Laughing matters

Television - Andrew Billen on a spoof and a successor to <em>The Simpsons</em>

With The Blair Witch Project on its way and Drop Dead Gorgeous already released, the spoof documentary is making a comeback. If People Like Us (10pm, Mondays, BBC2) had been made 20 years ago, we could have applauded it as one of the breakthroughs that led in due course to the great This Is Spinal Tap. Instead, you watch wondering if the writer, John Morton, and Chris Langham, who plays the hapless interviewer Roy Mallard, ever heard of it, listened to The Day Today or watched Brass Eye. From the interviews they have given, they seem not to have got much further than the proposition that people will, joke of jokes, tune in and mistake People Like Us for a real documentary.

Actually, I doubt they will. The performances of Langham's supporting cast are adequate, but they remain performances. There is none of the improvised naturalism that the form demands. There is also the problem that Mallard parodies the kind of earnest, well-meaning presenter that no longer exists, at least not on television (Radio 4, where People Like Us started out, is probably still full of them). The sensationalist, foot-in-the-door television that Chris Morris satirised on Brass Eye was, in contrast, up to date. In the case of the tabloid gimmicks of Tonight with Trevor McDonald, he was downright prophetic.

Yet People Like Us's comic parish is beguiling enough. Morton's stroke of brilliance is to place Langham off-camera so that we are left to create our own picture of a down-at-heel loser whose one gift, for rescuing his work in post-production voice-overs, is failing him. Like his grip on his subjects, Mallard's grasp of the necessary cliche is slippery. "This is a modern landscape we all recognise," he began this week as the camera pointed at a nondescript low-rise office building. "It could be almost anywhere in the country, perhaps anywhere in Europe. In fact it's not. It's here in Nottingham."

Hidden within there is diligent plotting. This week the sitcom storyline that kept us watching was the sacking of Dean, the transport manager, whom Mallard effec-tively ended up firing himself. Next week watch what happens when Mallard falls under the spell of a serially flirtatious estate agent. Like all amateur reporters, Mallard comes to observe but always ends up a part of the action. But People Like Us is too unambitious not to rely at key moments on slapstick: projector screens won't stay up; slides fall to the floor; next Monday, Mallard gets hit by a golf club. Langham was first heard of on Not the Nine o'Clock News in the early 1980s. Like Not the Nine, this vehicle for his undoubted talents suffers from over-obviousness.

I am a little more enthusiastic about Futurama (8pm, Tuesdays, Sky One), Matt Groening's follow-up, ten years on, to The Simpsons, although this cartoon is belaboured by a curiously unoriginal premise, which is that Fry, a pizza delivery boy from 1999, has been cryogenically frozen and wakes up in the year 3000. As in The Simpsons, however, God can be found in the details. In the speeded-up sequence used to fill us in on the millennium to come, we see New York twice razed to the ground by warring flying saucers, and the first time being rebuilt as a medieval township. Irritatingly, too many of the details are in-jokes about the show's own provenance. I spotted the three-eyed fish from polluted Lake Springfield, a homage to Bart's pest calls to Mo's Bar when Fry calls out in the cryogenic lab for "I C Weiner" and Groening in the tank next to Barbra Streisand at the celebrity Head Museum.

But the best critique of the pilot - of any pilot - came from a brilliant new episode of The Simpsons itself on Sunday (also Sky One). The story concerned a tacky new action series from Fox called Police Cops and its inadvertent use of Homer's name for one of its stars. At first Homer basks in his celebrity: "His name is like my name," he marvels. Then the character undergoes a conceptual rethink and becomes a comic fall-guy. The TV-literate Lisa explains to her outraged father that the first episode of Police Cops was just a pilot and that producers change characters all the time when the series proper commences.

This lets me hope that the so-far, so-bland Fry and his companions, a voluptuous one-eyed alien and a porn-addicted robot, will grow soon enough into the comic sociopaths they need to be. The pessimist in me, however, heeded Homer's words at the start of a week in which Sky would bring us yet another The Simpsons rip-off, Family Guy. "Networks like animation because they don't have to pay the actors squat," he said knowingly (actually it was an in-joke about a pay dispute). What all the pale imitators don't get is that The Simpsons is a work of genius as much in spite of being a cartoon as because it is one.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the London "Evening Standard"

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.