Friday, 11 January 2008

NEVER BETTER 1.1 - "Bully"

Friday, 11 January 2008
Writer: Fintan Ryan
Director: Martin Dennis

Cast: Stephen Mangan (Keith), Kate Ashfield (Anita), Tom Goodman-Hill (Richard), Chris Fairbank (Doug) & Neil Fitzmaurice (Sean)

A recovering alcoholic lets his self-obsession get the better of him, leading to a series of embarrassing mishaps...

This new sitcom plays like a British middle-class version of cringe-comedy Curb Your Enthusiasm, mixed with One Foot In The Grave – if Victor Meldrew were younger, had kids, and preferred to sit back in frustration when things go wrong.

Green Wing star Stephen Mangan plays Keith, a recovering alcoholic who can't quite get to grips with modern life because he's so self-centred and lacking in responsibility. Keith seemingly spends most of his day at AA meetings, where he incurs the wrath of those around him for being so unthinking and insensitive – in shades of Saxondale's anger management classes.

At home, Keith has a pretty wife called Anita (Shaun Of The Dead's Kate Ashfield), young son Tom, and daughter Poppy. Life should be good (or at least on the up, now he's on the wagon), but Keith's far from the ideal husband and father.

This opening episode gives us a good look at Keith's incompetent nature and self-obsession, coasting alongside a string of loose plot-strands that begin to tie up. It wasn't a particularly neat storyline, seemed to go a bit limp in the middle, and the finale just crept up on you – but with an amusing visual punchline.

Fintan Ryan's premise isn't very original, and Never Better doesn't seem likely to eclipse the shows/characters it's borrowing from, and inspired by. But, Mangan is a very adept comic performer and manages to squeeze life out of the script, while there are some amusing moments (like a recurring sight gag with a slow car window) that keep you entertained. By the end, I was glad I'd given this new comedy a go. It wasn't a clear and obvious success, but it certainly contained enough good stuff to make me come back.

I didn't particularly like Stephen Mangan in Green Wing (his character was too much of a grinning prat for my taste), but he was superb as Adrian Mole in his breakthrough role, and great in the recent one-off Free Agents – so he's clearly one to keep an eye on.

If Never Better can cut down on the implausible gags (getting beaten up by his own son?), flesh-out the supporting characters (Kate Ashfield is particularly wasted here), and streamline the plot with crisper goings-on, this could be a slightly more amenable alternative to Jack Dee's Lead Balloon.

10 January 2008
BBC2, 10.00 pm