From Nashville to Louis CK, the Americans - and their sitcoms - are coming

At last, Amy Poehler's Parks and Recreation is heading to our screens - one of a host of great US dramas and comedies heading our way next year.

As far back as last summer, there was a buzz of tired happiness: “Finally,” we all screamed inwardly but also inevitably on Twitter, “it looks like BBC4 has acquired Parks and Recreation!” It was confirmed a few months later, and now, finally, the small band of Knope-lovers can sit with bated breath and watch our loved ones fall under the spell of Amy Poehler and her incredibly sincere and immensely funny ensemble cast.

Parks and Recreation is superb: it is one of my favourite American sitcoms of recent years, sitting very comfortably among the – very diverse –greats of the last couple of decades: Cheers, Frasier, Friends, Community, Seinfeld etc. But while it is one of the higher-profile and long-awaited acquisitions coming over to the UK in next year, it is by no means the only one. So what can you expect in the early part of 2013? There are a few gems, some honourable mentions, and a couple of DOAs. Let’s take a look at a few of the more interesting options.

Louis C.K. has engendered the kind of wild affection that only certain comics get after they’ve popped their clogs, so of course everyone is looking forward to his sitcom Louie (he created, writes, directs and edits the show), in which the stand up plays a stand up and is consistently, darkly funny. I caught up with the show after a recommendation from an internet-turned-real-life friend, and I am so excited it is finally crossing over.

If you’re looking for fine insights into the human condition, check it out on FX in January. (Enjoy a little dose of C.K. in the parody sketch of the show he made for Saturday Night Live back in November; Louie become Abraham Lincoln, and it was splendid). 

E4’s bought a couple of big, flashy American comedies, The New Normal and The Mindy Project. They’re both... okay. Much was expected of Mindy (Kaling, the terrifyingly talented former head writer at the American version of The Office), and she more or less delivers. The characters are taking a little time to find their feet, but it has a good gag rate, and a cast that’s easy on the eyes. The second import has the bigger potential in terms of garnering a big audience fast: Normal is a comedy about America’s changing demographics – in this case, a gay couple (Justin Bartha and Andrew Rannells) and their surrogate, a single mother from small town Ohio. Ellen Barkin plays her no holds barred conservative (read ‘offensively unfunny’) grandmother. If you need more convincing/dissuading, it’s from the people who brought you Glee

ITV2 refuses to be left behind and has bought its own series for January broadcast too. Up All Night, starring comedy big hitters Christina Applegate (hopefully reprising her role in newly confirmed Anchorman 2), SNL alumni Maya Rudolph and Arrested Development veteran Will Arnett. It’s basically traditional single camera sitcom, focusing on Applegate’s return to the workplace after taking time off to have a baby. Quick review: it’s solid, but for a show with such pedigree, it oddly lacks zing. You’ll enjoy it, I wager, but you won’t belly laugh, which is a shame.

More successfully made is Fox’s Ben and Kate, starring Dakota Johnson (daughter of Melanie Griffith and Don ‘Miami Vice’ Johnson) and Oscar-winner Nat Faxon (he co-wrote the screenplay for The Descendants) as a brother and sister renegotiating their relationship after he unexpectedly returns to town. There’s a delightful supporting cast, not least the sweetest child actor ever, as well as the siblings’ best friends played by Echo Kellum and the very, very talented and reliable Lucy Punch. I have heard bad things about this show’s ratings, which doesn’t bode well for its longevity but I hope it finds a home because it is an assured, very funny and immediately likeable little show. 

More4 has shown its class in previous years with its acquisitions (The Good Wife, The Big C, and Scandal among others), and it tries to continue its hot streak with Nashville and Boss. An early disclaimer: Boss has just been cancelled after two seasons in the US (with rumours of a film to tie up all remaining loose ends), but it stars an on form Kelsey Grammer as a Chicago politician dealing with his city’s needs – alongside a new diagnosis of dementia. Now that’s a premise. Precious few traces of Dr Frasier Crane are to be found here, and it’s not a bad thing because he’s a compelling dramatic actor.

Nashville is unsurprisingly, about country music, but only in the way that Friday Night Lights was about football. That was a (tenuous) link to reveal that it stars Connie Britton, formerly of FNL’s Dillon, Texas, and owner of the prettiest hair on television, who plays a fading country and western star usurped by young blonde upstart Hayden Panetierre. It’s not going to blow you away, but it is mostly well-observed light drama. The promo also featured the quiet, resigned zinger: “thank God for autotune,” which earns it at least an hour of grumpy watching. 

Other good news:  E4’s superior comedies Happy Endings and New Girl (which just keeps on getting better) are coming back, as is Archer and then later in the year, Justified (5USA). Less happy news is that no one’s picked up Parenthood, which has been one of my favourite series of recent years. You could argue that this is a reminder that we can’t have everything we want (which is just the right kind of lesson an episode of Parenthood would deliver, over a swelling indie soundtrack). Roll on 2013!

Nashville

Bim Adewunmi writes about race, feminism and popular culture. Her blog is  yorubagirldancing.com and you can find her on Twitter as @bimadew.

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The Print Room’s “Yellowface” scandal reveals deeper problems with British theatre

Howard Barker’s play In the Depths of Dead Love was picketed on press night. But is it racist, or simply lacking in imagination?

