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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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

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