(BBC) Let's say you're having one of those days where everything seems just a bit too much. People keep coming up to you and saying words. You can tell they want something – partly because you've heard these words before in some other context – and partly because of the expectant look in their eyes. There are two things you can do in this situation: one, lock yourself in a room and drink whatever's in the cabinet; or, two, watch the relentlessly hysterical, BAFTA-Award-winning BBC America comedy Black Books.
Black Books chronicles the sordid misadventures of Bernard Black (Dylan Moran) – owner and reluctant proprietor of the titular bookshop – his lone employee Manny (Bill Bailey), and fellow misfit Fran (Tamsin Greig) who runs the shop next door.
Boston Globe editor Bill Cardoso first used the word “gonzo” to describe Hunter S. Thompson's work in 1970. He called it “pure gonzo journalism.” Black Books is pure gonzo comedy. It has the crazed momentum of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas combined with the brazen, brilliant stupidity of Father Ted (series co-writer Graham Linehan also wrote for that esteemed program).
Cardoso claimed that “gonzo” was South Boston Irish slang for the last man left standing after an all-night drinking binge. Bernard Black doesn't immediately strike one as that man, as he spends much of his life passed-out on sofas; however, his sheer tenacity of purpose in staying drunk as much as humanly possible may in fact mean that he possesses unplumbed depths of stamina.
Bernard certainly has the strange grace of the chronic inebriate, stumbling in and out of the most bizarre situations imaginable, usually with nary a scratch – although he will sometimes jolt to confused and angry wakefulness the next morning to find one of his limbs in a cast. In general, Bernard just wants to be left alone to read. He sees his interactions with the customers of his shop as insufferable intrusions, which is why he hires the guileless Manny to do it for him.
In one early episode, a man approaches Bernard with a box of books he wishes to purchase. Bernard, after a cursory glance, says, “Forty pounds.” The man insists that the books are worth more, prompting Bernard to reply, “Yes, but I'll have to price them, then, and put them up on the shelves, and store them, and people will come in and ask about them, and buy them, and read them, and come back and sell them, and the whole hideous cycle will just go on and on and on!” He ends up giving the man forty pounds to go away and take the books with him.
Shortly afterward, Manny asks, “Do you think I should wash my beard?” Bernard says, “I think you should wash it, yeah. Then shave it off, nail it to a Frisbee, and fling it over a rainbow.” When asked about his most recent cinema-going experience, Bernard describes the original Planet of the Apes: “Amazing effects. You really believed monkeys could have meetings.”
If all this sounds like an excuse to make frighteningly witty and shamelessly sardonic jokes, then that's probably because it is. Black Books makes almost no attempt at narrative coherence nor dramatic tension. However, so much of what makes the show work is in the little glances and gestures of the actors. They carry the whole ridiculous affair off with style and awkward aplomb.
Black Books seems like the product of late-night sessions in which a bunch of writers got a little tipsy and came up with the most outlandish ideas they could think of to make each other crack up. For example, the pilot episode. How do we introduce these characters to the viewer and to each other? How about this: Fran is starting to lose her mind because she can't figure out what one of the ultra-chic objects she's selling is meant to be used for, so she goes next door to ask Bernard. Manny, a harried accountant, buys The Little Book of Calm from Bernard, then later accidentally swallows it, becoming the calmest man on the planet. Bernard, in a desperate attempt to avoid having to do his taxes, tries to convince a group of skinheads to beat him up, inadvertently saving Manny's life. Or perhaps it's the other way around. We'll work the details out later.
This type of haphazard genius is aimed at those comedy fans who prize the thrill of absurdity above all others. Moreover, Black Books is written for the misanthrope in all of us – the part that just wants the world and everyone in it to go somewhere else, take care of their own problems, and shut the hell up for two stinking minutes so that we can enjoy our vices in peace. The irony, then, is that a show like this would end up containing more of the fundamental joy of being alive than most others with loftier ambitions. It's so blisteringly funny that it reaches in and hits that special button in your hind-brain that jettisons all the worry and stress of day-to-day existence. Like Bernard's bookshop and its eccentric denizens, the show sounds like an odd little niche market when you first hear about it; but give it a try, and you'll more than likely find that Black Books is written for you.
Why We Like It: pure gonzo comedy, shamelessly silly, has the same psychological effect as getting drunk with the funniest person you know