Do you have a Brit-humor-obsessed friend who pesters you to get in line and admit once and for all that Steve Coogan is a comedy god? Maybe he’s shoved one of Coogan’s Alan Partridge videos in your hands to get you up to speed on the egomaniacally obnoxious, socially inept talk-show-host character that has made Coogan a deity in the U.K., or dragged you to a movie theater to see Coogan’s star turn in Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story. That person is a good friend.
But if you’ve ignored the pleas, let me speak for your friend and tell you that you can get in on the ground floor Friday night with Coogan’s newest character, Tommy Saxondale. He’s a bearded, cantankerous, acrimoniously divorced ex-roadie with one fist still raised in rebellion, the other around a pesticide hose. Tommy has left the world of Jim Beam breakfasts, rock-star chumminess and changing Peter Frampton’s vocoder fuse for the life of a vermin killer. And why not? Music has gone in the crapper since “electronic bleeps and farts” replaced awesome fret work, according to Tommy, but he clings to the notion that even from his comfortable suburban existence with shop-owner girlfriend Magz (Ruth Jones), he can still do his part to give the finger to authority. Tommy’s idea of therapeutic betterment? Calmly telling the session leader in his court-ordered anger-management class that the notion of anger being bad is “horseshit”: If General MacArthur’s reaction to Pearl Harbor had been “to go someplace quiet and do some deep breathing,” he insists, “you’d be goose-stepping into this meeting!” Rock and roll!
The Jerry Garcia–haired, disillusioned antihero of the BBC’s Saxondale is Coogan’s gentle tweak of his asshole-ish character portfolio to include a guy who has no less of a problem dealing with people, but whose genuineness elicits our sympathy a little more easily. Alan Partridge’s sense of entitlement as a show-biz personality was so disproportionate to reality it lent a freak-show element to the delusion-in-exile scenarios of the brilliant sitcoms that told the Partridge story. (Incidentally, the first series of I’m Alan Partridge has just been released on BBC Video here in the U.S.) Tommy Saxondale, on the other hand, while no less righteous about the ridiculous battles he needs to win to boost his ego, is well-ensconced in his middle-aged existence, lending Coogan’s humiliation comedy a more nuanced, off-the-cuff, understanding air. In other words, you’ll agree with Tommy most of the time — or at least recognize his viewpoint — but you’ll laugh at the tragically awkward way he defends his case.
In the first episode, airing locally on BBC America, we meet a clearly distraught Tommy — he’s had to fire his only employee for being chronically, uncaringly late for work. Coogan delivers a hilarious kitchen monologue that, like a minihistory of an aging rocker, starts out passionately aggrieved and ends with a tangent-filled whimper as Tommy lets off steam about the fired assistant to Magz, with arguing points drawn from the only experience that still has rose-colored meaning to him, his halcyon days as a dependable support system for the titans of music: “Iggy Pop — Mr. Osterberg for those of us who kept his show on the road — one of the craziest sons of bitches to ever take the mike. But when it came to running a schedule, you could set your watch to the guy! I said, there’s keeping a crowd waiting in anticipation, and there’s taking the piss, and in that category I put you, the Proclaimers, Roberta Flack and Siouxsie . . . but not the Banshees. They were very punctual — what could they do? Go on their own? And the one-armed drummer from Def Leppard. At least he had an excuse. Although he did used to milk it sometimes.”
Saxondale, which Coogan wrote with Neil MacLennan, is at its sweetly funniest when depicting Tommy’s simple human desire to connect with others, usually exposed after a pained attempt to seem hip. When Tommy starts interviewing for a new assistant, he thinks he sounds like a principled, imposing boss as he demands each prospect’s view of anthropomorphism — if you want to make friends with roaches by putting them in jars and giving them names, he grumbles, “Go with Mr. Disney, that’s how he made his stash.”
Eventually he takes to a young, friendly-faced, longhaired lad named Raymond (Rasmus Hardiker) and chucks the anthropomorphism questioning to get the kid’s view on muscle cars. (Tommy’s pride and joy is a canary-yellow Boss 351 Mustang, although he’s rarely in the kind of mood that allows him to feel like a king of the road.) What do you know, Raymond thinks they’re cool, and the snap of a smile on Tommy’s face is almost touching. Because Tommy, who sees himself as a mentor figure, doesn’t just want a van mate, he pressures Raymond — who, thanks to the subtle performance by Hardiker, lets us know he grasps the need to make his new boss feel good — into boarding with him and Magz. First up, introducing the kid to Magz, who, as Tommy’s Rubenesque, raven-haired squeeze, is played by Jones with an erotically confident spark. (She was also in the BBC comedy shows Little Britain and Nighty Night.) When the pair mythically rehash their hooking up with an embarrassingly ribald anecdote, the two suddenly get lost in each other’s eyes and share an emotionally fragile “You rock my world” exchange that instantly turns Raymond and all of us into TMI victims. It’s the kind of jaw-droppingly rich bit of character detail that we Coogan fans can’t live without: embarrassing, slightly crazy, beautifully funny and so human it hurts. Won’t you join us?
SAXONDALE | BBC America | Fridays, 11 p.m.