If history is written by the victors, someone forgot to tell the last half-century of pop culture. For every New York Times bestseller or No. 1 hit record that faded into obscurity, there’s an equal number of box-office bombs, slow-selling novels, or flop LPs that eventually became objects of worship for far-flung fan cults. This is the problem with quantifying the worth of an art object in terms of sales figures and Nielsen ratings: Numbers don’t transmit the emotional resonance of a great song; a dollar sign doesn’t represent the true quality of a motion picture.
The number of seasons and episodes under a television show’s belt only tells part of the story as well. For years, the TV canon was formed around series that hit the mythical 100-episode mark, the syndication milestone that allowed broadcasters to program 20 consecutive weeks of unrepeated reruns. But as older, truncated shows became more readily available on home video, the reign of the syndicated giants began looking more suspect. Sure, Fawlty Towers only cranked out two seasons (or “series” as the British are wont to call them) in the late 1970s, but there are more frequent, better laughs in those 12 episodes than in the entire 100-plus-episode run of garbage like Mama’s Family. With a tradition of shorter episode orders, less frequent renewals, and characters who refer to elevators as “lifts,” the U.K. TV model is uniquely tooled for producing programs that endure far longer than the size of their DVD box sets suggest. Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, for example, the sole series of which represents the unlikely, six-episode intersection of such iconic Britcoms as The Office, The IT Crowd, and Father Ted—with bits of I’m Alan Partridge and Da Ali G Show thrown in for good measure. In style, pacing, and lifespan, however, the show is closer to one of U.S. television’s most storied “one and done”s: the ABC cop-show spoof, Police Squad!
Such was Darkplace’s Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker-esque zeal for a laugh that even its failure to secure a second series counts as a punchline. Purporting to be the lost TV effort of “author, dream weaver, visionary, plus actor” Garth Marenghi (Matthew Holness), the series doesn’t just parody blowhard literary types like the one played by co-creator Holness—it riffs on the entire “brilliant but canceled” myth. The show-within-a-show structure of Darkplace presents a loser’s history of a lost “classic” that was lost for a reason. In pre-episode introductions and talking-head interludes, Holness’ character claims that his series was buried due to its radical nature and startling predictions, but the evidence on hand argues otherwise. The fictional Darkplace never saw the light of day because it’s terrible, and Marenghi’s just too egomaniacal to acknowledge that fact.
Consequently, Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace is one of the funniest TV comedies of the last decade because the supernatural medical drama assembled by Marenghi and his made-up cohorts is such a clumsy piece of TV. Holness as Marenghi plays Dr. Rick Dagless, M.D., dashing star physician of Darkplace Hospital, a collection of anonymous hallways, offices, and exam rooms besieged by paranormal phenomena. As presented in the series, Darkplace was originally produced in the 1980s, and Holness and his collaborators went to great lengths to sell that origin story: Grainy film stock and a chintzy synthesizer score (“based on melodies originally whistled by Garth Marenghi”) mark the faux-archival footage, in which co-stars Matt Berry and Alice Lowe respectively sport Sonny Crockett’s ’do and Diane Chambers’ blouses. But the re-creation gags go further than funny dress-up: co-creator and director Richard Ayoade is the show’s most consistent source of laughs as publisher-turned-bad-actor Dean Learner. Learner is so lacking in his performance that his Darkplace character—no-nonsense hospital administrator Thornton Reed—delivers the majority of his lines in solo shots. Taking an increased number of behind-the-scenes roles in recent years (directing the loose Dostoyevsky adaptation The Double as well as Community’s excellent My Dinner With Andre episode), Ayoade is self-deprecating about his abilities as an actor. The IT Crowd star and Submarine director needn’t be so modest: It takes considerable chops to play an actor this inept.
The overwritten glory of Darkplace marks Garth Marenghi himself as the show’s crowning achievement. He possesses all of Stephen King’s prolificacy and none of his media savvy; he’s infected with the prickliness of a Harlan Ellison, but doesn’t have the talent or insight to back it up. All of Darkplace is filtered through Garth’s myopic perspective, which was molded over the course of two Perrier Award-nominated (and one Perrier Award-winning) theatrical productions at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe: Garth Marenghi’s Fright Knight and Garth Marenghi’s Netherhead. Like Steve Coogan’s Alan Partridge character and the various guises of Sacha Baron Cohen, Holness and Ayoade treated Garth and Dean as full-on personas that continued to exist after the stage lights came down or the camera turned off. When Netherhead took the Fringe’s top comedy prize in 2001, the duo accepted the award in character. In anticipation of Darkplace’s Channel 4 debut, Holness-as-Marenghi penned a characteristically blustery column for The Guardian. After Darkplace’s cancellation, Ayoade showed up in the host’s role of Man To Man With Dean Learner, welcoming Garth as well as Holness’ guitar-plucking alter ego, Merriman Weir. Many short-lived comedies die before locating their comedic voice, but Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace had a built-in advantage: It speaks a language its creators had been fluent in for years.
