Life, etc

FLIXATION: Inside Brexit’s Bleak House; the (In)Humanity of Ricky Gervais

By Tony Jackman 23 March 2018

When avid television bingers go cold turkey on DStv and sign up for Netflix et al – and more such platforms will come our way in time – you find so much great stuff. Your first question is, WhyTF didn’t Multichoice tell us about this stuff, buy it and put it on our bouquet? Your next thought is to stick a middle finger in the air and send it to Randburg. Then you read this column, every Friday in Daily Maverick, for some clues as to what to watch next. First up: Collateral (BBC2-Netflix), and Humanity (Netflix). By TONY JACKMAN.

A revolution has been happening in Television World, and we are its beneficiaries. There has always been the occasional moment of brilliance in television drama – a Twin Peaks (the original), a Downton Abbey, a Lost (until it got lost in itself) – but there’s been nothing like the remarkable output there is today of television drama that can call itself art, or which plays like a brilliant novel that you’re reading, and you don’t want to switch off/put it down.

Counted among these is what they now call the limited series, which differs from your average series in that it is an entity in itself. It wraps up at the end of the final episode, job done, credits roll, no cliffhanger or long-dead Bobby Ewing ready to leap out of the shower in the next season and frighten the hell out of Pam.

The limited series – what used to be called a miniseries – is the new big thing on world TV. Endless series repeated countless times at 10, 13 or 26 episodes apiece have been the norm for years – but in this new golden age of television the limited series has risen to the surface, and for good reason.

If a single-story series is left open-ended, nine times out of 10 it gets sloppy. The writers waffle, because they can and still get paid. The directors and editors in their wake take chances they would not if things were tightened up. And instead of making things like Lost, which is probably still running somewhere at episode 12,087 or 8, they settle for a short, sharp four or eight episodes and wham, bam, you have drama right in your face. Restrict yourself to six or eight episodes, and the creative mind focuses in the way a novelist’s does. Unless you’re Tolstoy.

HBO’s Big Little Lies is a fine example: just seven episodes, and so much story is unwrapped, layer after layer. Produced by some powerful women including Nicole Kidman and Reece Witherspoon (I know, but really, she is), it set a bar that other creatives are scurrying to beat. Any great benchmark only brings us more of the good stuff – and sends a message to the TV bosses that there is a market for intelligently crafted fare.

One of the best drama series of the last year or two is The Night Of (which was based on the British series Criminal Justice), and the new British six-episode limited series Collateral, written by the playwright David Hare, has plenty in common with it. Both involve a mysterious and sudden murder at the outset of a young person, and both continue with a multi-layered and many-charactered probing of what happened, why and how. In each, there’s a massively bigger picture that unfolds, of which the murder is only a small if pivotal part.

Watch the Collateral trailer:

Collateral is on the surface a routine police procedural, with a rookie detective at the helm who is clearly competent and prepared to skirt convention. Playing DCI Kip Glaspie is Carey Mulligan, one of the best of the new crop of young British thespians. She grabbed our attention in An Education (2009) and – if she keeps going the way she’s started – she is in prime position to become one of the grande dames of British movies in another generation or so. We’ll need our new Judi Denches at some point, and I’d sooner that were an old, wise Carey Mulligan than a simperingly grey Keira Knightley. Please God no.

The series wraps up a maddeningly complex story of murder, drug peddling and trafficking in the post-Brexit era in just four hour-long episodes, so it’s tight as hell. The cast boasts a slew of strong parts for women, with most male roles on the sidelines other than a Macchiavellian skunk who you want to find his comeuppance and a single-minded Labour MP in the shadow cabinet who is obliquely linked to people hovering on the perimeters of the investigation into the seemingly random murder of a pizza delivery guy who had been a refugee. Follow all that?

The other stand-out performance in this BBC2-Netflix co-production – and there’s another clue to where this new world of television drama is headed – is Saskia Reeves, whose character I will not describe, otherwise it would ruin the entire thing for you. But she will be the focus of your attention from the moment you first see her ramrod-straight back and hard, determined countenance. And for good reason.

As happened within a few years of the end of the Vietnam War – when great movies such as Coming Home and The Deer Hunter (both 1978) and Apocalypse Now (1979) were released which delved deep into “the horror, the horror” – post-Brexit Britain will be weighed by film and television writers and directors while the society comes to terms with who and what it is.

