a seemingly random journey through cinema's heart of darkness. so to speak.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Thirty Minutes of Jokes in Nine

James Burke was right: everything is connected. Or at least on the BBC it is, a corporation which always seems to have at least one dynamite new show being cranked out. The reason why? Incestuousness. However improbably, the new breed of shows appears to begin with Ali G. Sacha Baron Cohen introduced his ninkompoop creation on The 11 O'Clock News, a show which also featured the first appearance of Ricky Gervais. Gervais threw a couple excellent Ali G jokes into The Office, while Martin Freeman popped up in the (allegedly not awful) Ali G Indahouse. Freeman also contributed a blink-and-you'll-miss-him cameo in last year's Shawn of the Dead, passing alongside his Office crush Lucy Davis. Dead, meanwhile, was the first mega-feature from Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg, the brains behind Spaced -- an indescribable show that mixes Star Wars geekdom, broad characateurs and Nick Hornby-style brooding, all under the guise of a Three's Company-style plot. Surfing the IMDb is rarely this maddening.

Somehow, this all leads into Look Around You, a 2002 mini-show currently making the rounds on BBC America as an interstitial filler in between the traditional 40-minute blocks. The connection? Edgar Wright pops up as an actor in a couple episodes, while one of the show's creators/writers (and actors) happens to be Peter Serafinowicz. Who? This perfectly normal-looking thespian has three distinctions: 1) he played the smug bastard who cuckolded Simon Pegg on Spaced; 2) he was Pegg's zombified, white collar roommate in Shawn of the Dead; and 3) marking a sizeable victory for the Lucas-obsessed Pegg, he was the voice of Darth Maul, perhaps because, as X-Men proved, Ray Parks can't read lines.

It's strange thinking of connections in Look Around You, which seems to exist in a vacuum, cranked out in secret and with little to no money. The gyst of the show -- which runs 9 minutes, or 15 here in the commercial-happy realm that is America -- is that it's a dead-on parody of educational films, complete with impossibly dry narration from narrator pro Nigel Lambert. Each episode touches on one of the basics: iron, the brain, germs, sulfur, etc. Played completely straight, they manage to make up outright, and highly surreal, lies. In "Maths," man-on-the-street interviews find people telling the camera what they think is the highest known number. The show claims it's 4,000,000,000. But is it perhaps something higher -- like 4,000,000,001?

To complete the vibe of state-sponsored stoner humor, quiz questions abound (cut to a student calmly jotting down notes). Sure enough, Serafinowicz (and cohort Robert Popper) try to come up with the most ludicrously impossible SAT queries, piling one non-sequitur after another. One of the brain teasers in "Maths" goes like this: three women are going to a party. One of them has 40 dresses. Another has 40,000 dresses. The third has one dress, but it can mutate into whatever dress she wants. What are the odds they'll wear the same dress? Another, from the same episode, features 8 women trying to equip 8 spiders with "spider shoes," but only with 8 pence. Will they have enough to make it home on the bus? Somehow, the answers -- revealed quickly at the end of the show -- are even funnier than the set-ups.

Serafinowicz and Popper claim in an interview they were trying to cram 30 minutes of jokes into 9 minutes of TV time. Sure enough, some of the best jokes are tiny. During the "module" on Water, ants are shown building an igloo (!). Once they're done, the narrator says, "Thanks, ants" -- then, a couple seconds later, and for little reason, "Thants."*

Naturally, the show was a smash (cult) hit, meaning that it's been renewed and, inevitably, expanded: the forthcoming season will now be 30 minutes, with the writers taking sympathy on its audience by claiming they'll calm down with regards to the insane bits-per-minute ratio. Too bad: anyone who's seen shows by the aforementioned James Burke -- particularly, Connections -- knows that while brains can melt at the dense amount of detail being jettisoned out, that's a plus. You've at least been somewhere once it's over. (And you have so many new tidbits to impress strangers at cocktail parties.) For now, only a couple episodes of its first season have aired (which total at the very un-BBC eight) stateside. At least we Yanks have awhile to wait before the probable disappointment sets in.

(Oh. Here's my stuff in the Weekly this round. The "-" on the grade for Singin' in the Rain is, of course, a typo.)

*For those who care, the original example pointed out the show's opening, in which I wrongly thought a guitar tuner measured a guitar sillily going out of tune, rather than in. I'm really mentioning it because Jeremy disproved me on the comments board, and I don't want anyone being confused. Sigh.


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