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Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Psychoville. God I Love This Show!

I have put off writing this blog for a week because I was trying to prolong the notion in my head that the show in question was still an active concern in my viewing schedule. I've tried my best to draw out the experience, watching the first series again this past weekend and using said viewing as a chance to re-engage various twitter friends in discourse on the show, but it can be put off no longer; the time has come to put finger to key and discuss the show that I believe, in all honesty, to be the best thing on television this year.

I came to League of Gentlemen, as I seem to do to many things, late in the day. I caught an episode from the tail end of S2 on the BBC2 and decided at that moment that this was something I was definitely going to get into in a big way. If you want to know, it was the episode in which Tubbs and Edward attempt to get a girl for David from the supermarket, which I now know to be 'Anarchy In Royston Vasey.' Then,as was so often the case when you're trying to watch everything, it slipped my mind. Shocking, I know. It wasn't all bad news though because it meant that when I did come around to watching them all from the beginning they were readily available to buy. It was off to my beloved MVC (rip) and home again with the first 2 seasons on video (rip2).

I watched all 12 episodes of the first 2 seasons in what can only be described as a gluttonous orgy of sick, twisted, pitch black laughter. I was hooked, and would remain so for the remainder of it's life. Season 3 is of course the year that many fans abandoned the League, claiming that it wasn't as good, when what they really meant was that it wasn't the same, but I loved it right up to the final grotesque yet oh so brilliant twist, as Royston Vasey was once more visited by possibly it's most iconic guest.

With Mark Gatiss off making himself indispensable to the Doctor Who production team while co-creating Sherlock with greatest living television writer Steven Moffat and Jeremy Dyson enhancing his reputation with comedy/thriller Funland and stage play Ghost Stories, the other two members of the team set about creating what many assumed would be League of Gentlemen MKII. A show about a group of grotesques? Check. Multiple characters played by the principals? Check. Surreal, horror tinged comedy? Check. The show that eventually graced our screens, however, was so much more than that. Coming as it does from the pen of two of the League of Gentlemen you could pretty reasonably expect that Psychoville was going to be a little, shall we say, dark. And you'd be right. What you might not have expected, given the sketch based nature of much of the Leagues output, was that the show would become as much tightly plotted serialised thriller as it was sit-com. Is there no end to these guys talents?*

The show begins with a mysterious masked figure sending blackmail messages to five disparate characters;

Oscar Lomax (Steve Pemberton)

Mr Joll...sorry, Jelly (Reece Shearsmith)

Joy Aston (Dawn French)

David Sowerbutt (Steve Pemberton)

Robert Greenspan (Jason Tomkins)

and proceeds to follow the five as they deal with this unwelcome reminder of a shared past that they'd rather forget, and that we the viewer will have to wait to see, as it is drip fed to us over the course of the first series. Except, well, that's not what the show does at all; not really. Joy tries to ignore the letters and carry on with her 'normal' life, David doesn't actually see his, while Robert assumes that he's being blackmailed about something completely different. Oscar Lomax, meanwhile, is far more interested in tracking down the last 'commodity' he needs for his collection. Only Jolly, sorry Jelly really makes any attempt to get to the bottom of the note, teaming up with rival clown Mr Jolly in the process, but even here things are very much 'not what they seem'.

I really, truly adore Psychoville. The six main protagonists (Davids Mum Maureen, as played by, you guessed it, Reece Shearsmith has as big a part to play as any of the aforementioned five) are all (with the possible exception of Robert) beautifully observed examples of how to make 'crazy' characters sympathetic and likable, while the supporting characters - including a couple played by, what where their names again, oh yes, Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith - are never less than utterly believable in this world, however insane the idea behind them or the events they are involved in.

