Welcome back to “Don’t Touch That Dial,” a seasonal series in which I, your friendly neighborhood television addict, break down some of the shows screaming for your attention. I already told you what’s new this summer and what television I’m pulling out of my back catalogue to fill in the long days and warm nights. Now we’re diving a little deeper. In this very special episode we’re covering summer reruns: shows that have ended but deserve to be seen.
The Road So Far: Bernard Black (Dylan Moran), an anti-social smokestack, runs his eponymous bookstore in London with the help of his bearded assistant, Manny (Bill Bailey), and his hopeless romantic best friend, Fran (Tamsin Greig). Bernard is a raging drunk who smokes eighty bajillion cigarettes a day and hates people—especially customers (“What do they want from me? Why can’t they leave me alone?”). Manny and Fran are continually trying to civilize Bernard, while he either outright refuses or fails miserably at it. Not that they’re particularly well-socialized. Fran is a walking disaster when it comes to romantic relationships, and Manny lives in a perpetual state of enforced calm competing with flustered stress. (Available on Hulu.)
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: How can you not love Bernard Black? He hates his customers, is verbally abusive to his staff, and a personal and professional cyclone of deranged belligerence. When he’s not drowning in a bottle of wine or surrounded in a fog of nicotine, he’s passed out in a sprawled heap. Fran isn’t much better; her vices keep pace with Bernard’s, although she does at least attempt to be a not completely toxic human being. Manny may be a beard with an idiot attached, but he’s also Bernard’s endearing foil and devoted flunky. If you’ve ever seen Moran’s stand up, you’ll recognize Bernard as Moran’s reclusive wanker act cranked up to 11. (How Do You Want Me is basically Bernard with the roughest bits smoothed out.) But it’s that crassness that makes the show so damn good. Well, that and the acerbic humor. Britain is famous for its dry wit, but few comedians have managed to reach such caustic heights as Moran.
There’s nothing fancy about the production. It’s your standard multi-cam sitcom shoot in front of a live studio audience. For most shows, that format is a recipe for functional adequacy (or seething repulsion for humanity if you’re Dads). But Black Books is streets ahead of its competitors. It’s the writing and acting that you’re eagerly awaiting, not the tried-and-true sitcom format. Coming from someone who loathes 90% of multi-cam sitcoms, Black Books is the greatest great that ever greated.
Bernard: “Perhaps you’d like me to put the price down.”
Customer: “Well, I was thinking two pounds.”
Bernard: “Because three pounds is just naked profiteering for a book of a mere 912 pages long. What’ll I do with that extra pound? I’ll add another acre to the grounds. I’ll chuck a few more koi carp in my piano-shaped pond. No, I know, I’ll build a wing on the National Gallery with my name on it.”
Customer: “Two fifty.”
Bernard: “That’s more like it. Now you’re being reasonable. Two fifty gets you [rips out some page] this much. You can come back and collect the rest when you have the other 50p.”
Customer: “But you—-”
Bernard: “[Hits bell] Thank you!”
The Road So Far: Set in a fictional coastal Dorset town, Broadchurch takes a hard look at a small town on the brink of interpersonal anarchy after the brutal murder of young Danny Latimer. Everyone is a suspect, and the local coppers are ill-equipped to handle the investigation, so DI Alex Hardy (David Tennant) is brought in to help DS Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman) solve the case. Hardy’s personal demons infect the case as much as Miller’s friendships with the various suspects, and both will have to uncover some very dark, very painful secrets before the truth comes out.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Broadchurch is an angry, brooding drama full of powerful performances. Some plots are duller than others, there are perhaps a few too many red herrings, and the Big Bad could either be too obvious or too far out of left field depending on your opinions on the reveal, but overall it’s an engaging mystery. The direction is as gorgeous as the scenery. In a drama like this there’s a fine line between Al Pacino and Bryan Cranston, and Tennant and Colman are always on the right side.
The show is from the same gene pool as The Killing, but where that show drowned itself in moody atmosphere, empty melodrama, and enough red herrings to drown a fisherman, Broadchurch keeps itself in check. I’d argue it’s got more in common with Top of the Lake, The Fall, and Wallander than anything else. The biggest mistake of The Killing was deciding Rosie Larsen’s murder was less important than moping around with a bunch of dreary Seattleites. Broadchurch never loses sight of Danny, his ghost haunting everyone and bringing out guilt and remorse even in those who weren’t involved. Even though the big reveal fell flat for me, it didn’t undo what had come before. The show is tragic and heartbreaking, and I can’t wait to see how the trilogy wraps up. And yes, they are making a US version starring David Tennant and his terrible American accent, but let’s just not think about that right now.
