The Inbetweeners' third series debuts tonight on BBC America at 11 p.m. Eastern.
In the interest of full disclosure, “The Fashion Show” is the first episode of The Inbetweeners that I’ve seen.
I am well aware that this is not ideal: The assignment came fairly late in the game, and there simply wasn’t enough time to dive into the first two series (as short as they are) before tonight’s premiere, although I do plan on catching up over the course of the next couple of weeks.
While I do think that this creates some challenges with more serialized programming, I would contend that it really doesn’t make much of a difference for The Inbetweeners. Although the show is ostensibly serialized, following four British teenagers as they progress through the state school system, the show’s central argument seems to be the absolute social immobility of its characters. “The Fashion Show” does not set up new arcs for the third series, and it doesn’t focus on the fallout from the second series finale either: Instead, it develops a simple sitcom plot that ideally sketches out the show’s four lead characters, giving them each an outlet in which to explore the inevitability of their social position.
Organized around a charity fashion show, the premiere uses the setting to place the four characters within a particular social hierarchy. Simon, the member of the group who is the closest to being legitimately popular, is modeling in the fashion show at the request of his unrequited love Carli. Jay, the member of the group who seems the most unaware of his actual social position, believes himself to be modeling in the show despite having never been asked. Neil, who seems to be the slowest member of the group, just sort of stumbles his way into a position backstage. And Will, who I guess would count as our protagonist given his role as narrator, has his principles tested when his moral obligation to the fashion show collides with his involvement in the event (which evolves from compulsory to voluntary by the time the episode ends).
While I’m working on limited experience, I like the diversity offered by these character types. Simon may be closer to being popular than his friends, but it doesn’t seem as though it has made him arrogant, which allows him to remain likeable even as he continually suffers embarrassments that keep him from achieving true popularity. Jay and Neil seem more one-dimensional, but they offer variations on teenage one-dimensionality, with both pursuing the same basic goals (most of which involve girls) but through very different strategies: Jay tries too hard, while Neil doesn’t seem to try at all. I found myself rooting for these characters immediately, despite the fact that I sort of knew they would be unlikely to leave the fashion show with their dignity intact, which is important for a show that intends on putting its characters through the wringer on a weekly basis.
I am somewhat more ambivalent towards Will, although my opinion of the character grew over the course of the premiere. In the beginning, I found him to be a pompous git, and thus not someone that I would generally want to root for in a situation like this one. Simon Bird’s performance is very strong, but there’s a point where his objection to the fashion show becomes almost wholly unlikeable, aimed towards innocent bystanders as opposed to figures of authority. By the end of the episode, however, I found myself understanding the character better: With the return of his former flame Charlotte, Will is faced with a moral dilemma and makes a decidedly human decision that makes him seem like a real teenager, just with a superiority complex. There’s a line about principles late in the episode that seems to capture the character perfectly, and the flaws it reveals are important to making Will into a likeable (if slightly insufferable) figure.
On the whole, “The Fashion Show” was a sharp introduction to the show and its world, although I’m guessing you could say the same for most episodes of the show. As much as I found the voiceover narration from Will a bit overdone, it was generally helpful, and occasionally clever enough to make me forget about my wariness regarding the device. Even within the plot of the episode, though, everything seems designed to remind the viewer of basic facts about the show as a whole. I kept being reminded of things that I had read while doing some research on Wikipedia, ranging from running jokes (like those regarding the sexuality of Neil’s father, or the creepiness of the teacher/pedophile) to recurring love interests (like Charlotte and Carli). In fact, even if I hadn’t done that research in advance, I think I would have been able to figure things out fairly quickly: It’s not as though Charlotte’s effect on Will requires a complete understanding of their history, and Simon’s crush on Carli is neither subtle nor particularly complex.
However, while the show may continue to work comfortably within familiar tropes, there’s a confidence to The Inbetweeners that I quite admire. One of the things that always bothered me about Skins, which is the only other British series about teenagers that I’ve watched to this point, is that its broad comic elements always felt at odds with its more melodramatic (and, to my mind, more interesting) storylines. The show featured funny people, and had the potential to deliver strong comic storylines, but it was heading in too many directions to pull it off successfully. By comparison, with its shorter episode length and more singular focus, The Inbetweeners seems to have control over its comic sensibility, dialed in to what scenarios best highlight this set of characters.
I would not say that this show is breaking any new comic ground: I found “The Fashion Show” more charming than hilarious, enjoying smaller moments (like Simon’s family ribbing him while he practiced his runway walk) more than the large setpieces (which involve the bawdiness the show is known for, in this case related to the humorousness of testicles). However, I applaud the show for not allowing the larger setpieces to entirely define its sense of humor — I came away believing this to be a clever show with penis humor instead of a show about penis humor that is occasionally clever, and the former makes me far more likely to give The Inbetweeners a shot.
And a shot it will receive, given that I’ll be continuing on through the six-episode series (or "season," if you prefer). Some of you reading this might have only seen the first two series, while some of you may have also already seen this episode and the five that follow (given that they aired in the U.K. last fall). Others might be in the same position that I found myself in, dropping in out of curiosity to see what this show being added to The A.V. Club’s lineup was all about. As a newcomer, I can tell you that it’s very possible to jump right in, and that there’s something more here than just a bawdy British comedy; once I’m caught up, meanwhile, I can chime in on whether the third series is living up to the show’s pedigree, which will have to remain the domain of the comments for the time being.
- I quite like Mr. Gilbert, the school’s authority figure: the character has a clear sense of humor without seeming too broad, which is not an easy feat given the tropes of the genre.
- The show’s attitude towards seriality seems summed up in the ramifications from Will’s storyline at the end of the second series: The failing of the exams has been brushed aside, but everyone is still talking about how he shit his pants.
- I’m curious to see how the show handles female characters: Carli seems like the most well-developed, but she seems pretty wholly defined as a love interest. I know that female characters are not often that prominent in this particular genre, but it is something I’m curious to see as I go back through the first two series.
- This is actually the final series of the show: a feature film is on the way in August (in the U.K. at least), but no further series will be produced (although a few specials are rumored).
- While I don’t think the episode can necessarily be spoiled, I’d appreciate if those who have already seen the episode could avoid discussing specifics given that this is posting in advance of the U.S. airing.