Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre or series or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Want advice? Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Geek obsession: Contemporary British sitcoms
Why it’s daunting: Besides occasionally indecipherable accents and/or puzzling cultural references, the main obstacle between Americans and sitcoms that are infinitely better than ’Til Death is access. Aside from Gavin & Stacey, BBC America doesn’t import much comedy—though it apparently can’t air enough Top Gear, How Clean Is Your House?, and Bargain Hunt. And while some Brit-coms (Absolutely Fabulous, Spaced, I’m Alan Partridge) are available on Region 1 DVD, many worthwhile shows are partially or totally unavailable. Often, this means digging around YouTube or TV link sites for episodes—provided you know what you’re looking for, which, since good-television word-of-mouth can take a while to cross the Atlantic, you may not.
Possible gateway: Peep Show
Why: Why recommend a show when only one of its five seasons available on DVD in America? Well, because if the hilarious, inventive Peep Show doesn’t make you want to further your education in British sitcoms, nothing will. Like most British sitcoms, each series of Peep Show is a tight, self-contained unit, hemmed in by an overarching narrative arc that unfolds over the course of six episodes. And like many of the best recent British sitcoms, Peep Show plays with the sitcom format in a thoroughly original way. Equal parts The Odd Couple and a leaner, sharper Herman’s Head, Peep Show follows a dorky, neurotic credit manager (David Mitchell) and his clueless wannabe musician friend (Robert Webb) as they share an apartment and many hilariously awkward Curb Your Enthusiasm-like social situations. What makes Peep Show different, however, is that the entire show is shot in POV, a technique accompanied by Mitchell and Webb’s strange, cutting, humiliating, or simply stupid thoughts. The comedy is often found in the sharp contrast between Mitchell and Webb’s outer and inner lives. Take for example the season-one scene where Mitchell is guiding his shopping cart through the aisles of a largely empty supermarket, perusing the aisles. “Life’s all pain: pain, rejection, and gloom,” he thinks aloud while picking up oversized cans of tomatoes, “Why do we pretend there’s anything but a yawning blankness at the heart of… Hey, 33 percent extra free! Ha. I am doing excellent shopping.”
Next steps: If you haven’t already seen it, stick with the comedy of awkwardness in an inventive format path and watch the original The Office—Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s very funny mockumentary sitcom that launched a thousand (well, a handful) of international versions. From there, Simon Pegg’s clever, often surreal, pop-culture-reference-heavy Spaced is a good bridge to a few notable, more traditional laugh-track Britcoms, namely Steve Coogan’s comedic tour-de-force as a self-centered one-time talk-show host, I’m Alan Partridge, and the broader but no less funny Absolutely Fabulous. AbFab is a classic for a reason; Patsy and Edina are such loud, brash, well-drawn characters that they’re hard to forget.
Where not to start: The Mighty Boosh. Without proper priming, Boosh can seem like a British psychedelic episode of Pee-wee’s Playhouse where the only lesson is “Isn’t this weird?” Actual psychedelics might alleviate that effect, but it’s better to start off with funny-funny as opposed to funny-weird.