BBC Three's latest comedy reminded me a great deal of BBC Two's Psychoville. Both tackle dark concepts, both are serialised murder-mysteries at heart, and Dead Boss even cast the other half of French & Saunders in a fun role as a prison warden. Is it coincidence that this sitcom's even directed by Steve Bendelack, who filmed Psychoville's esteemed forerunner The League Of Gentlemen?
Comic actress Sharon Horgan (Pulling, Todd Margaret) co-wrote this series with stand-up comedian Holly Walsh, and also takes the lead role of Helen Stephens; an ordinary woman sentenced to 12 years in jail for killing her employer. Naturally, sweet office worker Helen's innocent and there's a conspiracy afoot (with plenty of cartoonish suspects jostling around the sidelines who may have framed her), but all Helen has to keep her spirits high is inept lawyer Tony (Geoff McGivern) as she adapts to life behind bars.
I'm not a fan of the trend to air double-bills of new sitcoms, but in the case of Dead Boss is was a godsend. The first half-hour wasn't terrible, but it was fighting a losing battle. There was obviously a lot to introduce in terms of plot and characters, and while the pacing was strong there wasn't enough big laughs or memorable performances to keep you engaged. Horgan and Walsh's script also leaned heavily on the many prison clichés and tropes, which are admittedly tough to avoid, and sometimes impossible to sidestep. The idiot lawyer? The jail bully? It wasn't even trying to be original in this regard. Perhaps that's part of the reason Jennifer Saunders made a good impression as Margaret, the warden of the prison, because she was the only character who felt like a fun opposite to the expectation of a tyrannical autocrat. Instead, she was more in the vein of Harry Potter's evil headmistress Dolores Umbridge; a middle-aged woman who appears to be compassionate, but is actually a ruthless authoritarian. I'm surprised Saunders wasn't a bigger presence in these opening episodes, but hope to see more from her.
The second episode was definitely stronger because it broadened the scope of the show rather nicely; letting us know that we'll obviously see how fish-out-of-water Helen copes with imprisonment, but also that the show's going to venture outside the prison walls to investigate the mystery of who did kill Helen's boss and for what reason? I just hope the explanation is worth the wait, seeing as there are seemingly limited options right now. Helen's weasel of a work colleague? The boss' trophy wife? Dead Boss will also have to avoid a potential pitfall that scenes inside HMP Broadmarsh may start to feel comparatively tedious to those set outside the prison. Seeing as Helen's been sentenced and banged up, it's hard to see how she can wholly engage with the "whodunnit?" nature of the story, beyond remembering vital clues and being apprised of development by her cowardly lawyer. Maybe this means the show will soon be tackling another prison clichéd to counter this: the escape plan.
Overall, for all its faults and some early concerns, Dead Boss shows promise. If the storyline evolves and manages to take some unexpected but plausible directions, I'll feel much happier accepting the show's less original elements (like Lizzie Roper's "Top Dog" with the Chelsea smile). But there's still the nagging feeling that Horgan and Walsh's script lacks courage and a dark heart the title hints at. This is a particular shame because Horgan was also half responsible for the tremendously acidic Pulling (the best comedy BBC3 ever axed). Dead Boss could have used some of that bite and flavour, because it already feels like the production style and characterisations are too innocuous—although that could be down to personal taste, as I tend to enjoy the Julia Davis brand of disquieting psychological comedy this could have been in different hands.
I'll stick with Dead Boss because I'm a massive fan of Horgan's work, and the assembled cast are a pleasing mix of interesting actors and famous faces. It's also nice to see a comedy with such a strong lineup of women, that isn't tackling a topic one associates with female-skewing comedy (i.e. unlucky-in-love Bridget Jones or Miranda types).
What did you make of Dead Boss?
written by Sharon Horgan & Holly Walsh / directed by Steve Bendelack / 14 June 2012 / BBC Three