One of the biggest differences between this show and the League shows is that while Royston Vasey was populated almost entirely by freaks, Psychoville goes to great pains to show us that this is the real world, with real people, whose reactions to our 'heroes' is often fodder for some beautiful little moments. Like the married couple who are fascinated by the bodily functions of the Crabtree Siamese twins, or the family who have to deal with Joll...shit...Jelly at their daughters birthday party and of course the ultimate 'ordinary' bloke, Michael 'Tealeaf' Fry, who gets sucked into the bizarre world of Oscar Lomax when assigned to help him as part of his community service. Tealeaf, or Teeaaaleeaaaf, became a firm favourite of mine, with his weary acceptance of all the weird stuff he encountered and also, subtle though it was, the genuine affection he obviously had for Oscar.

As the first series nears it's climax all of the characters converge on the same location and we learn the truth about just what they really did.Then everything is turned on it's head with a masterstroke of a twist and everyone appears to die in a massive cliffhanger. You don't get that with Life Of Riley.

Before I move on to Season 2, check out what I think is one of the greatest moments of television comedy ever. Hilarious in the context of the show, it's almost as funny simply as a sly dig at todays bureaucracy fuelled world.

Anyway, Psychoville returned with first of all a Halloween Special - and boy did it live up to that tag - that told a few apocryphal stories about it's leads before introducing a shadowy new figure that we would see a lot more of in S2, and then a brand new 6 episode season. There was no trepidation this time around, only excitement, as the thought that they would let us down was, well, unthinkable.

Even the most excitable fan, though, couldn't have predicted what they delivered. If season 1 was great then season 2 was nothing less than an absolute masterpiece. Far more tightly plotted than the first run, which was actually quite loose in it's early stages, the writing is never anything less than tightrope taut with the - surprisingly large number of - survivors of the season 1 cliffhanger discovering that their ordeal is far from over and the new threat in their lives, though it be chasing the same Macguffin as the S1 villain, is rather more ruthless and organised about how it goes about it.

Some complained that too many survived the events of the cliffhanger; that the loss of life would have been far greater and they had perpetrated a cop out. These complaints didn't last very long. Had they given a reprieve to more people than was perhaps realistic? Yes, they had, but those same characters were very soon being picked off by the psychopathic Detective Finney, a Police Detective ostensibly investigating the events of the cliffhanger who nevertheless has some much more sinister motives.

Make no bones about it, S2 is darker, scarier and more violent than anything S1 provided. Characters; and we're talking major regular roles, are despatched left and right as dark forces close in on our heroes; new character Jeremy Goode manages to go from deeply sinister to likable to ultimately pitiable defeated figure while his unwelcome companion Silent Singer is just, if you'll pardon my French, creepy as fuck; and Finney is as remorseless a killer as you'd find in any Bourne movie. No-one is safe in this story and it's safe to say that every Psychoville fan will have lost a favourite or two - I know I did - before the last men standing find themselves at the eye of the storm as all is explained - if you said you'd guessed it you're deluded or lying - with the MacGuffin they'd all been chasing being revealed as exactly that and most of the loose ends from both runs nicely tied up while leaving a number of intriguing avenues for any potential third season to explore.

Only two left
Sadly, the likelihood of a third season is slim, by all accounts. Viewing figures were down and reviews from the mainstream press less than stellar, which can only be described as a travesty. I can not overstate to you how sad this makes me. With the exception of Moffat Doctor Who and, maybe, the Life On Mars / Ashes To Ashes franchise, British telefantasy has not produced anything at even a fraction of the level of writing, performance and just sheer class of this production in many many years and here we have a team that has the talent, not to mention a sheer love of the medium that shines out of every scene, to provide us with something that could, if nurtured, have run for years of classic material and what do we do? We throw it in their faces. The British public get what they deserve. And they deserve what they get.

In a final note on this show; the viewers may not have been there in huge numbers but those that did stick around where of the none-so-loyal variety. Watching this show in the company of fellow fans via the wonder of twitter has done nothing but enhance the experience and I have connected with a couple of people this way that I am still in contact with on a daily basis. This is my first experience of this phenomenon of people coming together online over a shared love and I'm better off for it. If we get no more Psychoville, that at least will be a pleasant legacy.

*Well, Steve Pemberton failed to make Benidorm watchable but we're none of us miracle workers are we?

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