“Bomb” (season 1, episode 4; originally aired 11/30/1982)
No nukes is good nukes...
On June 14, 1982, the largest peace demonstration up to that point in history occurred in New York, when a million people gathered in Central Park to protest nuclear proliferation, just as the United Nations was holding a Special Session On Disarmament. Two days later, Argentina surrendered to England, putting an end to the 74-day Falklands War and further empowering Margaret Thatcher’s conservative agenda. These events aren’t directly connected, but they’re part of the backdrop of “Bomb,” the fourth episode of The Young Ones. First aired in November of ’82, it’s an especially feverish collision of two of the show’s fortes: political satire and utter destruction. It’s hilarious. It’s haunting. It’s horrifically relevant. With “Bomb,” The Young Ones didn’t just flirt with the ominous specter of nuclear annihilation: It hit the nail on the warhead.
The episode is driven by a single, vivid image, one that’s seared like a burn scar in the minds of most who have seen the show: Vyvyan pounding away at a nuclear missile with a sledgehammer. That metallic clang alone is enough to evoke a primal shudder. The lead-up to this image is excruciatingly rudimentary: Vyvyan, Rick, Neil, and Mike discover an atomic bomb that’s fallen through their roof and into their kitchen, and after a few failed attempts by Rick to use it for political purposes, Vyvyan takes his sword to the Gordian knot and just starts hammering at the thing.
After failed attempts with a catsup bottle and crowbar, he breaks out the sledgehammer—another one of the show’s homages to Looney Tunes. With the fear of a nuclear holocaust so palpable, that ringing of metal against genocidal metal—driven by a grinning, nihilistic lunatic—hit home in the ’80s, and it still does. “Iconic” is a term that’s been absurdly and incorrectly overused, but in this case, it couldn’t be more fitting. Along with Ronald Reagan’s “We begin bombing in five minutes” gaffe and the attack sequence in The Day After, no slideshow of the collective nightmares of the 1980s would be complete without it.
But hey, this is The Young Ones. It’s funny, right? In the case of “Bomb,” yes and no. It’s the weakest episode to date, and one of the weakest of the series as a whole. Rick’s poetry—which is usually so playfully, almost inspirationally insipid—doesn’t pack as much a poetaster punch: “Pollution, all around / Sometimes up, sometimes down.” Neil’s “If I had a penny” one-liner isn’t worth the airtime it takes up. And when the family on the front of Vyvyan’s box of Corn Flakes comes alive, they crack facile “nuclear family” jokes that hit the viewer over the head with the episode’s theme—and not in the good way that The Young Ones is supposed to hit you over the head.
The problem is a matter somewhat subpar material, but also one of timing. A quarter of the episode goes by before the gang notices the elephant in the room, the nuclear bomb, and by then it feels like the gag has been dragged on too long. The same goes for Neil’s lentil avalanche, a smart instance of upping-the-lentil-ante, at least in theory—but one that suffers from prolonged execution. Worst of all is Rick’s hours-long berating of the kindly old man in the post office queue (although it winds up being the DHSS queue, another limp punch line); up to this point in the series, Rik Mayall has done superb job at balancing the sympathetic and abhorrent extremes of his character, but here he just feels needlessly, shallowly cruel. It might have worked as a 10-second routine, but here it’s drawn out for minutes.
The relatively low velocity and energy of “Bomb” is a drawback, but the episode has its moments. The show-within-a-show parody of The Rat Pack—Dicky & Dino—is such an oddball parody, it adds some of the much needed, non-sequitur franticness that earlier installments of The Young Ones positively teem with. Mostly, though, “Bomb” walks a straight line from set-up to payoff, and that payoff is a dud, in more ways than one: When the bomb finally fractures, a tiny toy airplane flies out. At this point, anticlimax has been established as the show’s subversive modus operandi; what makes this particular ending so flat is the fact that an airplane has already been used for such an ending, back in “Demolition.” For the first time, The Young Ones has pulled up short in the imagination department.
What “Bomb” doesn’t lack, however, is that chilling echo chamber of nervous laughter. It’s funnier because it’s so terrifying, and more terrifying because it’s so funny. In 1982, the threat of global thermonuclear Armageddon felt realer than ever. World leaders with ideological agendas held the power to ultimate destruction in their hands. Three decades later, they still do, even if the geopolitical climate has changed greatly since then. “Bomb” still resonates not because its humor has aged as well as the best episodes of The Young Ones, but because its fears have. At least the laughs are cathartic. If only “Bomb” had more of them.
Musical Guest Report: As with last episode’s musical guest, Madness, “Bomb” features a band that was a one-hit wonder in the States but far more popular in its British homeland: Dexy’s Midnight Runners. That one hit, “Come On Eileen,” had already been released by November of 1982 when “Bomb” first aired, but it had yet to become a Transatlantic phenomenon. Which is probably at least part of the reason why the group went with a lesser single, its cover version of Van Morrison’s “Jackie Wilson Said (I’m In Heaven When You Smile).” In spite of being a far less noteworthy representation of Dexys’ soulful sound , the song is downright great—a spirited and wholly faithful rendition of one of Morrison’s most upbeat classics. And frontman Kevin Rowland and crew play their Celtic-gypsy-ragamuffin shtick to the hilt.
- “Are you going to be long, Mike? I want to start blackmailing Thatcher with our bomb.”
- “I won’t say anything because no one ever listens to me anyway. I might as well be a Leonard Cohen record.”
- “You know, John Lennon once said, ‘A man with a handful of takeaways is either very hungry or knows someone that’s very hungry.’”
- “This will shake them up at the Anarchists Society!”
- “I don’t know who I am!” Alexei Sayle weighs in with another scene-stealing portrayal of a member of the Balowski family—in this case, Jerzei’s fast-talking, arms-dealing son Reggie— and he’s already showing signs of multiple personality disorder.
- “Bloody hell, skateboards? Things of the past.”
- “See, that atom bomb, to me it’s worth, well, a pony, a couple of tortoises at most.”
- “He asked me if we’ve got a telly!” (I’m not sure about you, but my mouth is already watering for “Nasty.” We must be patient.)