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Dry and On the Rocks 

New British comedy imports

Wednesday, Mar 22 2006
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British comedy fans can rejoice in a crop of new imports debuting in the U.S. The shows are by turns nostalgic, broad, outrageous and chilly, but they’re all still indicative of a television culture that cherishes a richer, less obvious kind of laugh.

BBC America has a weekday late-night block designated for comedy called “The Underground.” Of the three new shows, the real standout is the second season of the hilarious science parody series Look Around You. If you caught the first season, you know that it consisted of 10-minute “modules” fashioned after those wheezy, grainy, narratively dull educational films that had you drooling into your notebook during class. The difference here: the willfully absurd teachings, such as the dryly narrated fact that sulfur is used to make butter, or ants build igloos, or that peas have tiny brains.

This time creators Robert Popper and Peter Serafinowicz kept the ’70s-era analog lab aesthetic of switches, dials, heavy pushbuttons and clamps, but turned their satirical eye toward half-hour science-oriented daytime shows, where chipper synthesizer music and inoffensive personalities herald the latest technological breakthroughs, side effects be damned. In the coming episode on “Health,” we’re casually told by sweetly smiling co-host Pam (Olivia Colman) of a few revolutionary products — British-made, of course — that have changed our lives, like the “diarrhea machine” and “asthma cigarettes.” She then tells us about the advances made in dealing with the disease called cobbles, which turns the afflicted into a pile of rocks, causing, Pam says in her most sympathetic voice, “insurmountable physical difficulties.” Later on, she takes part in a sleep study in which doctors have harnessed our untapped ability to, say, drive a car while completely out. But not before genial co-host Jack (co-creator Popper) submits to facial plastic surgery performed by a hulking, whirring contraption called a Medibot, of which only four exist in the world. (The other three, we’re told, are owned by Tony Curtis.) All of this is deadpan foolishness at its finest, the perfect antidote to our dispiritingly anti-knowledge times. I only hope our curiousity-challenged president doesn’t watch. His notion of junk science is susceptible enough as it is.

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Another “Underground” offering, High Spirits With Shirley Ghostman, is Da Ali G Showmeets Crossing Over With John Edward. When comedian Marc Wootton dons a ridiculous blond wig and Liberace-inspired white suit with tails, he becomes flamboyant “celebrity medium” Shirley Ghostman, channeler of dead stars and purveyor of spiritual powers. What this means is we get to see a quick-witted prankster say weird shit to unsuspecting believers. During one of the segments, he points to a woman in his ready-to-be-awed audience and sympathetically pronounces, “I feel your pain, I feel your shame, but you’re not to blame,” as the camera shows us her head nodding in cosmic agreement. Then he blurts out, “You deserved that holiday! How were you supposed to know dogs couldn’t feed themselves?” Cut to the woman, her brow instantly furrowing: Huh? Tweaking the public’s seemingly unending thirst for evidence of the paranormal is such a fertile idea that nearly all the bits are funny, from reading the minds of pets at a vet clinic — he tells the owner of a tiny, yet-to-be-housetrained kitty, “I think what she’d really appreciate is if you could do it in the litter tray once, to show her how it’s done” — to an ongoing faux tryout for an American Idol–style competition to anoint new psychic talent. In one of the trials, applicants hold a teapot while Shirley yells out, “Gut reaction, what’s it used for?” It’s wincingly amusing how eager the guesses get — “an ornament in a house,” it was “somewhere important,” or “used to advertise something” — but no mention of brewing you-know-what, no matter how many times he repeats the question. While this kind of duplicitous razzing may not be everyone’s cup of “somewhere important,” if like me you tend to view the John Edwards and James Van Praaghs of the world as greedy Muggles with finely tuned bereavement radar, then Wootton’s satirically inspired creation ought to be spirits-raising.

