Fresh Meat

Rachel Cooke finds herself half amused by a sitcom charting student life

I won't properly be able to concentrate on this review until I get something out of the way. I have big news. It seems that you can still buy Femidom, the female condom that was launched with such fanfare in 1992.

Oh, dear God. Can you believe it? I was convinced that it was extinct. After all, why would any woman want to have sex while wearing a Sainsbury's shopping bag? Women of my age (I was 23 when Femidom, a product my feminist principles obliged me to support enthusiastically, arrived at Boots) still snigger at the memory of all that polyurethane, or whatever it was, rustling unromantically in the dead of night - but it seems that some women don't mind the rustle. The Femidom lives.

I discovered this shock fact thanks to Fresh Meat (Channel 4, Wednesdays, 10pm), a new sitcom about university freshers, brought to you by Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain, writers of Peep Show. Two of the new housemates, the square girl and the posh boy, were having sex. Only it wasn't going too well. Posh boy asked square girl if she wouldn't mind removing her Femidom, a line that someone of my vintage might have taken for a punchline. But, no. Contain yourselves.

The punchline came when he reminded her that he was also wearing a condom. Geddit? It was at this point that the scene ceased to be funny - I mean, ha, ha, what kind of 18-year-old uses a Femidom? - and began to feel laboured, which is exactly the word I would use to describe the rest of the first episode. Somehow, the script always seemed just one notch off.

I hope that it warms up and perhaps it will. Armstrong and Bain are geniuses and I will fight to the death anyone who says that the first couple of series of Peep Show weren't lose-control-of-your-bladder funny.

The early signs are not good, even though one of the housemates (a geology student called Kingsley) is played by the adorable Joe Thomas of The Inbetweeners fame and the excellent Tony Gardner, better known as Michael, the camp and depressive café owner in Lead Balloon, appears as an embittered tutor of English, Professor Shales.

How to explain its damp-squib factor? I'm not sure. It might be that the world of the fresher is too obvious a target - reinvention, a practice in which people indulge wholeheartedly on arrival at university, being both inherently foolish and fraught with risk. It's oddly easy to miss an obvious target.

It might also be that the writers failed to remember that going to university is also rather melancholic, what with all the loneliness, the strange and soon-to-be-shed new friends and the general exhaustion of trying to act cool and grown-up when one is secretly longing to lay one's cheek on the ladybird-shaped pyjama case one's mum made for one when one was eight (not that I want to over-share or anything).

There are six people in Fresh Meat's student house and each of them is, predictably, a type. Kingsley and Josie (Kimberley Nixon) are the squares; Vod (Zawe Ashton) is the hard woman; Oregon (Charlotte Ritchie) is the swot; JP (Jack Whitehall) is the public school boy who says things such as: "I bet you're from somewhere really ordinary like . . . Coventry!"; and Howard (Greg McHugh) is the second-year weirdo who doesn't have any friends of his own.

Whitehall is brilliant as JP, although one senses that the role isn't exactly a stretch for him. When Josie asked him what A-levels he did and he replied, "Maths, chemistry and physics . . . we called it the 'nut-buster'!" I had a vivid flashback to the posh boys I met on my arrival at university, all of whom used to say things just like this.

There is something hilariously funny about public school boys, so long as you separate them from the rest of their species. His war with Howard, who doubtless grew up in a house with pebble-dashing, could go either way. It could be a hoot.

Or it could be - given Howard's rather excessive creepiness and JP's propensity for drawing penises in black magic marker on his enemies' foreheads - extremely tiresome. Just pray it's the former.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 26 September 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The fifty people who matter