Watch Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now:

It’s a Bleak Brexit House that Britain has inherited, and the answer can only emerge, if it can at all, from time, events and how creative minds unravel it all. The answer Collateral provides can only be: we sure as hell don’t have the bloody foggiest, mate. And if its answer is bleak, that because it’s more of a question: Where Are We Now, as my late, great favourite Brit, David Bowie, sang and wrote in one of his final great songs. Watch and hear:

Humanity

Spoiler alert. Profanity alert. Politically incorrect comedian in the house alert. Okay, who said, “A fundamentalist loves a foetus from its inception until it turns out gay”? That’s right, folks, it’s the Ricky Gervais show, and you’re about to be fucking offended.

I love watching easily offended bigots being easily offended. That’s what makes Gervais tick too. No one in the world has a better perspective of them than he does, and if you tell him how offended you are by (virtually anything he says) he is going to turn on you and best you and you are going to limp away wounded. Pride and all. Especially as everybody else will be laughing. At you.

The line quoted above is one of many from his new show Humanity which has just made its debut on Netflix. The show, his first in seven years, was filmed during a three-week residency at the Eventim Apollo in London during a world tour. This is its first television outing.

Watch the Humanity trailer:

First off, the title. Humanity. That is one strong word. Put it on the billboard outside a Ricky Gervais show and you know what he’s gonna do. He’s going to have a pop at the worst of us all, he’s about to destroy our species with his razorwire tongue. Death By Cruel One-liner. Icons are gonna fall, thud thud thud, on the stage floor, there to writhe pitilessly while he laughs and smirks and laps up our applause. Us. The fuckers who made him rich when he was 40.

Except that does not happen. Because the show is misnamed. It should have been called Human Nature. Or just Human. That is his target here, the idiot in all of us, our feet of clay disintegrating in his spittle. The great scourges of the earth and those who perpetrate them are left unscathed here. What he does target is the human species and its traits and idiosyncracies. Isms. Social habits. Social media habits. Sacred Cows (and Dogs). Homophobia. Transphobia. Bigots. Idiots. (“Do you know how fucking stupid the average person is? We still have bottles of bleach with labels on that say Do Not Drink. Let’s take those labels off – and then have a referendum.) Oh sorry, I forgot: Spoiler alert. (Oh come on, you saw the opening quotation mark. You could’ve stopped there.)

And Deadnaming. This was after all his first stand-up show in seven years “unless you count the Golden Globes”. At which, in 2016, after Caitlyn Jenner had been involved in a fatal car crash (well, fatal to others) when she was still Bruce Jenner. And Gervais had said, to the assembled Hollywood schlebs, or as he termed them, “you disgusting, pill-popping sexual deviant scum”:

I’ve changed. Not as much as Bruce Jenner. Obviously…. now Caitlyn Jenner, of course. What a year she’s had. She became a role model for trans people everywhere, showing great bravery in breaking down barriers and destroying stereotypes. She didn’t do a lot for women drivers…”

Watch:

If you think I’m about to take umbrage at that, I’m not. I agree entirely with Gervais when he defends a comedian’s right – any artist’s right, really – to use humour, no matter how dark or supposedly inappropriate, to make points about about our humanity or lack of it.

Not all of Gervais’s 12 million Twitter followers liked it. Strikes me I might follow him, because he trolls through his trolls’ responses and retweets, and if you get his gander up you might find yourself retweeted to his 12 million (not all) acolytes with a suitably caustic barb thrown your way for your trouble. Or even be woven into the script of his next stand-up show.

In one tweet in 2016 he found himself accused of deadnaming. To deadname a trans person – i.e. to call them by their pre-transition name – has been called a form of violence. But Gervais is a comedian and there are no boundaries. He has no idea who the 12 million followers are, he points out. The inference, as elsewhere in his script, is that if you have something you’re likely to be offended by, and you know how likely Gervais is to cause offence – and he has zero barriers – WTF are you doing a) attending his show, b) watching this on Netflix, or c) following him on Twitter. Or d) reading this.

He’s on the defence about offensive humour. He should be, it’s his stock-in-trade/shock-in-trade. (Quotation mark alert) “A joke about a bad thing is not as bad as the bad thing,” he says incontrovertibly. Like the woman who told him he shouldn’t make jokes about food allergies because she has a daughter who can’t eat nuts. (He’d sooner have Hitler to dinner than someone who says that and though I’d not go as far as that I know what he means.)

If you are of the easily offended persuasion, you probably switched off at the second paragraph. If you are and you’re still here, you should watch Humanity, because you clearly enjoy being offended.

Which begs the question: If we weren’t all debased and irredeemable, would Ricky Gervais find so much good material in the bad in us?

But I’d have liked to see the Gervais tongue wrapped around the venality of the Dutertes, the Trumps, the fucking One-Percenters and the terror-mongers of our soiled humanity.

There’s his next show. Inhumanity. DM

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