Given that the third series of The Inbetweeners is ancient for those who watched based on the U.K. schedule, covering the show is sort of like TV Club Classic in a way: Last week, many of you offered an evaluation of these episodes, an evaluation that I certainly had in mind when I sat down to watch “The Gig and the Girlfriend.” Of course, covering the show is also strange given that I’m watching the previous two series at the same time as I dig into the third one, meaning that I’m starting to gain more points of comparison on a weekly basis, constantly changing how I view the series.
For the most part, these points of comparison have been extremely valuable, as I’ve come to better understand these characters and the general appeal of the series. I’m through the first series and a half at this point, and continue to find the show charming even if it continues to hammer on the same basic thesis: These friends are saddos, and there’s very little they can do about that. While potential escape is often dangled in front of them, they’re too hapless to take advantage and end up embarrassing themselves — it was a pattern I observed in “The Fashion Show” last week, and one that is pretty much a hallmark of this series (and the teen sex/drugs comedy genre that the show seems like it wants to belong to).
I would say that ‘teen sex comedy’ is maybe the most recognizable genre at play, but the show isn’t always about sex, which is important. It isn’t just that Will, Simon, Jay and Neil want to have sex and don’t have any sex: It’s that they want to be ‘cool,’ something that could mean any number of things. One of the episodes that really resonated early on is “Bunk Off,” in which the fairly mundane process of skipping school becomes a crash course in the price of trying to be cool: although the episode is a never-ending stream of embarrassing situations (including drunken slander of a friend’s parent, public humiliation through vandalism, and vomiting on your crush’s little brother), the quest isn’t just to “get drunk” or “have sex.” It’s a quest to be what the world recognizes as cool, which just happens to mean getting drunk and having sex, and something that these four are pretty terrible at for a whole host of reasons.
It’s an idea that is at the heart of Simon and Jay’s storylines in “The Gig and the Girlfriend,” an episode that starts off with some really strong character-driven storytelling. Although I do question why his friends are just now really focusing on Jay’s penchant for bullshit (as if they've never gone this far in questioning him before), it’s a logical avenue for exploring this character as the show enters its third series. What I’ve enjoyed about the character, and James Buckley’s performance, is how he’s too pathetic to be too annoying; this is a pretty stock character within this genre, the person who lies about their experiences, but there is nothing malicious about Jay’s lies. They’re just brushed off with a “Really?” from Simon, followed up by some sort of pompous extension from Will, and by the end of it I sort of feel bad for Jay. All he’s trying to do is seem cool, something that everyone but Neil is pretty much a victim of (even if they’re less obvious about it).
What I like about “The Gig and the Girlfriend” is that the show brings Simon down to Jay’s level, even if he’d never admit it. I think Simon is probably my favorite character on the show, but even if he’s more ‘cool’ than his friends it doesn’t mean that he doesn’t play his own game of pretend. While he joins Will in blasting Jay for lying about his sexual conquests and his love of ‘puff,’ a fit girl who only recently became fit (and thus isn’t yet too cool to pay attention to him) has him lying about his ability to score puff — therefore deluding himself into believing Jay’s bullshit to be true, despite minutes earlier insisting it was all a lie — and his fictional love of gigs. Although Simon generally presents himself as the most confident of this group of friends, the most above their trivial discussions, we also see him leaning on Neil’s advice about how to impress women in the same scene, asking an endless series of questions to the point where Tara thinks him mental.
It’s a compelling setup, as it creates a scenario where both Jay and Simon have to put their money where their mouth is. Simon’s quest to impress Tara involves a Pete Doherty hat and some non-existent puff, while Jay’s quest to prove his credibility requires speaking to actual drug dealers and scoring actual drugs. And to their credit, both of them generally pull it off: While Simon gives Tara a concussion and has to taste some of her vomit, and Jay ends the evening paranoid about the ramifications of actually purchasing drugs, Simon ends the episode a man with a girlfriend and Jay leaves a man of his word, for once. Neither takes a particularly glamorous route to that point, but I like the way the third series seems more invested in letting the characters achieve something close to “success” after two series of failure.
However, that being said, any character progress is somewhat overwhelmed by what was a pretty broadly drawn second half to the episode. Now, I thought Simon’s storyline earned its broadness, with the vomit coming only after we gained a better understanding of Tara as a character and the weed bringing them together (albeit in a gross fashion). However, Will’s drug trip ended up both one-dimensional and distracting, especially since Jay ended up being underserved by the episode. It was the kind of stock “naïve teenager takes drugs and has wacky reaction” storyline that to this point the show has evaded. It doesn’t say anything about Will, or anything about drugs, or really anything at all: it’s a bit of (largely ineffective) physical comedy, a dash of humiliation, and a convenient way to bring the episode to an end.
It makes me wonder if perhaps the show has simultaneously evolved and devolved as it enters its third series. On the one hand, the characters have been around long enough that the writers are willing to give them some forward momentum, which is why we see some development for Simon and Jay. However, at the same time, the show is becoming more of an established property, and I almost feel like the comedy is becoming larger because the show’s popularity has grown. I’m very pleased with the former development, and thought it was well rendered in “The Gig and the Girlfriend,” but the latter feels like a bit of a step backwards.
Of course, I haven’t seen the rest of the third series (or the second half of the second), so this is all still an initial reaction that will be either confirmed or contradicted as I watch more of the series in the weeks ahead. However, with the movie (and some rumored specials) on the horizon to wrap up the story, I am wondering what the end point of The Inbetweeners will offer. Is this a show about teenagers surviving the hellish social hierarchies of high school and moving on with their adult lives, or is it a show about teenagers who discover they will always be defined by their position within social hierarchies — and by their inability to get laid — even after they enter the real world? Or is this just a show about saddo teens getting into hilarious situations, and nothing more than that? I’d argue the character work in “The Gig and the Girlfriend” at least points to something more than just a teen sex comedy, but the broader elements also suggest that raising any expectations for subtle character work as the series concludes would be as naïve as the show’s characters.
- One thing that I really enjoy about this show is its depiction of the boys’ parents. While Skins’ thesis on parents was that they were as screwed up as their kids, unable to play a proactive role in their kids’ lives through either absence or incompetence, The Inbetweeners far more realistically crafts a world where parents are too involved in their kids’ lives. They have to drive them to gigs, and overhear their conversations, and actively antagonize their kids regarding their lack of a sex life, and the small scenes with Jay’s father, Will’s mother and Simon’s father were all really sharp here (and have been sharp throughout the episodes I’ve seen).
- I may not be cool enough to know who Failsafe is, apparently old enough (and North American enough) that the Take That and INXS references resonated much more strongly, but I did get the NME joke. And, speaking of UK-specific humor, Cheryl Cole’s crash-and-burn transition to the U.S. X-Factor has made that particular reference more palatable for American audiences.
- Now that I’m finished with the first series in its entirety, anyone have a favorite episode? I know that some cited “Bunk Off” in last week’s comments, but I’m open to some TV Club Classic-style remembrances if y’all have something to say on episodes I’ve seen.