Part 2: The Brits Get It

Dear Millicent,

So, as far as accepting and reveling in the fact that women are as uncertain and undefined (unshaped? we do wear formative undergear), America is kind of one note.  We have raunchy women (Chelsea Handler, Margaret Cho), we have shocking women (Sarah Silverman), we have mature irreverent women (Bette Midler, Whoopi Goldberg, Bonnie Hunt), etc.  Usually, they more or less stay in the bounds of their particular stable.  Women are allowed to be all of these things, but they have to stay in their compartments, just as a Sex in the City character must stay in costume as if they were assigned Power Ranger Colors.

In part 1 of my ramble on women and comedy, I introduced the Nu woman (a label that sounds irritatingly like a birth control brand).  What I meant by it is a woman who is as flummoxed, average, and compelling as men are portrayed, and who usually has a messy life that is full of unguarded or foibled moments of humanity.  This means she is not a smart Miranda, a creative fucked up Carrie, a sweet Charlotte, or a ravenous Samantha.  She is a dash of all of them, and some other stuff that Patricia Field will never get to accessorize.

The Brits, who have a long history of not demanding perfection from their televisions (see jokes about teeth, unhappy endings. etc.), understand the Nu woman, and benefit in spades. Their television is at least twice as good as ours, and at times is actually perfect (I attribute some of this to the fact that they are willing to end shows before they collapse in on themselves, usually limiting a show to 2 seasons with a reunion special somewhere down the line.)

When asked who she would want to direct her movie “Best Buds,” which promises to be a Nu woman heavy film starring Natalie Portman, screenwriter Jamie Denbo said:

“Somebody with a great comedic sensibility, who doesn’t distinguish between male and female comedy. So basically, somebody British. It seems to be a very American thing, distinguishing between male and female comedy. Overseas it feels like, If it’s funny, it’s funny.”

Here’s the proof in the pudding:

1.) Green Wing: In this show, the women are as sexually voracious, despicable, introspective, and timid and coarse as any of the equally extreme male characters.  Dick jokes abound, as do vagina jokes, and calls on male violence, female jealousy, and all the very ugly things that people do to each other to answer their own needs.  It’s a ridiculous show, and a marvelous one.  Topics include incest, seduction, murder plots, and apparitions of Jesus as well as passing exams, kissing too many people at parties, and the difficulties of having a roommate with wonderful hair. The two standout women are Michelle Gomez who plays Sue White and Pippa Haywood who plays Joanna Clore.  Both woman are masters of physical comedy, and neither shy away from very direct gags about female sexuality.   When I first saw this show, I had seen nothing like it, which is ashame, because it skewers and reveals in the way that only brilliant comedy can.

2.) Spaced: Spaced was written partly by Jessica Hynes who is also an odd saint on this site, a la her character Daisy Steiner.  Daisy lives with Simon Pegg’s equally effed up character, as they both mope around and try to figure out a life that isn’t exactly finding them.  Daisy is an inspiration because she thinks she is grander than she is, she futzes and is happy to eat chips and watch television, and she is a lackluster pet owner.  She is an aspiring writer, with all of the narrative, and none of the rest of it.  She is a wonderful mess, and one that was a balm to my own messy heart.  The first female character I had seen that was so honestly ungood and reaching. The show does an amazing job of articulating that particular pang of late twentyhood, and it is neither slick nor snarky.  A rare feat, and she and Pegg are equal foundations for it.

3.) The Book Group: Okay, an American wrote this…but she wrote it for Scottish television.  The protagonist is portrayed without glamor or sympathy, and by the end of season 2, eveyr chance of a classic formula arriving is squashed.  It is an assault on the narratives we tell ourselves.   Creator Annie Griffin seriously delights in refuting the neat endings of any character, emotion, or happenstance.  It is gloriously messy, confusing, and ugly–again making for a sum total of something that is fascinating to participate in. Also, it stars the divine Michelle Gomez, who does not let us down.

4.) Peep Show: Peep Show is a male heavy show, but I bring our attention to Nu woman Sophie, who starts as love interest and becomes a bit of an albatross to both characters.  She is as effed as both our narrators, and unapologetic as she clumsily navigates in and out of the plot.  One could argue that she is there only for Mark and Jez’s growth, except that her performances (especially at her wedding) are so pivotal and grotesque, and understandable, that she is very much in the pantheon (and she also stars on Green Wing, where she quietly does a stunt on motherhood, sexuality, and doddiness that will amaze).  Also, the show insists men are as self-conscious as women are often portrayed.

5.) Lizzie and Sarah:  I know less about this show, except that it is written by Jessica Hynes, of Spaced, and that it has been described as

“challenging comedy. Lizzie and Sarah are two suburban housewives (played by Davis and Hynes) whose lives suddenly go very wrong – although, as it turns out, things had actually been going very wrong for a long time. The humour is brutal enough to make Nighty Night look like You’ve Been Framed, and there are moments of cruelty so biting that it’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry; spousal abuse, murder, grief and adultery are all thrown into the mix. It would be easy to dismiss it as shocking for the sake of being shocking, were it not also brilliant. It’s funny, inventive and angry comedy, and there’s little that can compare.”

Hopefully, this all hops the pond soon.  Drew Barrymore recently said about Whip It!

“I’m a woman so I’m going to make stories about women because I understand them, but I’m also a boy and I can’t stand the term ‘chick flick.’ That turns me off. I’m as turned off by that as any guy because I am a ‘dude.’ I have a very male mentality — the comedy in the film is not little girl comedy. It’s boy comedy, it’s androgynous comedy.” [Mirror]

Perhaps “dude” is code for Nu? Maybe instead of this kind of qualifier, we can just have better television and movies, more gasps of delight, more women who aren’t as much “attractive” or “shocking” as much as fucking brilliant.

Yours,

CF

6 Responses to Part 2: The Brits Get It

  1. Harriet's cousin says:

    I think you’d like “Black Books” – similar era to “Spaced”, more Tamsin Greig genius.

  2. Harriet's cousin says:

    Don’t know, sorry – I’m in the UK.

    • Carla Fran says:

      Looks like it is! Hulu has a nice little collection of Brit comedies (how I found both The Book Group and Green Wing)…sorry the joys of Hulu aren’t in the UK. I hear they maybe shortlived over here as well–apparently Hulu is going to start charging viewers very soon. Better squeeze in all the Black Books I can, stat.

  3. Brain says:

    It’s mentioned in the review you quote (of Lizzie and Sarah) but Nighty Night (written by and starring Julia Davis as Jill) is also excellent. I’m not sure how you would classify the character of Jill – she’s not a “Nu woman” or an omega woman, and one laughs at her more than identifies with her. In some ways she reminds me of Alison Steadman playing Beverley in Mike Leigh’s ‘Abigail’s Party’ (both camp and monstrous). Can’t think of any American female comedy characters like this off the top of my head, though I’m sure there are some (maybe Karen from Will & Grace? though I’ve only seen a few episodes of this).
    Here’s a couple of clips of Jill:

    • Carla Fran says:

      Brain,
      thanks for the clip. I just moved Nighty Night up to next on my Netflix. The actress reminds me a lot of Laura Dern here. Interesting distinction that we laugh more at her than with her, am trying to think of American counterparts…United States of Tara does this interestingly by having us laugh at Tara’s alters, but identify with Tara….can’t think of any others at the moment that aren’t just relegated to the side of the show.

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