Summer TV Club: Black Books "Cooking the Books"
I had never even heard of the British comedy Black Books before Pete suggested we watch it for this week's TV Club and after viewing the series premiere, I understand why it never hit mainstream popularity in the United States like some of its contemporaries, The Office or Coupling for example.
The show focuses on Bernard Black (Dylan Moran) who runs a used bookshop despite his obvious disdain for customers. In this opening episode, a stressed-out accountant named Manny (Bill Bailey) comes looking for a copy of The Little Book of Calm, a daily affirmations type of self-help book and somehow later in the episode swallows the book. The book is "absorbed" into his system turning him into a tranquil version of himself. Meanwhile, Bernard needs to do his taxes and is avoiding them at all costs. The third main character in the show is Fran (Tasmin Greig), Bernard's sane female friend who runs the curiosity shop next door.
And there you go...
ABBY: This show won quite a few BAFTA awards and in England was widely popular, but it never seemed to make a dent across the pond. Why do you think that is?
JEF: This from the woman that has poo-pooed on every British show we've done? I dunno, Abs. Have you EVER seen an American show take place primarily in a bookstore?
PETE: Are we really calling Abby "Abs" now? And I think Jef's forgetting a little show called Stacked, starring America's Sweetheart: Pamela Anderson.
ABBY: I was going to say Stacked! Let's get real: how does one go about not noticing that a small book is in his or her soup to the extreme level of actually swallowing that book? Books don't go down easy, believe me.
JEF: My brother inserted a penny in his nose and forgot about it for six months. Laurie Notaro had a Cheetoh in her throat so long she went and had it looked at because she thought it was a tumor. I guess anything is possible.
PETE: Maybe it soaked in the soup long enough to get sufficiently soggy for swallowing (deep alliterative breath). Or maybe it's something called "dramatic license."
ABBY: How does Bernard make any money at his bookstore when he is literally the worst shop owner of all time? He's like the Archie Bunker of bookshop owners.
JEF: That's independent British bookstores from you. It's probably also his home, and most of them keep irregular hours and are run by snarky insane people.
PETE: It's established in later episodes that it is his (and, later, Manny's) home. And he's as effective a housekeeper as he is a business owner.
ABBY: Fran spends much of the episode trying to figure out what this odd-looking tchotchke is that she had ordered for her store. What did you guys think it was? I honestly thought it was a lighter (which is what it was) but I also thought, "I bet this comes with a label or packaging insert that probably says exactly what it is, and besides, didn't you order a bunch of them?"
JEF: I thought it would open and there would be a smaller one, then a smaller one, then a smaller one, and in the middle would be a snow globe containing the cast of St. Elsewhere.
PETE: I was hoping for creepy sentience, like the Boohbah. But honestly I like Jef's idea better.
ABBY: I'll be honest, I didn't really find this that funny. I know it's a pilot and it was still finding its footing but I don't have much interest in pursuing this show. Tell me it gets better.
JEF: Are you kidding? This was hysterical! I couldn't stop laughing. The scene with the skinheads alone is comedy gold. I'm going to take one of these every day instead of those pills the guy in the lab coat gave me!
PETE: It gets bolder as it goes (the third episode of Season 1 is when things really kick into gear), but yeah; your Anglophobia is wearing thin, "Abs." I think I'm going with nothing but The I.T. Crowd and Spaced from here on out.
ABBY: Imagine I really had an Anglophobic disorder and broke out into hives every time you forced me to watch bad British humor? I don't, but you guys would feel bad. The premise of the show, a cranky, drunken bookstore owner, is good enough on its own without the need to through in implausible situations, i.e. swallowing a book and it being absorbed into your system, why go in that direction do you think? I've read that the original pilot was much darker, but that apparently didn't work for them.
JEF: Every British comedy needs to be depressing as hell, and every protagonists needs a chirpy annoying sidekick. It's in the Magna Carta, I think.
PETE: See, I don't think the bookstore premise is enough. I mean, mercilessly abusing your customers is the dream of all retail employees. But wouldn't that wear thing every week? Even with only six episodes a "series."