There’s something about bees. Arrested Development knew it, Jerry Seinfeld knew it when he signed on for Bee Movie, Wild Mountain Thyme seemed to sort of know it but maybe didn’t quite know it enough. Stick a bee in something, and that thing is automatically at least half way to being funny. So I had at least some hopes for Rowan Atkinson’s new series on Netflix: Man vs Bee. Great, I thought, another addition to the noble canon of comedy about bees. A premise so overtly stupid – a man, vs a bee – that it could only be a work of absurdist, slapstick genius, from a great auteur of the genre.
I hoped in vain. The 100-odd minutes of Man vs Bee, split over nine episodes for some reason, were some of the most perplexing I have ever spent watching television. Atkinson pays Trevor Bingley, which the promo materials for the show describe as his new comedy character, a well-meaning but useless divorced dad. We meet him in court, where he is up for arson, destruction of priceless artwork and criminal damage, among other crimes. He receives his sentence, and apologises to the judge, adding “you see, there was this bee”.
And therein lies the entire series. There was this bee. We jump back in time, to Bingley arriving to house-sit for a rich and obnoxious couple played by Jing Lusi and Julian Rhind-Tutt doing a nebulously Scandinavian accent. They live in an enormous, sleek, modern home, all hidden drawers and tasteful artwork, an illuminated manuscript lies open in the library, and Bingley feels out of place in all this opulence. Imagine Parasite, if Parasite was the worst thing you’d seen in your life.
After seven minutes, the couple have left and Atkinson is alone. Surely now we can go all the way to Bean town: Atkinson mugging for the camera and messing up these people’s home in a series of increasingly wacky ways. Which he does of course do, and with his trademark physical aplomb. Except it never quite reaches the queasy delights of Bean. Apart from anything else, Bingley is a sadder character, more human in a way that doesn’t quite sit right with the incredibly broad comedy of moments like Atkinson getting trapped in an automatic pet flap and then falling face first into a pile of dogs**t. Bingley has a daughter that his ex-wife is trying to prevent him from seeing, presumably because he’s unable to so much as pour himself a glass of water without covering himself in excrement, and with whom he has bleak FaceTime conversations in between dropping yoghurt everywhere and setting things on fire.
And then there’s this bee.
Why is the bee there? It’s not really clear. Nor is it clear why the bee bothers the man so much; or why the man develops a parasocial loathing of the bee, which is causing him no harm at all, just flying around as bees are wont to do. The bee, rendered in unpleasant CGI, is for some reason the antagonist in this series, which is otherwise about a man failing to look after someone else’s property. He traps the bee in the first episode under a glass. The bee then proves strong enough to move the glass off a table and release itself. Later, the bee gets into his trousers, so he tries to take them off and trap it inside. The bee ends up in a hoover bag, which Bingley then sets fire to. But still – and of course it does, because although it must seem impossible, I am telling you: there are nine episodes of this – the bee escapes.
The short episodes format feels strange, but it couldn’t really have been a film either because there’s not enough of a narrative arc. The house just gets trashed a bunch, and also a bee is there. Is it short episodes because this is just a little something fun for children? I don’t quite think so. Atkinson has been doing a publicity campaign by appearing in cameos in Netflix shows for adults such as Selling Sunset and The Queen’s Gambit.
In the end I gave up trying to rationalise what I was seeing. It’s a very odd show, and not very funny. It is unarguable, though, that the funniest thing Atkinson could have done in the lead-up to releasing this particular series is mount a public defence for the right of comedians to take on any target in their comedy without fear, which he did in the Irish Times on 18 June. So while Man vs Bee did not make me laugh, what did is the idea that Atkinson has found the power he wants to speak truth to. And it’s bees.