Film and Television Features

Slack-Jawed and Square-Eyed #1

Hello and welcome to the launch of No Ripcord's new TV column. Hopefully we'll be able to keep this going on a regular weekly basis, depending on whether there's anything good on I suppose. Although probably not even that will stop the column, as really my only qualification for doing this is that I need to justify spending far too much time as it is watching bad TV shows, largely because I'm reluctant to give up on them; once I've made the commitment I'm there to the bitter end (even though The Simpsons has been running on fumes for the best part of a decade now, I've still seen every episode, just in the hope that it might accidentally hit on greatness again at some point).

I have found over the years though that there's one fairly major exception to the rule. Whenever FX UK start overly hyping their next 'edgy' American import you can guarantee that it'll be best watched only sporadically – ideally just the first and last episodes of a season as, thanks to some reliably snail's paced storytelling, you're not missing anything much in between. First it was Dexter, then True Blood, and now The Walking Dead (Friday, FX): a show so inept at creating a interesting cast of characters that the inevitable horde of zombies that turn up every week seem like better company. As for pinpointing the exact moment when I completely lost interest in the show, I could say that it was when Shane went all emo and shaved his head, or when Carl ridiculously got shot and then even more ridiculously refused to die, or the white supremacist stuff back in the first season. In truth though, it's never really been much cop. Other than the first episode, which, significantly, featured next to nothing of the miserable bunch of bastards who form the bulk of the cast, it's been pretty awful since the start.

And it looks like the channel's latest offering American Horror Story (Monday, FX) will be the same. Created by two thirds of the creative team behind Glee, one would wonder if it was a good idea for them to attempt another series when their other one's still spinning so badly off course (though to be fair, this week's deflowerpalooza was actually a lot less 'icky' than it could have been). But then, it's not like they spent that much time coming up with this one as it takes things that are so old hat that The Simpsons satirised them twenty years ago and threw in the least imaginative title possible and Dylan McDermott still being so extremely handsome to the extent that he starts to look a bit creepy, sort of like the 'uncanny valley' effect in reverse. Because it's a Ryan Murphy production, there were also plenty of hot and cold running emotions and heavy handed bullying scenes... And a haunted gimp suit, which you have to give them credit for as it's a pretty unique idea: not even the wacky world of J-Horror has braved those waters as yet (as far as I know at least).

In other words, it was terrible, relying on wonky jump cuts, and a credits sequence that rips off Se7en, instead of atmosphere, and explosive outbursts and copious amounts of nudity instead of believable characters. But I'm still tempted to tune in next time; partially to see where they're going with it; partially to find out what the gimp suit with a mind of its own will get up to next; and mostly because I have my suspicions that this is going to turn into something of a camp classic (would any American readers who are a few episodes further into the series care to confirm this?) Plus Frances Conroy's always worth watching (shame that the conceit for her character – think the woman in the bathtub from The Shining – means that she's barely in it), and Jessica Lange, always a class act, seems to have judged the ludicrous atmosphere nicely, even if she is still playing Big Edie from the HBO Grey Gardens movie.

There is a connection between American Horror Story and the most buzzed about show of the week, and it's a word. As it's incredibly offensive I'm not going to repeat it here, but I thought it was worth commenting on all the same: in American Horror Story Lange's character was marked out as an evil cow (not that you couldn't instantly tell from the script's reliance on stock characters) by her using it to refer to her Downs Syndrome affected daughter, whereas in the run up to Life's Too Short (Thursday, BBC2), on twitter Ricky Gervais decided to 'reclaim' the word (from whom I'm not particularly sure) and then started posting links to ill-advised sketches and photos where he pretended to be disabled.

Which means that his latest offering has arrived under something of a cloud. As if the inevitable backlash wasn't enough, he's also been riling up people with his constant blathering on about being an atheist, or how Hollywood doesn't understand him, or how any criticism of anything he does is down to jealousy, but apparently that wasn't enough either so he's now throwing purposelessly offensive into the mix as well. Although, such is his level of fame that such shenanigans probably haven't dampened expectations for the show at all.

I wish that I could get all fired up about Life's Too Short and vent my anger at the show in a apoplectically poetic way, like Stewart Lee did in The Guardian this weekend (even if you have no interest in the show, or in Lee, it's still well worth a read), but really, that seems a bit of a pointless endeavour, as it would involve exerting more effort on the show than Gervais or Merchant bothered to muster. When facing the difficult decision of what to do for their difficult third series, clearly the two just sat down and thought that a mockumentary about a deluded egomaniac worked well the first time, and the self-mocking film star cameos proved popular in Extras, so why not just combine the two? Like American Horror Story, it couldn't have taken more than about twenty minutes to come up with the idea.

Full disclosure: I've never been a fan of Gervais and generally seen him as egocentric and mean-spirited, even going back to the days of The 11 O'Clock Show where, incredibly, he even made Iain Lee look like a reasonable person and, even more damningly, actually amusing. I will concede that Extras had its moments (even if they were mostly the celeb cameos) and might even say that seasons two to four of the American version of The Office contained some of the greatest TV comedy of recent years, but that doesn't mean that I ever stopped thinking that he's a prick (as a result of which, I did genuinely laugh out loud at the moment in Life's Too Short where Merchant and Gervais revealed that even they had no idea how he had been getting away with his 'offensive' shtick). Yet, on the other hand, I will always have a soft spot for Warwick Davis, if only for Willow (yes, I know it's shit, but then so were most films in the 80's), so I wouldn't have had a problem with Life's Too Short being a massive runaway success. Based on the evidence of the first episode, it really doesn't deserve to though. Davis was fine, but was really only there to be 'hilariously' short for the first half of the episode, and preening and arrogant for the rest of it. Gervais and Merchant appeared, but they didn't even bother to get up from their seats let alone actually do anything, and Liam Neeson turned up for about five minutes to do the regular Extras bit. His comedy 'turn' pinpointed the biggest problem with the show: its lack of believability. If the show had managed to be funny then the slightly queasy 'postmodern' and 'ironic' throwback nature of the jokes wouldn't be too much of a problem (jokes about dwarfism were played out decades ago), but the writing wasn't good enough for that; the exchanges between Davis and his ex-wife, or the passer by outside Gervais and Merchant's office or, in particular Neeson's spectacular inability to grasp the nature of comedy, all rang false. Maybe the spare documentary style didn't do such broad material any favours or maybe it was just very weak material to start with. I'd like to say that it deserves to just be quietly ignored and swiftly forgotten, but of course that's not going to be the case – we're all (including me) still going to watch it next week to see what scrapes Johnny Depp gets up to, aren't we?

Next week: Pan Am! And probably more complaining about Ricky Gervais! In the meantime, the Disqus box at the bottom of the page is there for your comments. Feel free to inform me on why I'm wrong about Life's Too Short, or anything else for that matter.