Saturday, July 19, 2008


And, naturally, it's all thanks to friends and to Youtube. Louis Theroux's Weird Weekends, Peep Show and Look Around You have stolen my heart and run away laughing and screaming. Hopefully they'll all (Peep Show Series 1+2 are already out) be available on DVD over here soon. These are all now as beloved to me as The Office, and that's no small compliment.

Louis Theroux's Weird Weekends

I've been helplessly compelled to immerse myself in Theroux's winning explorations of American life ever since seeing the powerful (there's scenes so surreal as to be like a waking nightmare) San Quentin episode. Weird Weekends is the show that begs the question: can you be respectful - or at least unjudgemental - of people while inevitably laughing about them? I think Louis consistently winds up (i use these words to emphasize the very open, genuinely curious feel his investigatiions have at their start) doing both and, as the results vary, things never feel formulaic. The viewer, as i noticed from many you tube comments, usually reads things one way or the other. I think Theroux - as long as he hasn't minced his words - is likely fine with that in the end. The show feels like it was meant to be the anti-Awful Truth. He's striving for something less political and more, well, neighborly?

Theroux clearly has his own moral stand on things, and perhaps (as is anyone who goes poking around in peoples affairs with a camera) he is really no less exploitative than the next prime time muckraker. But his pieces are so imminently watchable and inspiring cause he's so damned incisive and, I think, stout-hearted or down to earth about it. It's always a nice extra wrinkle (as the camera gives such careful attention to the people at hand) to see him switch from neutral and unassuming to opinionated and unyielding. He's human - precocious, sometimes pushy.

He's particularly human for someone trying to be themselves on camera - sometimes letting themselves go, sometimes mugging and putting us on. The integrity lies in the sense that he doesn't take himself all that seriously - and at the same time doesn't let people and places intimidate and back him into a corner. It seems he's only cavalier to convince the people he's interested in that he's not someone to be self-conscious around, or - simultaneously - disrespectful towards. He wants people to present themselves as unencumbered as possible under the awkard circumstances of him and his crew being there.

Sometimes the uneasy mix of graveness and hilarity on these shows can be a bit bewildering (especially on the one about "The most hated family in America"). I find it all goes down best when he genuinely bonds with his subjects - there's a sense of mutual respect, if not total understanding and that's a reassuring thing to take with you as a viewer. But sometimes its an inescapably bitter pill, and our intrepid guide's final thoughts are of little reassurance. This is what makes the whole thing smack of genius to me. It's entertaining and it doesn't begin to pander. Most criticism i've read of the show comes off like things i thought and then rejected. I think it's best taken, with each completed episode, at face value, without reading into it too much (Theroux is very careful in how he words things and very pointed when he's -- usually apropriately -- taking the piss).

I think there is something to be gained from seeing his approach to people from different walks of life. When you're making your way in a foreign place, you want to ingratiate yourself, but you want to be yourself as well. The challenge can come off immense - nearly impossible - and Louis Theroux makes pretty neat, engrossing work of it if you ask me.

Peep Show

Having watched all five six-episode seasons of this show (the first on netflix, the next four on Youtube) I can almost safely say that it's pure farce. But not quite. It's just that there's this cumulative, yet elusive, sense that its saying something somewhat profound. As we are frequently in the principal characters heads and perspectives, our knee-jerk sympathy/apathy/rancor sensors are rendered hopelessly spastic. Sometimes its like Mystery Science Theater - you can't help but sympathize cause you're trapped in there with 'em. There's really no endearingness about it. If the movies don't inspire good humor, then you're stuck with the ugly truth of things - and Mark and Jez (played by the plucky comedy duo of David Mitchell and Robert Webb) have plenty of that in store. Some of their pratfals might be high-flying and indeed farcical, but there's an underlying sordidness to the truthier moments that makes our funny bone go a little molten in the marrow.

All five seasons have that slightly off-putting, Adult Swim-like mix of laughs and squirms. Peep Show is as unapologetically filthy, subversive and morose as an Irvine Welsh story. Jez is patently immoral. I'm reminded of the trailer for Naked, where a voice over speaks on the film's antagonist Johnny "This man does not like you. This man does not like you... But he needs you." It's not like Jez is a rapist or a "pedo", but there's still more shows being made so... Let's just say - you wouldn't want to rule anything out on him. Mark is somehow tragically harmless, yet he's hopelessly purposeful. So when he screws up, he screws up big. He's probably, as his Mum's suggested, somewhat corrupted from living with Jez. He seems to have a smarmy, hyperactively self-righteous side that pops up every now and again to try and outpace the riptide of the messes he's made. In the course of the shows i've seen he practically excavates his own ego, somehow still scrambling and swiping for what he wants. Is this inspiring? Naw. This is not the show for that. It's more like a refreshingly riotous take on The Myth of Sisyphus.

