Tuesday, 9 June 2009

The Inbetweeners: Series 1 & 2

Tuesday, 9 June 2009
Young, glum and full of...

A comedy for the Facebook generation (or has that dated it already?), The Inbetweeners transplants raucous American teen sex comedy to a British locale and injects filthy dialogue as only us Brits can dispense. Ostensibly it's the story of posh schoolboy Will (Simon Bird), who finds himself transferred to a cruddy comprehensive school when his mum's finances dry up. There he befriends other "inbetweeners" (pupils stuck in the middle of the nerd-cool spectrum); amiable Simon (Joe Thomas), compulsive liar Jay (James Buckley), and naïve dimwit Neil (Blake Harrison). The series charts the misadventures of the randy adolescents, mainly through the account of Will, to paint a picture of modern teenage life...

Created by Damon Beesley and Iain Morris (who wrote for the short-lived 11 O'Clock Show on Channel 4), The Inbetweeners is a sitcom designed to appeal foremost to the 16-18 audience it reflects, albeit in a warped funhouse mirror. There are very funny moments and realistic banter laced throughout the scripts, but it's often let down by monotonous plotting and a frustrating tendency to squeeze laughs from situations that have gone way past the realm of plausibility.

The four leads are the main reason the show works; a legitimately engaging quartet of young actors whose friendships feel real and recognizable. In some ways they're all broad clichés, but the term archetype is perhaps more suitable. Simon Bird is often singled-out from the pack (possibly because his character Will resembles a crossbreed of Ricky Gervais and David Mitchell with an injection of Adrian Mole), but he's actually the least convincing as a three-dimensional person -- with the scripts guilty of treating him as a Sitcom Character™ (i.e, he's too blessed with scripted wit and a bizarre lack of self-awareness.) In one series 2 episode, Will strides into a pub wearing lost property trousers carrying his shitty kecks in a plastic bag, and you can't help but wonder why he invites social embarrassment. The only answer is that it's funnier this way. Which is true, but it would be even funnier if we could believe in his faulty decision-making.

It's a shame, too, as the other characters are pitched more successfully, with Simon the sensitive "normal one" in love with childhood friend Carli (Emily Head), Jay the sort of impertinent prat everyone knew in school, and Neil a kind of human puppydog who goes with the flow. It's difficult to see what the series has to offer women, as the school girls are mostly written as cock-teasing fantasies like buxom Charlotte Hinchcliffe (Emily Atack), the kind of dreamgirl who beds our heroes for the sake of the plot. Either that or they never feel consistent in how they behave or react.

Similarly, the adults are all broad caricatures and have bigger personality defects than their kids! Will's mum Polly (Belinda Stewart-Wilson) is a MILF his friends openly lust after, Neil's dad is rumoured to be a repressed homosexual (the source of recurring jokes aimed at his son), Jay's dad constantly undermines his son's self-esteem with confidence-sapping jibes about his sexual history and genitalia, Simon's dad is preposterously frank about marital sex, etc.

The series only really has two teachers worth mentioning, too, which feels like a wasted opportunity: child-hating Mr. Gilbert (teacher-turned-comedian Greg Davies) and confirmed paedophile Mr. Kennedy (Waen Shephard). Yes, you read that right -- in one episode, Gilbert even has to entice Kennedy out of the boy's dorm room during a field trip (clearly aware of his peer's interest in young boys), which is quite a disturbing development.

Obviously, The Inbetweeners is exaggerated and embellished for the sake of ribald comedy, which is fine. But it's still disappointing the scripts aren't written with touch more maturity and evenness, as the characterizations only serve to remind us how artificial and cartoon-y everything is -- even when it's aiming to be poignant and real. Compare this to Peep Show, which is proficient at allowing its characters to act like grotesques without letting its sense of reality slip. The Inbetweeners just goes for the easy, infantile laughs (realism, be damned) and ends up looking unsubstantial and trivial at times. And it doesn't help that every episode follows the same trajectory of the foursome devising a plan to get drunk or have sex, only for it to end in tears or embarrassment through a series of mishaps and bad karma. There's only been 12 episodes, but it's already run the gamut of most school rituals, events and activities each episode seems to randomly pick from a bucket and riff on.

What rescues it are the fun performances of everyone involved, the moments when the plot manages to develops in a clever and credible way, and a constant stream of edgy dialogue, toilet humour, and beautifully inane banter that feels authentic. The show understand that British teenage boys communicate through jokey repartee and lies, which is so refreshing after the usual "bromantic" US teen-sex comedies with their stagnant formula of jocks, nerds, cheerleaders, prom nights, and toga parties.

Overall, too many episodes of The Inbetweeners fall flat at the last hurdle to be considered truly successful, but at least none of the adventures are totally boring. The dialogue revels in its ugliness and the main characters are engaging and sympathetic. Now, if they could only just deepen the plots, flesh out the girls, and paint the adults with a bit more sincerity...

written by: Damon Beesley and Iain Morris directed by: Gordon Anderson (series 1) & Ben Palmer (series 2) starring: Simon Bird (Will McKenzie), James Buckley (Jay Cartwright), Blake Harrison (Neil Sutherland), Joe Thomas (Simon Cooper), Greg Davies (Mr. Gilbert), Henry Lloyd-Hughes (Mark Donovan), Belinda Stewart-Wilson (Polly McKenzie), Emily Head (Carl D'Amato), Robin Weaver (Pamela Cooper), Martin Trenaman (Mr. Cooper), John Seaward (John), Emily Atack (Charlotte Hinchcliffe), Alex MacQueen (Kevin Sutherland), Dominic Applewhite (Andrew Cooper), Richard Hart (David Glover), David Schaal (Terry Cartwright), Ollie Holme (Tom), Justine Cain (Carli's Friend), Lily Lovett (Rachel), Anabel Barnston (Susie), Victoria Willing (Mrs. Cartwright), Suzi Battersby (Punk Girl) & Libby Hayter (Pupil) 260-minutes (x12 25-min. episodes)