Over on Oxygen, dastardly British comedy star Julia Davis is back with another season of the jet-black Nighty Night, about the toxic adventures of a cruel, manipulative and criminally scary hairdresser named Jill, who spent the first season dispatching allobstacles to her obsession: married doctor Don (Angus Deayton). The bloodbath that ensued seems to have receded slightly as season two opens, with a few characters miraculously still alive, but, ultimately, you fear for anyone trapped in Jill’s sights. (At a grief-counseling session, an elderly widower confesses, “I still feel really shaky around the ladies,” and Jill patronizingly coos, “That’d be your Parkinson’s, Roy.” When he tells Jill he doesn’t have Parkinson’s, she adds, “That’s your Alzheimer’s talking, Roy.”) Tic-ridden patsy Glen (the great Mark Gatiss), framed for Jill’s crimes, is stuck in a mental hospital, and happy to know Jill wants to marry him, although she only wants his money so she can track down Don, who has relocatedto the seaside with his M.S.-recovering wife, Cath (Rebecca Front). Davis’ penchant for treating unspeakable behavior and taboo sexual attitudes in almost a folksy manner is still very much in evidence, although in the U.K. this batch was generally thought beyond the pale, even by Nighty Night fans. Having seen only a few of the new episodes, I detect an overreaching in the grotesqueness — sex with a trout? — but there are still delicately perverse lines to treasure. I love the crush Cath has on her new-age marriage therapist, who has prescribed a regimen of “self-loving” on his painfully prim and shy, doormat-like patient. When he asks, “Did you use the mirror?” she lets out a mouse-squeak of a “No” coupled with a face collapsing in on itself in nervous embarrassment. Then she adds, “I did catch sight of myself in the television .?.?. which was valuable.”

I’m also keen on Oxygen’s other black-humored female-centric show, Suburban Shootout, which the gal channel co-commissioned with a British network, as was the case with the second Nighty Night series (partnering with the BBC). Shootout imagines a Wisteria Lane in which the deadly glares between warring housewives are likely to lead to gunplay and bloodshed. Ever since a vigilant effort by the ladies of Little Stempington successfully swept their sleepy hamlet of juvenile thuggery, a secret turf war has exploded between former crusaders Camilla Diamond (Anna Chancellor), now a crime boss herself and running what can only be called a women’s extortion guild from her tinted minivan, and Barbara DuPrez (Felicity Montagu), determined to end her former best friend’s shift to the dark side. Caught in the middle is newcomer Joyce (Amelia Bullmore), unwitting participant in a wicker-store bombing, the shaking down of a librarian, and also — thanks to a perceived affiliation with Camilla — the free-groceries treatment at the store. It was probably a matter of time before some enterprising writers — in this case Roger Beckett and Gary James Martin — turned the domestic-power universe of gossipy homemakers and neighborhood cliques into a full-on gangster saga, with the molls in charge, and already it’s a fantastically spiky showcase for the actresses doing the shooting, punching, threatening and — ’cause it won’t get done otherwise — garden-tending. It’s all broad fun, but the truest joke of all may be that the husbands are, as ever, oblivious to what their spouses have to put up with.

For a vision of British society that’s more apocalyptic and grimly nuanced, there’s the animated Monkey Dust on the Sundance Channel, which plays like some cartoon Frankenstein after an operation involving Dante, Hieronymus Bosch and Edward Hopper. It’s an ink-and-paint sketch nocturne with recurring characters — in a brilliant touch, brought to life by different animators — who find themselves in a never-ending cycle of failure: a divorced father unable to bond with a son whose well-meaning tales of mom’s fabulous life invariably have the wrong effect; a nerdy young gay man routinely thwarted/humiliated in his attempts to have anonymous public sex; and, perhaps most shockingly amusing, a reptile-skinned Internet pedophile with a surprisingly young-girl-savvy IM vocabulary and horrible luck when it comes to arranging a meet. It doesn’t sound like a barrel of laughs, I know, but it’s a singular comic nightmare that, unlike a lot of so-called “edgy” comedy, knows that transgressions and depravity are sometimes shadings of sheer loneliness. You just have to determine if sheer loneliness is funny, and in the merciless lampoon that is Monkey Dust, it is.

LOOK AROUND YOU | BBC America | Mondays and Thursdays, 9 p.m.

HIGH SPIRITS WITH SHIRLEY GHOSTMAN | BBC America | Fridays, 6 p.m. and 10 p.m.

NIGHTY NIGHT | Oxygen | Sundays, midnight

SUBURBAN SHOOTOUT | Oxygen | Wednesdays, 9 p.m.

MONKEY DUST | Sundance Channel | Sundays, 9 p.m.

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