Friday, March 9, 2012

TV Review - Black Books

I've always kind of wanted to own a book store. I would sit in the back, appraising rare and cool books, and talk down to people who knew less than I did. My book store would be dark and a little cramped, with a layout a little bit like a hedge maze, and there would be stacks of stuff where you could trip and be buried under an avalanche of bad James Patterson thrillers.

I think that's why I love Black Books so much. It's a British comedy about possibly the worst bookstore in England. The title character, Bernard Black, is a depressing shut-in and alcoholic who steadfastly refuses to clean up after himself. His best friend, Fran, is a neurotic lush who can't keep a boyfriend. And his only employee, Manny, is almost the complete opposite of both of them - smart and orderly, outgoing and friendly, and oddly enough, the perfect yin to Bernard's grouchy yang.

Black Books could be a lame buddy sitcom, like The Odd Couple or Bosom Buddies. But instead, it's hysterically amusing and terrifically absurd. Like when Manny discovers he is a piano prodigy, and ends up hiding inside the piano to play it with spoons so that Fran and Bernard can pretend they're actually competent. Or when Fran goes on vacation, just to find that Manny has gone next door to work for the well-lit chain bookstore next door and Bernard is living among moldy books, wine spills and dead badgers.

It's almost impossible to describe how bizarrely hilarious Black Books is. When Manny accidentally ingests - and then absorbs - the Little Book of Calm, he walks around like Jesus in a bathrobe, dropping serene quips that somehow sound like the wisdom of a holy man, in spite of being holistic health tips. When the Manny and Bernard accidentally drink a ridiculously expensive bottle of wine, they end up poisoning a prominent religious leader. The apartment behind the shop is so dirty that they sometimes have to kill the messes before they can throw them away. It's surreal and hilarious and brilliant.

To make the humor just a little more edgy, Bernard is not just a crotchety shut-in. He's actually bad people. He delights in the misery he inflicts on Manny, and mistreats his customers so badly that he rarely manages to sell anything. When a little boy comes up short for the book he wants to buy, Bernard tells him, 'I've never told anyone this before, but… You're going to have to get a job.' As a customer buys a book from him, Bernard tells him, 'Enjoy. It's dreadful, but it's quite short.' He's always a mess, and always drunk. And while you probably won't feel sorry for him, you can't stop laughing at him.

It's a little odd that I am this fond of Black Books, actually. I am usually not a fan of shows where the main characters lose all the time. I can't help but be amused at the antics of Arrested Development or Curb Your Enthusiasm, but I just can't watch them for too long without wanting to get depressed. Sometimes I want to see the heroes win.

And while the main characters in Black Books don't ever win, per se, it's made palatable by the fact that they absolutely have it coming. Bernard is painfully blunt and totally hilarious, and you love to see him lose because he's such an asshole. Fran is so self-absorbed that you really don't mind when she winds up on the losing end all the time. And while Manny does suffer regular abuse, the beauty of the show is that he's actually completely happy with his life, because he hated being a buttoned-up accountant and he loves the madcap hijinks. So I guess I like Black Books because the good guy gets to be happy and the bad guys are always miserable.

If you're a fan of dry British sitcoms with a bizarre and twisted bent, you really ought to check out Black Books. The only other British comedy that comes close to being this amusing is Black Adder. If you've never watched a British comedy, just try one episode of Black Books. If you don't find yourself laughing like an idiot, then this brand of goofy just isn't for you. But if, like me, you wind up chuckling and giggling and outright guffawing at the implausible stupidity and malignant narcissism, then you're in for a treat.


R Singers said...

Hi there you should check out another comedy starring Tamsin Greig called Green Wing. Some people can find it a bit inaccessible but generally if you're a Black Books fan you'll love it.

Wind Lane said...

I've been watching this lately. I'd been curious about it and your review tipped me over the edge.

Very funny stuff! Kind of reminds me of a weird mix between the absurdity of Red Dwarf and some of the bitting dryness of Fawlty Towers. Definitely agree that it's worth watching.

I probably would have gone for it even sooner if I had recognized who Dylan Moran was. I loved him in Shaun of the Dead and Run Fatboy Run.

Anonymous said...

You can see it on Hulu for free also!

DrManhattan71 said...

I assume you've also seen Father Ted, The IT Crowd, "FM", The Inbetweeners, Alan Partridge, The Office/Extras, The Day Today, The Snuff Box

I mean, I could go on...

Matt Drake said...

Yes, I've seen most of those, but Black Books is my favorite.

ninthdoc said...

I love BritComs and Black Adder is the best comedy ever (in any country). Matt, is this coming on BBC America? I've not heard of it and you know you had me at "depressing shut-in...alcoholic". Must see TV!

Unknown said...

If you're a fan of Dylan Moran I'd heartily recommend the brilliant TV series "How Do You Want Me?" from the late 90s

Anonymous said...

what to happened to the writing after season 1? it's like the show imploded. guessing someone was fired, because the show slid swiftly downhill, and i'm not sure why. too bad. i really like season 1.