Life On Mars
The Road So Far: Manchester detective Sam Tyler (John Simm) gets hit by a car in 2006 and wakes up in 1973. He doesn’t know if he’s dead, comatose, crazy, or has really travelled back in time, but it certainly feels real—and has real consequences for the future. In order to find his way back home, Sam first has to figure out what brought him back. He teams up with DCI Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister) and his merry band of thuggish bobbies. Hunt and crew are very much a product of their time—drunken, homophobic, sexist, racist, ignorant, boorish chain smokers with a predilection for shooting first and asking questions after a few drinks at the pub. Keeping him sane is DC Annie Cartwright (Liz White), a cop cleverer than everyone else on the force. As Sam’s nightmares/glimpses of reality/hallucinations/temporal shifts/whathaveyou get worse, Cartwright is a force of stability. Trouble is, he doesn’t know if that stability is making him more comfortable with reality or “reality.” (Available on Hulu.)
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: I’m a sucker for procedurals. Gimme a cop show, no matter how inane, and I’ll watch it. The trippier the premise—feebs who travel the country catching serial killers, a Sherlock-esque doctor with a pain pill addiction, sexy shirtless Hawaiian cops doing sexy shirtless cop things, etc.—the more likely my obsession. Each episode of Life on Mars is centered around a case that is usually solved through some combination of the Gene Genie’s old-fashioned brute force and Sam’s modern analytical forensics. But more than that, each case ties back into the bigger mystery of what’s really going on with Sam. The cases he handles in the past affect the future, in often unpredictable ways, and his behavior, actions, and interpretations influence and are influenced by his time travel predicament.
The cases alone would make for a rolickingly good show, but the Sam ourobros levels it up. Constant visions/hallucinations of 2006 keep Sam off balance in 1973, but at the same time, he realizes that it doesn’t matter what’s “really” going on. Whatever he’s experiencing feels real and has apparently real consequences, so might as well just get on with it. Watching Sam struggle to simultaneous accept, refute, and improve the past and future is thrilling. And don’t even get me started on the fantastic soundtrack.
TL;DR: It’s a show about time travel that’s not really time travel but also kinda is time travel if you think about it in a time travel-y kinda way.
The Road So Far: Daisy Steiner (Jessica Hynes née Stevenson) and Tim Bisley (Simon Pegg), a pair of aimless London Gen-Xers, meet just when they both suddenly need a place to live. Tim is an under-ambitious graphic artist who half-assedly works at a comics shop. Daisy is an equally uninspired underdog whose weirdness stems from her ineptitude and inability to be as cool as she wants to be or thinks she is. They pretend to be a professional couple to let a flat from the weirdo landlady, Marsha (Julia Deakin). Also on site is her argumentative teenage daughter Amber and Brian (Mark Heap), an intense artist with serious issues. Daisy and Tim’s besties, vainglorious Twist (Katy Carmichael) and weapons freak Mike (Nick Frost), pop in to wreck havoc. (Available on Hulu.)
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Spaced is a show where not much happens, where minor events and meaningless conversations take on the kind of heightened importance that can only come from being a broke and adrift twentysomething in a big city. It’s a play on the hangout sitcom, a mocking homage. But it’s more than that, really. The characters haven’t got anything figured out, and their trials and travails as they amble through life forms the heart of the show. It’s alternately charming and hilarious. As Tim and Daisy’s friendship grows closer, they make each other better people, but there’s so much entertaining loser to get through first.
Like Black Books, Spaced is endlessly quotable. And like the Cornetto trilogy, it’s not especially geeky while also being a haven for geeks of every persuasion. There’s an entire scene applying chaos theory to Star Wars, Tim’s hatred of the prequels fuel the first few episodes of the second season, and one episode literally ends with reworked Star Wars credits. Absurdist cutaways and spoof episodes are the order of the day. The episode where they rescue Colin is a play on heist/rescue movies, and there’s a running gag where Tim and Mike flashback to a tragic event in a tree. All that cutting humor is courtesy of Stevenson and Pegg, who wrote every episode. Edgar Wright’s fantastic direction makes each joke land with a punch. Everything you love about Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World’s End got its start in Spaced. Bonus: Mark Heap!
TL;DR: There are a select few television shows that are a geek right of passage. This is one of them.
Alex Brown is an archivist, research librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.