The BBC’s new metatextual sitcom may be ultimately too smug for its own good.
Occasionally, something new and hilarious shakes up the world of TV comedy. W1A is certainly not one of those. Hopefully you won’t mind this being said upfront, cutting to the chase. It came onto our screens in a buzz of publicity that mainly consisted of every UK newspaper scrambling to (not-so) subtly take digs at the BBC while promoting the show. But more important than the sideshow circus is that W1A has been rubbish.
W1A’s first series hasn’t finished yet, with, unfortunately, a second series probably on its way. The basic premise is that Ian Fletcher (from Twenty Twelve, again played by Hugh Bonneville) is brought in to be the Head of Values at the BBC. Siobhan Sharpe (again from Twenty Twelve, again played by Jessica Hynes) is also parachuted in to be a brand consultant. It’s shot in a documentary style and David Tennant returns as the narrator. Hilarity should ensue. But it doesn’t, for multiple reasons.
Extremes in character are used for comic effect, but most characters in W1A are so thin they’re liable to give you a paper cut
The first issue is with W1A’s characters. The characters in a sitcom are the backbone of the show; if they aren’t likeable and/or interesting then you can’t care about them. Shooting W1A as a documentary adds the extra complication that they need to be believable as actual human beings. Let’s take Hugh Skinner’s intern character, who’s so gormless and dumb that scenes with him become immensely irritating. Someone asking him to get a coffee is a bit like watching a scientist trying to explain quantum mechanics to a monkey with severe learning difficulties.
Extremes in character are used for comic effect. Here, however, it is taken too far, to the point that all the characters end up as caricatures. Most characters in W1A are so one-dimensional and thin that touching them would give you a paper cut. Exhibit A is the producer whose entire characterisation is that he is camp and says “oh, lovely Carol, we love her,” a lot. This guy is a moron, told multiple times to shut up in meetings by his colleagues; why is he still in a job if he is so useless nobody wants him to speak?
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Whether it’s a drama or a comedy, there needs to be a coherent narrative. At the very least you want some danger. This can be anything from financial problems to Jean-Claude Van Damme kicking someone in the face if they mess up. Or you just need an end goal; here, there isn’t really anything. There’s a stable guy in a well-paid job that could easily quit or be fired and it wouldn’t affect him. There’s a shit sounding TV show that needs a presenter and, get this, Clare Balding and Carol Vorderman both think they are hosting it. Scandal. What if that doesn’t get made at all? Well, nothing really, they make a different show.
Comedy is difficult, but a comedy can be forgiven for all its errors if it makes you laugh. W1A just doesn’t
All of the above must exist in a world that has its own internal logic. You suspend disbelief with a clutch of rules in your head. For example, in Harry Potter you accept that Harry doesn’t walk around with a machine gun to pop a cap in Voldemort’s ass, even though that would probably be quite effective. The David Tennant (stop swooning) narration is the killer here: it’s snide and overused with a knowing nod that’s too obvious. The gag is that it repeats the waffly rubbish the executives say in a deadpan way, but it falls flat on its face. It sound mocking, and after hearing the same joke multiple times, it loses its punch. Why would this narration happen? It has broken its own illusion, like a magician telling you where the bunny is as he pulls it out of the hat.
This is a very wanky breaking down of a TV show, but forgetting all the aforementioned for a second, you get the central problem: W1A is not funny. This is where comedy is so difficult. There’s nothing to fall back on. If nobody is laughing and there isn’t a plot, it’s just meaningless words and people walking into rooms. A comedy can be forgiven for all its errors if it makes you laugh. W1A just doesn’t. For all the over-analysing, that is the most damning criticism that can be given.
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All images: BBC