It stands to reason that every time one of the physicians of Darkplace Hospital speaks of Rick Dagless in clumsily glowing terms, they’re actually speaking about Garth Marenghi. Dagless presents the author in an idealized light: dashing, heroic, and singularly preoccupied with the comfort of his pediatric patients—though never shown actually treating them. In fact, Dagless hardly practices medicine at all. That he spends more time killing than caring is one of the sneakiest jokes about Marenghi’s treatment of the medical drama. Making bad TV is a snap—making intentionally bad TV that can be traced to a single cause is a delicate balancing act that requires the types of mealy-mouthed dialogue, flubbed cues, poor blocking, continuity errors, shoddy ADR, and mishandled thematic content that Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace puts to such humorous ends.
If Darkplace simply pointed and laughed at Garth’s feeble attempt to be a self-proclaimed multi-hyphenate, it’d be a funny show—but not one that’s still worth talking about nine years after its finale. It goes deeper than that, flaying the author one episode at a time, exposing some deeply human vulnerabilities. Borrowing a trick from The Office, the interviews with Garth, Dean, and Berry’s character Todd Rivers juxtapose the characters’ POVs with what’s actually playing out onscreen. In one of the show’s finest talking-head segments, Garth calls writers who use subtext “cowards,” but there’s subtext running through every layer of Darkplace. Like any good genre author, the show’s main character is channeling sincere anxieties and fears through his work—but he’s so self-centered that those anxieties and fears are uniquely Garth Marenghi’s. That’s most apparent in episode three, “Skipper The Eyechild,” in which the supernatural goings on at Darkplace serve as an allegory for Garth’s inability to father a son. It’s a humane treatment for a character who’s shown so frequently to be a complete pig—though his naturally destructive tendencies recur in the episode’s gory finale. Puréeing the one-eyed monster-child Dagless comes to love as his own is a fittingly bizarre conclusion for “Skipper,” one that refocuses the attention and sympathies of the other characters squarely on Dagless. In his own mind, Garth has his cake and eats it, too, creating a fantasy wherein, even if his every wish goes unfulfilled, he still gets to be a hero of unquestioned valor.
Not only is the self-destructive nature of its central character Darkplace’s defining characteristic, it’s also one of the main reasons that six episodes is just the right length for a show like this. Much like Police Squad!, the strain begins to show in the final episodes of Darkplace. It’s tough to maintain this kind of act for very long; Holness, Ayoade, and crew make a valiant effort of it for three hours of programming, but the ironic remove required by Darkplace doesn’t provide much wiggle room. The show’s already formulaic enough as is, and every installment begins with the same cold open, more or less: Garth reads from one of his books (just as he employs slow motion to pad the running length of his show, Garth increases his page count through repetition, repetition, and repetition), delivers some faux-rebellious babble while descending a staircase, then pulls an episode from the vault. If the ideas weren’t there for additional episodes, it’s for the best that they weren’t shoehorned into a structure that was breaking down by the time of “The Creeping Moss From The Shores Of Shuggoth.”
Worst of all, a second series would’ve undermined the “lost classic” gag of Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace. Being a “one and done” is encoded in this show’s DNA, and besides: Six episodes broadcast by the real Channel 4 is better than no episodes broadcast by its fictionalized, 1980s equivalent. When the production was notified that a second series wasn’t being commissioned, the network’s film arm extended Holness and Ayoade an invitation to bring Garth to the big screen. That film has yet to materialize, though it’s difficult to imagine when its co-writers would’ve found the time to get their ideas down on paper: Man To Man followed in 2006, the same year of The IT Crowd’s debut and the single season of Berry’s mordant sketch show, Snuff Box. Later, Holness adopted the persona of a separate pulp author, Terry Finch, whose vigilante thriller The Reprisalizer gave way to the Darkplace-esque short film “A Gun For George” in 2011. More recently, he published the Kindle single “Possum” under his own byline, a demonstration that the works of Marenghi and Finch are more than just the results of well-done research.
But there’s a distinct difference between Matthew Holness and the men he pretends to write as: As of fall 2013, he hasn’t gone the Marenghi/Finch route and attempted to resurrect his under-appreciated masterpiece. Legion are the replies from the Twitter feed @MrHolness informing fans that no more Darkplace is in the offing. (Fingers crossed that it was at least one such follower who nabbed Dagless’ lab coat in a recent charity auction.) It helps that Garth Merenghi’s Darkplace is a legitimate masterpiece—albeit one that wasn’t born with longevity in its genetic code. In its way, the show is Skipper The Eyechild: a grotesque, low budget oddity that brought a modicum of joy before being smashed to bits. At least that’s the history Garth Marenghi would write—with a few repeated words and a heavy dose of redundant description.
One-season wonder, weirdo, or wannabe? Wonder
Next time: Brandon Nowalk remembers the weird world of Michael, Michael, and David with a look back at Stella.