Television About Television on Television: The Television Years

I quite like television (don’t know if I’ve mentioned that before), so one of my favourite things is television programmes that are about television programmes. In that regard, recent weeks have been simply delightful, with both W1A series 2 and the Episodes series 4. Quelle richesse!

Episodes, which continues tonight, features two married British screenwriters, Bev and Sean (played by Tamsin Grieg and Stephen Mangan) who go to Los Angeles to have their pet project mangled and regurgitated by the Hollywood Television Machine. In season 4, their original pet project has been dropped by the network, leaving its star, Matt Leblanc (played by Matt LeBlanc) out of work and out of pocket, while Sean and Bev are back into the fray trying to pitch a new show to various bizarre Hollywood executives. And this is great for so many reasons. One: Tamsin Grieg, Stephen Mangan and Matt LeBlanc, all of whom are comedy royalty. Two: a hefty dose of fish-out-of-water Brits-vs-Americans humour, with both sides managing to be surprisingly empathetic despite their quirks and foibles. Three: a (presumably partially accurate) insight into the way Hollywood works, with scripts being passed around, picked apart and rewritten beyond recognition, lots of arse-kissing, creepy network executives, people pretending to like each other, cast and crew members who are either overly enthusiastic or lazy as hell… TV, baby!

And I’m enjoying this fourth series much more than the previous one, which got a bit soapy and weird, with lots of angsty storylines. The main issue was that Bev and Sean were separated, so they – along with pretty much all the other characters – were all sleeping with everyone else and getting upset about it. This season, the show is back on form (notwithstanding a slightly weird lesbian storyline that seems like a deliberately controversial rehash of old plots). Bev and Sean are a team once again, which gives us a united British front of scepticism, tea-drinking and passive-aggressive disapproval against the excesses and enthusiasm of the Americans, as well as allowing Grieg and Mangan to do what they do best and actually interact with each other in a humorous fashion (Green Wing, how we miss thee). Matt LeBlanc also has a particularly fun new storyline of having lost thirty-two million dollars of savings to a rogue accountant, which gives him an excuse to be massively bitchy and self-centred – again, what he does best.

In contrast to Episodes, set in Hollywood, stands W1A, set at the BBC in London. The programme (whose latest series was so short that it was finished before you could say ‘OK, here’s the thing with this’) follows a group of people working in TV development and planning; and it has many things going for it. First of all, it’s set at the BBC, that staple of broadcasting greatness. I see the exterior of New Broadcasting House (it’s no Television Centre – RIP – but you can’t have everything) and there are all the establishing shots of all the researchers and producers and developers tapping away at their BBC desks and I clap my hands in glee at being part of it (ish).

Also, some of the characters are properly fantastic. My absolute favourite is Will the intern, the single most hopeless person in the history of anything, who manages to get away with not being able to perform even the simplest of tasks because he looks so lost and sweet. This series, he’s even managed to have one or two moments of absolute brilliance that have saved him at the last minute from being thrown out on his ear; this is especially pleasing because no one looks more surprised about it than he does. And of course there are other great aspects to the programme, including: Jessica Hynes as painfully nonsensical PR guru Siobhan Sharpe (“If you get bandwidth on this, you’ve got maple syrup on your waffle from the get-go”), the fact that all the meeting rooms are named after celebrities (“Let’s have lunch in Tommy Cooper”), the constant mockery of the BBC’s own nearest and dearest (for example, the uncannily well-timed jokes at the expense of Jeremy Clarkson that aired shortly after he was fired from Top Gear), and, of course, the soothing narration of Lord of All Things David Tennant.

The only thing that limits W1A’s greatness (in my eyes) is that, well, it could be more TV-y. Obviously it started life as Twenty Twelve, with all of the characters working for the Olympic Deliverance Commission, and I loved it back then, but, you know, it was about sport, and that always hung over the programme like a sweaty, lycra-clad spectre. So when it was announced (after the Olympics had finished) that the whole team was moving to the BBC, I was very excited. But, in the end, it turns out that the reason they could get away with changing the setting was that it’s not really about sports, or the Olympics, or television, or the BBC – it’s about working in an office with a bunch of people who are terrible at their jobs and thereby make you terrible at yours. Aside from the name-dropping, the references to BBC shows and the odd cameo (of which more later), W1A could really be set anywhere and it would function the same.

In fairness, both W1A and Episodes do have quite a lot to live up to in terms of shows about shows, since they are following in the wake of two particularly shining examples of the format. One is Extras, which ended in 2007, but which still makes me laugh when I think about it. As a reminder, Ricky Gervais starred as Ricky Gerv- sorry, as Andy Millman, an aspiring actor-writer who is currently stuck wallowing around in the shallow end of the acting pool as an extra on various low- and high-budget productions. As with W1A, a lot of the comedy lies in how useless everyone is, particularly Andy’s agent, who barely seems to know how to use a phone, let alone how to hobnob with producers and directors to get Andy the kinds of roles he wants. BUT, unlike W1A, we get to visit the actual sets on which Andy and his chums are filming, and more frequently than we do in Episodes. As such, we’re introduced to bad catering, cramped dressing-room conditions, uncomfortable costumes, incredibly pretentious stars and awkward homophobia. Extras, how we miss thee also.

The other magnificent programme involving how all the facets of television-making interact is 30 Rock. Set at the peacock-bedecked NBC in New York, the show follows the trials and tribulations of a writer/producer (Liz Lemon, played by Tina Fey) and studio exec (Jack Donaghy, played by Alec Baldwin) as they try to maintain a grip on their writing team, actors, crew members, assistants, love lives and reality. As with Extras, 30 Rock finished several years ago; but I came late to the 30 Rock party, and am desperately trying to stretch the final season out for as long as I can (we’ve arrived at the last episode, and I don’t want to watch it, because then it will be over *sob*). I LOVE IT. In particular, and more so than any of the other shows I’ve mentioned, 30 Rock holds up the whole business of television-making to the light and examine the cracks, before filling them up with comedy putty. For example, an episode I watched recently featured the main star of the fictional show-within-the-show tweeting that women weren’t funny, which led to Liz Lemon being absolutely hilarious as she tried to prove to everyone that women were funny, and in doing so creating an extremely funny episode written and performed by a women (Tina Fey), thereby proving to the real world that women are funny. (If that doesn’t make sense, never fear: it makes even less sense in context.)

And this is the really great thing, not just about 30 Rock but about the other shows I’ve mentioned as well: they generally involve people in television making fun of themselves and their careers. The fictional writers, directors, production staff and crew all come off looking like hilarious buffoons, largely due to the efforts and self-awareness of the real writers, directors, production staff and crew. And particular credit must go to the ones who actually appear on screen – not just actors and other celebrities, but people who you’d think weren’t quite so used to putting themselves out there for mockery. A previous blog post listed some of my favourite television cameos, but it’s worth giving a quick shout out to some of the other great (and surprising) appearances from these four shows: 30 Rock’s inclusion of Aaron Sorkin, the creator of The West Wing (among other things), as a struggling writer who’ll do anything for a gig; Moira Stuart in Extras as Ronnie Corbett’s drug mule; in Episodes, the appearance of a ‘Friends co-star’ in the fictional sitcom that turns out to be Gunther (James Michael Tyler); and Mary Beard on W1A being subjected to the atrocious attentions of Siobhan (“Of course, not everyone can be Lucy Worsley”).

Basically, these shows are fantastic because (a) they’re a double dose of something I love, the almighty television; and (b) the people who make them also love television so much that they’re prepared to look like idiots to make it as wonderful as they possibly can. My kind of people. I peacock you all.

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