Tuesday, 22 January 2008

NEVER BETTER 1.2 – "Life And Soul"

Tuesday, 22 January 2008
Writer: Fintan Ryan
Director: Martin Dennis

Cast: Stephen Mangan (Keith), Kate Ashfield (Anita), Charlie George (Tom), Stephanie Street (Rachel), David Armand (Drew), Tom Goodman-Hill (Richard), Mya O'Connor (Poppy), Joanna David (Janice), Michele Austin (Linda) & Christopher Fairbank (Doug)

Keith begins to worry about his masculinity and the possibility he was more "fun" when he was drinking; thoughts that lead to misunderstandings with dinner guests...

At the moment, Never Better is well named... as it just reminds me of better sitcoms that trod similar ground. One Foot In The Grave did better plots, The Office was better at "cringe-comedy", Alan Partridge is a better "loser", and Saxondale's a better "addict" – but that's not to say Never Better isn't a good laugh...

If you're going to steal, steal from the best. Fintan Ryan's sitcom might not be venturing into uncharted comedy territory, but it's a pleasant half hour – thanks to Stephen Mangan's enjoyably uncomfortable performance and gaffe-prone character, and the various pay-offs to snowballing mistakes are good for a chuckle.

I particularly liked Keith's problems with something as innocuous as getting a new phone, after he sends a rude text to everyone on his address book and spends the episode unable to give people his number, or call them, because he'll reveal himself as the culprit.

Keith's mad quest to get an iron returned was less interesting, and I thought more could have been done with Janice (Joanna David) – a fellow alcoholic with similar feelings of obsessive behaviour. Her subplot kind of petered out after a one-gag pay-off, and it might have been more interesting to have taken it further. Likewise, a moment when Keith accidentally breaks a little boy's nose with a football didn't really go anywhere that funny – ultimately.

But the recurring phone dilemma, instigated by Keith's best friend Richard (Tom Goodman-Hill), who wants him to do more "blokey" stuff like he did before he started attending AA, was consistently fun. The neighbours who come round for dinner, but continually find Keith a bit creepy and awkward to be around, were also a hoot.

I particularly liked Kate Ashfield's performance this week, as Keith's wife Anita. She's still a bit extraneous to the "one man comedy" mentality of Never Better, but she has a nice array of plausible reactions to Keith's faux pas'. I can believe they're a married couple, and there's even a vague whiff of a contemporary Frank and Betty Spencer between them – only with Keith socially, not physically, inept.

So far, this seems to be a gently amusing series, with brief stings of social awkwardness and misunderstandings to spice things up. Mangan and Ashfield are a good comedy pairing, but hopefully Ryan's scripts will begin to hit more inspired areas, and its plot threads will all tie together neater. At the moment, only a few of its ideas tickle the funnybone, with half the subplots ending drably, or not reaching their full potential...

A decent, if unremarkable start, for a sitcom yet to generate any buzz.

17 January 2008
BBC2, 9.30 pm