So, if you have a dark sense of humor and can get past the seasickness that occasionally occurs from the POV stuff, this show is well worth a look. It has the bouyant feel of good 'ol Odd Couple personality clash and the insidious acidic bite of a Solondz film. It's awkward, pathos-soaked, repugnant, ludicrous, overzealous and utterly memorable. The only thing I'd change is one thing that they did change. They went from a nice, kinda spookily low-key, opening theme (for the first season) to some horrible one hit junker from the nineties. In any case, all of the actors involved are superb and this might be what sells the piece. Mark's more like something I've never seen before, where Webb's performance as Jez - while funny - frequently comes off like one of those obnoxiously heavy-handed tough-guy-soliloquy-spouting characters in a Guy Ritchie film. But since he's a cad and consistently gets his just deserts, the style works.

David Mitchell's performance as Mark is, physically, one of the best things i've seen in comedy. No matter how he bums us out with his delusional and confoundingly drab outlooks, he absolutely brings us around by his impish display of latent insanity. Like a lot of us, maybe, he figures out that he wants to get more from life only when that something more happens upon him. But - before too long - it all gives way to disappointment. Watching Mark be rash and uppity, you oddly feel like you're seeing him at his best. It's an invigorating, if absurd process, only made stranger by the sense that the other characters - whose thoughts we don't hear (actually, one episode reveals the thoughts of another character) - have just as much chaotic rebellion roiling about inside them.

It's got a hearty feel to it. It's a nasty little show, but its substantial. There's love interests, but they never play out the way you expect. The ingredients are all sharp and after spending hours upon hours with the screw-up cast of characters the performances never once began to feel shallow. It's a show that knows how to have some brazenly off-color fun and leave plenty room for realism. A great way to kill time and utilize it all at once.

This one breaks my heart, cause its so innately bizarre and retro as to almost be a work of fetishizable fetishism. It makes me want to list aimlessly on things like Paper Rad, Boads of Canada, Dig Dug, Brainstorm*, Add N To X, Ken Nordine, Dreamscape, Overdrawn at the Memory Bank, 3-2-1 Contact and other examples of quaintly absurdist eighties joy. This show is a miracle. I'm absolutely thrilled that they did it the way they did it and that they sometimes seemingly go more for eye-narrowing sniggering than out-and-out laughs. The second season is a bit less replete than the first, but it is no less tonally on point. What was more fascinating about the first series was that it was a comedy show that didn't rely too heavily on acting. It really feels more like a dry, almost hypnotic, tableau of absurdist runs than a full-on parody. It has a bit of a Python feel, but without the need to excuse the randomness - every potential turn to a logical play of events is hopelessly "something completely different." It's a good program because it feels like a lost world - its completely contained and not locked into current events, pop cultural or otherwise.

The episodes - or lessons - of the first series give the show a show a real air of authenticity, thereby strengthening the punch of the ridiculous non-sequitors that ensue. The little acting there is works wonders with its woodenness and restraint. Even when the actors are being goofy, there's a blase sense of going-through-the-motions to it that keeps the tone airtight. The second series turns its attention to newscasters, which i daresay have more or less been covered, but the show still has a recognizable charm. It reminds me of the sketch-like moments in Boogie Nights, where the joke needn't be much more than an earnest appraisal of bygone styles and media motifs. Perhaps it could come off as trite and self-consciously cultish to some, but to me its fresh almost sheerly due to its breathtaking attention to detail. Both series are transporting, strangely unnerving programming. It's just that the first is much more unique and therefore rewarding.

We live in a trendy world. It very well could be the success of crap like VH1's I Love The 80s that gets bright projects like this green-lit. It's a shame there are so few trendsetters and so many trend followers. As long as trends determine what makes money, they may as well determine a certain quotient of quality as well, right? Well, I can dream anyway. I'd say David Bowie might get that ball rolling, but... Guess that's a subject for another time. Anyway, as I've said before, there's no underground. Anything you or I could want to see/hear/experience is out there and waiting. I really just wanted to say thanks to those responsible and give a heads-up to fans of unusual programming who haven't been clued in.
That's all for now! Next time i'll talk about real life stuff. PROMISE.


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