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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Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era