Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Green Wing

Now two episodes into its second series, Channel 4's Green Wing is still as wildly inconsistent as ever.

For those of you in America who won't have seen it, Green Wing fancies itself as being simultaneously a "surreal soap" and a "comedy drama" - their words. In practice, this means it's got an hour-long slot, much of the running time is taken up by sketch material unrelated to the plot, vast chunks of it deliberately make no sense, the editing suite is manned by monkeys on crack who insist on speeding up and slowing down the footage at random, there's a continuing soundtrack throughout, and somewhere in the middle, Tamsin Greig and Julian Rhind-Tutt are trying to appear in a romantic comedy.

The first series was a big critical hit, through a combination of being quite funny and being self-consciously different. Critics in every medium like shows that are very obviously different because (a) innovation is to be encouraged, and (b) they're very, very easy to write about. Actually, the things that critics normally seize on - the dreamlike quality created by the soundtrack and irrational editing - isn't all that innovative. The basic idea was pioneered by Chris Morris several years ago in his sketch series Jam, and in particular the late-night remix version Jaaaaaam.

Now there's nothing wrong with this; it's an editing technique well worth exploring. And Green Wing is using it in a different way. Bluntly, they've toned it down for mass consumption. Where Jam was just plain disturbing at times, Green Wing is simply zany. It also tries to marry this technique to a proper storyline, which Jam never attempted.

And that, I think, is where they fall down. The problem with this show is that it can't make up its mind what it wants to be. It thinks it's a synthesis of lots of different elements, but it's not. It's a whole load of different elements on screen simultaneously, battling for space. Sometimes they get away with it. But sometimes they botch it spectacularly.

The thing is, the characters are on a very wide spectrum of surrealism. Tasmin Greig and Julian Rhind-Tutt, as Caroline and Mac, are playing it more or less straight. Most of the others are varying degrees of eccentric. And then, off at the far end, there's Michelle Gomez playing staff liaison officer Sue White as an outright lunatic, who shows up to work dressed as a squirrel and wanders around gratuitously annoying all the other characters.

All of this works up to a point, but falters when they try to actually do a story. In theory, the main plot is that Caroline is trying to get together with Mac, but Sue White is obsessed with Mac and wants him for herself. (This being a show created by a woman, Mac is a "quirky yet sensitive" ideal man figure, exactly mirroring the sort of "quirky yet sensitive" underwritten love interests that actresses have to try and breathe life into all the time.) Now, the problem here is twofold.

First, Sue White is a sketch character. She's plainly mental, doesn't behave in a remotely rational way, and essentially belongs in an episode of Little Britain. She simply doesn't work as a blocking character for a romantic comedy, because she isn't a character. She's very funny when she's used in sketches, but she simply doesn't belong in a proper story.

Second, it means Mac and Caroline have to interact with Sue White. And they simply can't, because the only thing their characters could sensibly do in response to Sue White is to flee, to file an official complaint, or possibly to section her under the Mental Health Act. So whenever they share a screen, it's like you're watching two halves of the same scene playing out in parallel universes at the same time. It's just horribly, horribly wrong.

Season two doesn't exactly inspire confidence that they're going to pull the "comedy drama" side together. By its nature, Green Wing doesn't need complicated plots - they're ultimately a framework for sketch material - and it can get away with simple ideas. But there's "simple" and then there's "cliche." Season one ended with Mac and Caroline getting together in the final episode; season two has nothing else to do with them, so it resorts to giving Mac amnesia so that we can go through the whole rigmarole again. It's almost challenging the audience to laugh with them for being so audaciously lazy, but I'm not buying. Last week's episode featured the old "oh no, I must stop my girlfriend from picking up the embarrassing voicemail message" plot, which must surely be pensionable by now.

But in a way they've written themselves into a corner by trying to do any sort of comedy-drama elements with a cast of characters largely built for sketch comedy. Paul Whitehouse, creator of The Fast Show, once wisely observed that he didn't want anything to do with character arcs or character development. His characters don't go anywhere; he just uses each sketch to look at them from a new angle, or in a new context, and once he's finished with the gag, he dispenses with them. He can do that because he's not using them in stories.

Green Wing is trying to do the opposite - to write stories with essentially static characters who just don't function the way they need to. Except for Mac and Caroline, who were created to bear the weight of season 1, but only have the one story because they've got nobody else to talk to.

Now... none of this detracts from the fact that Green Wing is often very funny. Mark Heap's performance as Alan Statham is fantastic stuff, beautifully timed, and breathes life into a character who by rights should be a dreadful cliche. Set pieces such as the admin girls dodging an invisible limbo pole in their office and forcing everyone else to play along are funny. The show is good at this kind of thing. But it wants to be a drama as well, and it just doesn't have the tools.