts – aspects of geekery and the responses to those, appropriate or otherwise – work again and again. This season contains some episodes that are already (and rightly) viewed as classics. There is The Scavenger Vortex, in which Raj sets up an hilarious scavenger hunt that brings out his friends most competitive instincts; The Raiders Minimization, in which Amy rips apart the inconsistencies of Sheldon’s favourite Spielberg film; The Thanksgiving Decoupling, in which everyone spends Thanksgiving at Howard’s mom’s house; and the brilliant The Convention Conundrum, in which Sheldon tries to start his own comic convention, getting James Earl Jones involved. Otherwise, the ongoing threads – relationships, careers, theoretical physics – continue to develop with an obvious eye on what has come before and will come in the future, including the slowest courtship in history (Sheldon and Amy). Clever, genuinely funny and able to withstand repeated viewings.

 

That the seventh and last season of Californication seems relatively tame compared to Season 6 is down to the manic energy of Tim Minchin’s Atticus Fetch, whose character has departed the scene. As a focal point for David Duchovny’s Hank, the rock star who sets records for debauchery is replaced by Levon (Oliver Cooper), the son Hank didn’t know he had. It’s not like Hank was ever going to suddenly get broody in the traditional sense, but it does play into the suspicion that the makers of the series felt they had to add some semblance of maturity to the mix before the rigours of inevitable middle age caught up with their characters and their supposedly exotic lives started to just look sad. Fortunately, Duchovny still has the louche charm that has made has made him watchable and somehow attractive – even as a cheating drunk with a drug problem – for the six seasons leading up to this. Karen (Natascha McElhone) is more enigmatic than ever, which is frustrating to some degree, as that would make sense as the best way to prove that Hank had some integrity and a character worth investing in. So, though the show doesn’t go out on a high, it’s still edgier and better written than most of its competition. Fans will miss it and general TV viewers will have a gap to fill.

 

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