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British TV comedy has, after some thrashing about in the shallows, found a niche. That niche, as confidence and reputation grow, is becoming deeper and wider. The great comedies are out in the off-mainstream mean streets of television, where a 1m viewership is a triumph, not a disaster. They include the long-running teenager cult, The Inbetweeners, soon to issue in a film, and the even cooler Misfits (E4 Thursday), back for a second series that again promises – although a little uncertainly in this first episode – grubby delight.
Crowning this is the second series of Getting On (BBC4 Tuesday), which would seem to scotch any lingering prejudice that women are less funny than men. Principals Jo Brand, Joanna Scanlan and Vicky Pepperdine also wrote the partly ad-libbed show, and bring to life a comedy of the half-resented, half-generous sacrifices of dedication.
Brand plays nursing auxiliary Kim, supervised by Scanlan as Sister Den Flixter; both engage in constant half-cock skirmishes with consultant Pippa Moore (Pepperdine). The show has grasped and exploits a deeper-than-surface reality: that the health service, shorn of a chain of clear command, is a place of overlapping baronies that must bargain with each other for time and resources.
Thus, in last week’s episode, Kim has Sister Den assigned to assist her as a moonlighting agency nurse in the middle of the night – and the two struggle over who has the right to give orders.
At the same time, Dr Moore seeks Kim’s aid as a witness to an “inappropriate incident” earlier and is stymied because Kim “doesn’t like legal things”. Where “do it because I say so” is absent, a low-level insubordination, which is also an assertion of dignity, spreads like a fungus – and in that is the comedy.
The singularity of its talent is evident when set against the US series Nurse Jackie, whose second season is already available to American viewers and may return to BBC2 before long. This is witty and finely acted, and it collides, satisfyingly, moral and immoral worlds: Jackie (Edie Falco) is utterly dedicated, but is addicted to drugs; a loving wife and mother, she has an affair with the pharmacist who supplies her drugs.
It is a sharp yet sentimental comedy, but it does not seek to escape from an underlying commitment to affirmation, which pulses under the action even when the outcomes are bleak: an affirmation that the good life – and a good way of living it – is always possible, and that to miss it is a personal tragedy, not a systemic failure.
In Hung (More 4 Sunday), also “darkly comic”, the wealthy husband of the ex-wife of central character Ray – who augments his high-school coach’s income with male prostitution – shouts his rage against “this crumbling economy”, screaming that “this is not what I signed up for”. Americans, at least in TV series, still sign up for a dream.
In Getting On the Brits don’t sign up for a nightmare; they just don’t sign up. The series owes much to the theatre of the absurd – there’s a little touch of Harold Pinter in the night, life as both impossible and inevitable. The absurd doesn’t have much purchase on American drama: Edward Albee is often cited, but his drama, especially Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1962), is more Arthur Miller – the dream mislaid or betrayed – than Samuel Beckett.
Nurse Jackie is a character – caring, addicted, faithless, committed, always the centre of the series’ attention. Nurse Kim, Sister Den and Dr Moore are, by contrast, separate little bundles of anxiety, spite and self-immersion, whose jobs as caring professionals express these traits, veined into their duties. The patients are secondary, nuisances or, for Dr Moore, possibilities for professional advancement.
Back in the comic mainstream, The Trip (BBC2 Monday) wastes the comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon on an indulgent trip round leading restaurants in the north of England. If there is comedy, it’s hard to spot it, apart from a sequence in which they compete to imitate Michael Caine. This is ad-libbed too, but the men doing it, with too little thought other than that they must be funny now because they were funny then, isn’t a patch on the women.
Ancient Worlds (BBC2 Wednesday) will probably be good, although it ground along in a low gear for the first 20 minutes, until the 1930s discoveries of archaeologist Leonard Woolley in Ur, Mesopotamia, were shown – especially, from three millennia BC, the royal houses of the dead. Here the dead king would be sealed into an inner chamber with precious objects, while in the outer chamber his attendants took poison to mark the subjects’ grief.
Suddenly, a light shone on the ancient civilisation, and the programme flowed on like the Nile through ancient, death-transfixed Egypt. I hope it will carry on as smoothly, rescuing – as presenter and Cambridge classics lecturer Richard Miles boldly asserts – that civilisation from the politically correct hole into which it has been dropped.
Miles is handsome and generally a good guide, but he has a habit of narrowing his eyes and curling his upper lip, which makes him look as if he’s sneering at us uncivilised idiots. He’ll never displace Simon Schama if he goes on like that.
More columns at www.ft.com/lloyd