From the legends of Ancient China flow simple truths and mystic sagacity. So suggests the advance publicity for Howard Barker’s new play at the Notting Hill Print Room, inspired allegedly by a Chinese fable. A December casting announcement for In The Depths of Dead Love revealed that a list of characters with names like “Lord Ghang” and “Lady Hasi” would be played by an exclusively white cast. Only the most naïve of producers could have failed to anticipate the storm of protest that would follow.  Last night’s press opening was picketed by a passionate demonstration spilling over the pavements of Notting Hill – a largely dignified affair that grew disappointingly ugly as patrons left the building.

It’s not as if theatreland is a stranger to “yellowface” scandals. As far back as 1990, the mother of all cross-cultural standoffs emerged when American Equity attempted to block Cameron Mackintosh from bringing his latest London hit, Miss Saigon, to Broadway unless he recast the role of the character of the Engineer, played in London by Jonathan Pryce. Pryce’s defenders pointed out that the character was mixed-race, rather than strictly East Asian; his critics noted that he had still opened the London run wearing prosthetic eyelids and bronzing cream.

The protests marked a watershed, making visible the obstacles faced by East Asian actors. (Often blocked from “white” roles, often beaten to “East Asian” roles by white stars.) Yet controversies have continued to hit the headlines: the Edinburgh Fringe is a frequent flashpoint. In late 2015, a production of The Mikado was cancelled in New York after being deluged with protests; the producers denounced it as censorship. In 2014, the National Theatre in London staged Yellowface, a witty, self-deprecating piece by David Henry Hwang, inspired by the protests Hwang himself had led against Miss Saigon. After such a high-profile production, few theatre makers in London could claim ignorance of the issues at stake when white actors take Chinese names.

Against this background, The Print Room screwed up badly. A statement issued in December only entrenched the public image of Barker’s play as an Orientalist fantasy: “In the Depths of Dead Love is not a Chinese play and the characters are not Chinese. The production references a setting in Ancient China and the characters’ names are Chinese…  The allusions are intended to signify “not here, not now, not in any actual real ‘where’ ” and the production, set, costumes and dialogue follow this cue of ‘no place.’”

In effect, this gives us white actors playing universal types, rendered distant by their exotic names. It’s perfectly reasonable to set mythic tales in a universal landscape; what’s bizarre is to see any cast charged with representing the universal when all of them are white. As Yo Zushi argued in a New Statesman piece in 2015, critics of “cultural appropriation” too often “insist that culture, by its nature a communally forged and ever-changing project, should belong to specific peoples and not to all”. It would be absurd to argue that no British playwright should draw inspiration from Chinese literature. But watch an all-white cast stand in for universal experience on stage, and it start to look like British theatre belongs to one specific people: white people.

The irony is that In The Depths of Dead Love turns out otherwise to be a sensitive meditation on the limits of empathy. A poet is exiled from the city for sedition – or is it decadence? – and living in a wasteland, he purchases a bottomless well, charging suicides for entrance. The prevaricating Lady Hasi, played by the perennially impressive Stella Gonet, is a daily visitor. Her frustrated husband (William Chubb) commands the poet to break the cycle and “shove” her in. So begins a gentle mediation on mortality, language and intent.

The play does indeed evoke a universal landcape. Justin Nardella’s design is a simple series of ellipses: a well, a moon, a vast mirror. It’s effective, if imperfectly executed – this ‘bottomless well’ is quite clearly not bottomless. As the poet “Chin”, James Clyde injects potentially baggy monologues with wit and verve; fresh from playing opposite Glenda Jackson’s King LearChubb brings his usual mix of menace and linguistic precision. The mediations on poetic exile owe as much to Ovid’s Tristia and Ex Ponto as they do to Chinese source material. If only Barker’s characters didn’t keep emphasising each other’s oriental names as some kind of cheaply Brechtian, exoticising effect.

The righteousness of thesps on the war path is often blinkered: perhaps the protestors outside the Print Room last night would do well to see the play in order to engage with it fully. Keep attacking white writers when they acknowledge their Asian influences, and we’ll see real appropriation – Barker would have faced less protest had he ripped off the storyline wholesale and used it to inspire an ‘original’ work set in a Dignitas clinic.

I might even describe this slight work as the best thing I’ve ever seen at the Print Room, which is part of the larger problem. A personal project run by the director wife of a wealthy banker, the Print Room is well insulated against both commercial and critical failure. There’s no more bizarre sense of artistic stagnation like watching a expensive lighting rig, as in Genet’s Deathwatch, illuminate a few punters sprinkled in an empty auditorium. Last month's atrocious The Tempest starred Kristin Winters, the daughter of founder-director Anda Winters, a talented actress who deserves to be employed somewhere her mother isn't the impresario. 

Private philanthropy is essential to the future of theatre. It requires clear separation between patrons and artistic decisions, with a diversity of funding sources. But when theatres are run as vanity projects, they often lose touch with the energy and concerns of the arts world as a whole. 

The Print Room could do with making better friends in theatreland. An updated statement this week, while apologising profoundly for previous insensitivies, nonetheless hit out at Equity UK for “misrepresenting and misquoting” it. A series of departures has marked the Print Room’s tenure: among them Winter’s original co-founder, the respected director Lucy Bailey and the Print Room’s previous PR team amongst them, who left abruptly during the press run for A Lovely Sunday At Creve Coeur.

If there’s hope for the venue, it’s that In The Depths of Dead Love, which Winters developed closely with Howard Barker, shows the first glimpses of a real artistic mission. Unfortunately, it's a lily-white one.