Curb your enthusiasm

It's a pity the English actors in Episodes have had their craziness toned down.

Episodes, the latest episode of which airs tonight on BBC2 (10pm), is the latest Atlantic-straddling comedy to hit our viewing schedules. In line with other autoreflexive fare (like Extras, Grandma's House and The Trip) it is self-referential to the point of narcissism: it's a TV comedy about making a TV comedy, in which Matt Leblanc plays Matt Leblanc.

Hollywood and its drones have been rich pickings for sitcom and screenwriters, but the carcass has been pulled apart so much that it now feels like self-indulgence to go back for more. Just how interested and excited are we expected to be by all that is implied by "behind the scenes" and "backstage"? It's surely a little like hubris to think we care too much for yet another anatomisation of pampered dysfunction in La La Land.

In Episodes Tamsin Greig and Stephen Mangan star as a BAFTA-wielding writing and romantic partnership, who are seduced into doing an American version of their critical comedy hit Lyman's Boys. Whilst there has been a steady North Atlantic Drift of comedies to our shores (of which of course Leblanc has been honourable part, in his role as Joey Tribbiani in Friends), it is hardly a reciprocal stream, and few British comedies make big in the States. The Episodes people (who include David Crane of Friends) have waggishly anticipated bafflement and criticism on both sides of the Atlantic by weighing in there first, and putting the "lost in translation" theme centre-stage.

Greig and Mangam are a mettlesome pair, but in general our home-grown comedy actors have a different rhythmic emphasis from their American counterparts, and a delivery pattern that doesn't rely on various iterations of the wiseacre. Something rather peculiar happens when Brits get to play British in US-written shows: the rhythms clash, and appear to give rise to mini eddies of European disappointment. Jane Leeves in Frasier, Helen Baxendale in Friends and even Ashley Jensen in the egregious Ugly Betty all seemed to end up being a glitch and a snag in the otherwise tight fabric of yankee banter.

Arguably, another distinguishing feature of the Brits is their willingness to make complete unattractive arses of themselves. We do so love a loser. Whereas the Friends cast, for example, could never hope to be more, or less, than their glossy, preening selves. But for all that, they were our friends too, or so we thought. So much so that, after mainlining a few episodes, I found it was sometimes mildly disappointing to glance in the mirror and realise I didn't look much like them. It was easy to cosy up in their coffee-cup world; one felt something akin to affection for the coiffed ones.

It's too early in Episodes to feel anything like this for our protagonists - but the signs are not good. They are too similar in tone, as batch-processed Brits, to be intriguing or absorbing. I'm also missing the warmth that the live audience brought to Friends, which gives energy to combustible ingredients and polishes up the timing.

Then there are Greig and Mangan themselves. Their careers to date have been predicated on being decidedly off the wall (think of Greig's kooky, klutzy turn and Mangan's surreal, self-seeking doctor in Green Wing). But in Episodes they are required to be the sober foil to all the Hollywood madness, the innocents abroad, with their craziness curbed accordingly. I miss the crazies.

There are a couple of promising cameos in the show, for example from the Head of Comedy, a sculpted blonde who gives her pained pronouncements "it was really funny" and "it was hysterical" as though they are being tortured out of her. One wonders why such turns are not built up to be fully-fledged sub-plots. Matt Leblanc had a bigger piece of the action in the second episode, and, perhaps commensurately, the second episode was better.

But Episodes will stand or fall on its writing. So far the jokes have been overstretched: they come out of the starting gates promisingly enough, only to be flogged comprehensively to death. The comedy-within-a-comedy, "Lyman's Boys", was a particular, unfortunate low. As Greig says, when gazing in awe at LA's gated community mansion that has been provided for the writing team: "our show's not this good". For the series to be anything more than Joey-with-cussing, the writing had better sharpen up, sharpish.

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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear