Saturday, 12 April 2008

My Family

I can't confess to being a fan of this show, but season eight (season eight!) started last night so I felt obliged to watch.
The previous season had its critics. James Donaghy, writing for the Guardian Unlimited Arts Blog, suggested:
... Yet still too many episodes fell flat and the gags written to pump up ailing scenes felt forced in with little concern for situation or character. They replicated the technical aspects of the American shows without capturing their spirit. They could not escape the fundamental play-it-safe conservatism of the plotting nor avoid plumping for the fail-safe comedy archetypes of useless husband and nagging wife.

My Family always reminds me of the time I met my first steady girlfriend's father (this is me now, not James). He took me to one side and we talked about motorways and then he admitted to fancying Zoe Wanamaker, describing her as 'elfin'.
Anyhoo, last night's episode demonstrated the perfect example of 'topping the gag'.
Here's the set up:

Susan is mother to the teenage Michael. Michael's new girlfriend, Nikki, has been kicked out of her parents' house and Susan has agreed to allow her to stay under her roof for a time.

Susan: Nikki, I'll show you up to Michael's room.
Nikki: Oh, that's okay ...
(a beat: audience is given just enough time to predict the punchline)
... I know where it is.

Then Michael tops the gag:
Michael: Oh, actually that was my parents' room; mine's down the hall.

One more noteworthy point from the episode:
Sunset Bickham discusses the importance of exaggerating character. Time and again, he suggests that the audience needs a constant stream of clear and (almost patronizingly) obvious clues in order to quickly understand character and motivation and the like. He laments his students' stubborn attachment to subtlety. It's a common and fundamental mistake made by us rookies: we assume too much; we fear being obvious. We fear being obvious.

So consider Nikki's father, Mister Baker. We are instantly and repeatedly encouraged to see him in a certain light:
He enters the house carrying a bible and, on several occasions, he taps the bible whilst quoting from it.
Furthermore, when Ben exclaims 'Oh God yes', Mister Baker responds with 'There's no need for blasphemy thank you.'

As I watched, I did wonder if this characterisation was laboured; I wondered how many Christians wander around with bibles in their hand, tapping it each time they chastise the non-believers with a quote from Psalms or Matthew. I wondered if this was jumping stoutly on the toes of cliché and stereotype. Or, as James Donaghy proposes, the archetype.
But the point was made (and this point was important as it set-up the episode's major twist). Or, put another way, if this point was not made, the contrast that the major twist relied on would not have been created, and the twist would have lost its potency.
Better safe than sorry eh?

The episode is on iPlayer for six more days ...

1 comment:

esruel said...

There's no doubt that My Family is as safe as houses. A throwback to Terry and June and the like.
I kind of like it - it's just a warm and friendly show. Robert Lindsay is a comedy hero of mine - who can forget Wolfie??? - so I don't feel I can criticise the show
too much. He's like an old friend.
I think Lindsay causes high expectations, and maybe the writers find it difficult to match up. His interaction with Zoe is rather good, though. I always felt he would have fitted wonderfully into Only Fools And Horses. Que sera, I suppose.