My favourite TV programme ever is The Incredible Hulk.
Bar none. Without a shred of irony or kitsch. Although I’ve loved it since I first watched it as a five year old, I’m not even giving it that status as a nostalgic gesture. It’s a fantastic show. It’s based on a simple but brilliant premise- a good but cursed man trying to find a cure for his condition who is charismatic yet doomed to thwart every comfortable situation or relationship he finds himself in. Kenneth Johnson is a very clever and nuanced writer/director – his trinity of TV series Hulk/V/Alien Nation all appear at first a bit cheesey and naff but belie both a huge depth in writing and some amazingly strong characters (hence performances). The Hulk as a character really shouldn’t work – he is essentially a big stupid bloke painted green running about in a wig but through clever shooting and, actually, a fucking great performance by Lou Ferrigno, it just works amazingly well. If you haven’t watched a full episode of the Hulk, you really should – in fact, you can currently by the Season 1 box set including the feature length pilot episode (which is AMAZING!) for less than four quid at The Hut (http://www.thehut.com/hut/8556708.product) I don’t even get comission for that but, if you buy it, dislike it and can coherently articulate why it is not AMAZING, I’ll even refund you the price. Of course, if you love it, you totally owe me a drink.
Why am I talking about the Hulk? This blog really isn’t even about the Hulk. Don’t make me start talking about The Hulk, you wouldn’t like me when I start talking about The Hulk.
So there was one period of my life where The Incredible Hulk (last time I’ll mention it, I swear) was not my favourite TV show ever. For a brief period in the nineties, my favourite show was The Mary Whitehouse Experience.
To the young teenage me, it was the wittiest, most edgy and erudite collection of anti-establishment polemics that had ever been created. Insightful, daring, rude, with the sophistication of Oxbridge and the swagger of Madchester. Of course, watching it back now it just seems a bit pathetic and schoolboyish. It was a strange programme, not so much in format or content but because as a group of comedians, they made little sense. Rob Newman and David Baddiel were the cool and edgy ones, Steve Punt and Hugh Dennis were like simpering younger brothers basking in their reflected glory. Punt and Dennis’s humour was gentle (which is the biggest insult I can give any form of comedy) and naff. Where Newman and Baddiel aped Robert Smith from The Cure and Mark Gardener from Ride, Punt and Dennis did impressions of how your dad dances and a strange bloke in the supermarket. After the inevitable split, Newman hilariously described the unholy union of the two double-acts as ‘like trying to make a concept album whilst sharing a studio with Showaddywaddy’.
Newman and Baddiel went on to a brief period of ultra-success – being the first comedians to sell out Wembley Arena, Punt and Dennis toured some provincial theatres on the back of their MWE fame and eventually found their natural level producing gentle ‘comedy’ shows for Radio 2 in the daytime.
I never liked Hugh Dennis. He has always struck me as a vapid goon. He has that demanour which seems to scream ‘I’ve been bullied a lot’ his humour is not just gentle, it is apologetic. He has always seemed to finish every gag with a slight ‘yes, I’m crap’ self-loathing smirk. He, of course, had a recurring role on the BBC’s worst ever comedy programme – the almost radioactively lamentable ‘My Hero’ and recently, though some sort of pact with the devil, is one of the panellists on the BBC’s funny-but-is-this-really-so-flagship-worthy? Mock The Week. Mock The Week is essentially a not-very-good BBC2 midweek late night filler comedy panel show made fantastic by their discovery and promotion of the comedian Frankie Boyle. If Boyle chose to leave the show, there would really be no show. Maybe Dennis’s contract was finalised before they realised just how much Boyle’s involvment was destined to elevate it. I get the feeling they put Dennis and Boyle on the same team because if they were opposing, there would be the ever-present risk of Boyle so completely decimating Dennis’s contributions it could lead to some kind of breakdown or suicide. Watching Dennis so far out of his depth each week is miserable. He even has his own round occasionally where he gets to dub his impression of Prince Phillip over some newsreel footage. It’s a gameshow, but one contestant GETS HIS OWN ROUND. The producers must just pity the guy so deeply.
So, I don’t like the guy. Anyway, I was aware he had a new family-based sitcom on the BBC so avoided it like the plague. With the BBC’s other family-based sitcom being second only to My Hero in the shitness league table AND featuring a central performance from Mr Dennis, I was never going to actually bother. Until a friend told me it was worth a watch. Apparently the kids in it were allowed to improvise their dialogue and it had a real verisimilitude (look it up). I watched it and it was BRILLIANT.
I rather wonder if the BBC fully understood what they were commisioning. It’s mercifully free of canned laughter or caricature, there are no crazy contrived situations or ludicrous guest characters. It resists the need to build to a hysterical climax or have any of those David-Jason-Falls-Through-The-hatch ‘classic’ visual gags. But it is funny. Although not laugh out loud. It could be described as gentle – but not in my lexicon. It’s a very simple set up – the harassed mother- dealing with three children and herfather whose dementia seems to be getting increasingly difficult. The children – Karen is five and amazingly sharp with a keen but mad sense of logic, Ben is the wild, loud, too-smart 7 year old whose gravitational pull the whole family are locked into. Jake is a modern 11 year old boy – experiencing things that his parents’ generation didn’t really until their mid teens, a constant source of worry to them.
Hugh Dennis plays the dad, and he’s great. It is perfect casting. I’d struggle to say he gives a great performance so much as that he is so well cast, his reactions are always going to be perfect. If he is tempted to make one of his awful gags (the show is loosely scripted but heavily improvised) then he gets himself either the low groan that has traditionally accompanied ‘dad jokes’ throughout the world or utter disdain. He is the living definition of the suburban middle-class dad – emasculated, shouted at, largely ineffectual. His natural discomfort with the world is just put to stunning use here.
I still can’t put my finger on what the show is or is supposed to be. It definitley follows a sitcom format – in length and character/situation construction but it never ever feels like it’s out for laughs. It feels somewhat like a drama yet nothing ever really happens or develops – like a sitcom, the episodes can be watched out of order and nothing significantly changes. I think what intrigues me most is the tone. I keep reading reviews that declare it ‘delightful’ and ‘achingly funny’ and I can’t get with that. The verisimilitude (you should have looked it up) means, I guess, that you take your own truth out of it. I don’t have kids of my own but, to me, this paints a claustrophobic portrait of family life in which not only do you never get a moment to just enjoy basic grown-up pursuits but you find yourself locked into a never ending, soul-sapping circle of encouraging, berating, questioning and explaining. The show actually rather depresses me – especially the subplot about the degeneration of the grandfather. But I think it is a fantastic show. It gives me hope that the BBC might not have completely turned it’s back on interesting, genre-defying programmes in favour of the Little Britain style of swill it has wasted most of this decade on.
It intrigues me that this is often where the best TV can be found – in shows whose format and premise sound dull or awful (‘new family sitcom’, ‘green bloke smashes stuff up’…ok. that one does sound cool anyway) but the magic lies in the quality of the writing or creative impulse behind it. While modern TV desperately strives for originality or commerciality, they sometimes forget that the most important factor is actually quality.