WHAT WE'RE WATCHING
Reinventing Mr. Bean – Rowan Atkinson is back as a silly, likeable character in ‘Man vs. Bee’
British comedian Rowan Atkinson’s new Netflix miniseries turns his beloved, befuddled character, Mr. Bean, into a chap who could actually exist.
Rowan Atkinson is one of the most recognisable and renowned comedy actors in the world, primarily because of two very different roles – the snide and cynical Blackadder of the 1980s British period sitcom, and of course Mr. Bean, the nonverbal, bumbling buffoon who became sensationally popular in the Nineties.
Atkinson hasn’t fully succeeded in replicating the success of either of these antithetical comedy styles in his recent work (the Johnny English franchise which sought to transpose both Bean and Blackadder into an egotistical Austin Powers-style action hero has only cheapened his legacy) but Man vs. Bee is a fresher attempt to reinvent Mr. Bean.
Trevor Bingley is a cheerful but down-on-his-luck divorcee working his first day on the job for Housesitters Deluxe, a company that specialises in looking after very wealthy peoples’ houses. We can feel the Bean-ish charm of this silly, likeable man as soon as we meet him, pressing his ID card to the security camera upside down. He’s well meaning and playful, but clumsy and clearly scatterbrained.
Trevor bears the same sheepish overbite as Mr. Bean, rubs his hands with the same nutty excitement before eating, furrows his brow with that familiar oafish horror at the failure of his exceptionally ill-conceived ideas, and also seems to salvage situations through dumb luck.
But Trevor’s idiocy has been toned down to a level people will believe in 2022. While Bean is a child in a man’s body who’s motivated by selfishness, Trevor is just a ditsy adult trying not to cock things up.
As the pompous, condescending homeowners (Jing Lusi and Julian Rhind-Tutt) rapidly explain to Trevor how to look after their opulent house, every object portends disaster – the taps are “gesture-operated”, the dog has a severe nut allergy that will cause “doggie doo-doo everywhere”, and every decoration in the house is apparently a Kandinsky or a historical artefact worth millions for one reason or another.
A lot of entertainment value is drawn out of amused suspense from all of this obvious foreshadowing. The series opens with Trevor in court being found guilty for numerous crimes, so we are anticipating the carnage from the start.
The set-ups are explicit – like the close-up shot of the dog’s ball propping open the door to the room where the dog is not allowed to go – but these bombs are often left ticking for a while so that you never know when and whether they’re going to go off, like when Trevor absent-mindedly puts down the all-important house manual on the stove and then picks it up and moves it to another spot… again on the stove.
Things start going awry as soon as the vacationing couple have left. It begins with vague irritation at a particularly obnoxious CGI-animated bumble bee, and quickly devolves into all-out man-on-insect warfare. The snowballing effect is what enables Atkinson’s absurd shtick – in episode 1 he is horrified at having broken the head off of a statue. By episode 4 he’s sliding around the house in socks and underwear, covered in crap, wearing a dog collar, a chunk bitten out of his tuchus, and brandishing a tennis racket with which to demolish this bloody bee.
A scene of Trevor playing a grand piano while his nemesis is knocked around by the keys inside reminds one of the famous cartoon film Tom and Jerry – The Cat Concerto in which Tom is playing Franz Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No 2 during a formal concert while little Jerry taunts him from inside the piano.
In just about every episode he catches the bee and manages to let it escape again through unspeakable negligence. Part of his problem is a lack of the technological wherewithal required to use the unnecessarily complicated mechanisms of the house. This running joke is partly at the expenses (pun intended) of the house owners, who apparently think that the digitisation of every feature of their home will improve their quality of life. Man vs. Bee suggests otherwise.
The excessive house is laden with so many luxury brands that it makes one wonder whether the entire project wasn’t a cash-grab. There are close-ups of products from Miele, Waitrose and Aesop, but most blatant of all is the cartoonish fawning over “the first E-Type Jaguar ever made”.
Bizarrely, this product placement was not sponsored – the brands were sought out to convey wealth and taste. Atkinson is well known as a car enthusiast, and apparently personally requested the specific car. It’s a shame though, as viewers would be justified in assuming otherwise, and nothing irritates the modern video-media consumer more than being force-fed marketing.
Even though Trevor thinks it’s the bee that sabotages his house-sit, it’s actually his neurosis he’s at war with. The bee itself barely causes any issues at all, while his attempts to catch it demolish an entire building. Like Mr. Bean, the magic of Trevor is that he doesn’t need a bee (or any instigating factor at all) to cause devastation; his idiocy is more than enough.
Atkinson’s wacky style of body humour has been mimicked so frequently in children’s programming that it now comes off as juvenile to the modern comedy palate. With its innocuous villains and a tidy ending reminiscent of Nineties feel-good comedies like Home Alone or Stuart Little, Man vs. Bee works best as family entertainment.
It’s essentially a feature film, but it’s been split into a “micro-series” with nine conveniently small spoonfuls of fun that can be watched in a more Netflixy fashion if you do so wish – probably not a bad idea because the gags are funnier in smaller doses and after 20 minutes in one sitting they start feeling like more of the same.
The melancholy subtext of Mr. Bean or Trevor is that they are men wracked by isolation and loneliness. Their worlds have become so small that a minor inconvenience seems cataclysmic, even though it is their fixation on a little thing that causes problems rather than the thing itself. Everyone exhibits some level of this neurotic behaviour, which is why we’re able to relate and laugh at it, and characters like Trevor help us to empathise with those people whose neuroses most people would deem insane. DM/ML
In case you missed it, also read Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power — a documentary analysis of the male gaze in film
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