2440: Baffled by Food

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Andie’s been watching a show called Great British Menu, and that show frustrates me in a number of ways. Firstly, it’s one of many, many shows that overuses the “Great British” thing. It’s okay to just say “British” sometimes. (You definitely don’t need to say it at all when talking about the “great British public”. It’s just “the public”.)

The main way it frustrates me, however, is I just don’t understand the appeal of the food these people are cooking. The show claims to celebrate the “total transformation of British cuisine during the Queen’s historic reign” (and they don’t let you forget that, repeating it roughly eleven thousand times each episode) but all I see is food that has become less about, well, food and more about, as they put it “theatre”.

I’m a simple man when it comes to food. I like a good ham, egg and chips. I like a chilli. I like a spaghetti bolognese. I like a steak. I like a good roast dinner. Those are all good dishes that taste nice. They may be “uninteresting” to the refined palate, but they do fine by me, and more importantly, they are easily scalable according to how hungry you are and how many people you’re catering for.

The “total transformation of British cuisine during the Queen’s historic reign”, meanwhile, seems to be all about compressing and pureeing everything, then sticking it in a box with some dry ice underneath so the plate of food ends up resembling a rather sparsely populated ’80s rock concert more than, well, a plate of food.

One of the things the chefs on the show are fond of doing is offering “a new take on [x]”. In the last episode I saw, there was “a new take on bacon and eggs”, and “a new take on Eton Mess”. Again, both of those things are fine as is. I certainly don’t need an onion puree and an onion tuile, whatever the fuck that is, with my bacon and eggs — even if I did like onion, which I don’t. And I definitely don’t need my Eton Mess to be “interactive” by being hidden inside a meringue shaped like a cricket ball.

I don’t know. I’m probably just being grumpy about this, although I have had food with “theatre” and enjoyed it — when I went to the Ninja restaurant in New York, the food there was served with plenty of theatrics and dry ice, but importantly, they gave you an actually decent plate of food as well. The stuff the chefs on Great British Menu come up with looks like something you’d serve as a starter to a Spartan.

If this is how British cuisine has transformed during the Queen’s historic reign, then I’m just grateful that the local chippy is still open for business.

2421: Go 8-Bit

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A new TV show launched on well-known Freeview channel Dave this evening: Dara O’Briain’s Go 8-Bit.

It’s a type of show we haven’t seen since the days of GamesMaster, only now everyone who used to watch GamesMaster is in their 30s and 40s and enjoys knob gags. Yes, it’s a show that focuses primarily on competitive computer game challenges.

A bit of cursory research reveals that it’s actually an adaptation of a live show also called simply Go 8-Bit, the creation of Steve McNeil and Sam Pamphilon, who take the role of regulars on the TV incarnation. O’Briain occupies the host’s chair, while McNeil and Pamphilon each have one special guest each — in the case of the first episode, topical comedian Susan Calman and England goalkeeper David James, both of whom are proud gamers in their own right. The cast is rounded out with the inclusion of journalist and podcaster Ellie Gibson, who has contributed to Eurogamer on numerous occasions in the past.

O’Briain is a natural fit for the show’s host, because his enjoyment of video games is well-documented, usually using this still-entertaining six year old clip from Live at the Apollo as evidence:

He’s proven himself to be a capable host of a variety of different shows over the past few years, ranging from the topical Mock the Week to the educational Science Club. His role on Go 8-Bit is, as you might expect, closer to the former than the latter, and for the historical and cultural context and significance of the games covered on each show, he defers to Gibson, who is the resident “expert” — she’s the show’s Richard Osmond to O’Briain’s Alexander Armstrong, for those who watch the surprisingly addictive Pointless.

The first episode featured a pleasingly diverse mix of titles, beginning with classic puzzler Tetris, continuing with Chuckie Egg, then on to TekkenStar Wars Battlefront (the new one) and closing proceedings with a custom version of Bust-a-Move specifically created for the show, and for use with the custom Makey Makey controller, a kit which can turn anything which conducts electricity into a game or computer controller. Since their custom version of Bust-a-Move was entitled Bust-a-Moob, the custom peripherals attached to the Makey Makey were, as you might expect, human beings — specifically, an old man with an impressive beard sporting a questionable Dr. Robotnik cosplay; an old lady with an even more questionable Chun Li cosplay; a skinny, hairy dude in his pants forming a rough approximation of Zangief; and, um, a Cher impersonator.

The show made for genuinely enjoyable entertainment. The banter between O’Briain and the guests was amusing, and the trash-talk during the games was fun. It was also wise to focus the show around people who are enthusiastic about games but not necessarily good at them, too, because this made for some hilarious sights, such as an epic Tekken match largely decided by the old faithful sweep-kick to the shins move over and over and over again. There could be value in a show about e-sports professionals playing one another, of course, but it wouldn’t be Go 8-Bit; it would be an altogether more serious affair, and a scene that is already pretty well covered by the online streaming scene rather than television.

The show was, so far as I’m concerned, a resounding success: genuinely amusing, entertaining to watch, even for non-gamers, and just enough tidbits of gaming history to keep enthusiasts happy, too. And best of all, it wasn’t trying to be cool, young, dudebro or in any way hip — it understands that a significant chunk of the gaming audience these days is over 30, perhaps because most of the people involved with it are over 30.

It’s not, by any means, an in-depth documentary about the history of gaming, but it’s not trying to be — it’s simply a new format of show that, as I say, we haven’t really seen anything like since GamesMaster. The only thing I’d change, if anything, would be the slightly cringe-inducing big deal they make out of their rotating stage every time they spin it through 90 degrees so the players can face the game screen at the back of the stage, but that might just be me being a miserable old git.

That aside, it was a great show, and one that I look forward to tuning in to watch each week.

Go 8-Bit is on Dave on Thursday nights at 10pm UK time. You can find out more and watch the recently aired first episode here. (You may need to fiddle around with VPNs and whatnot if you’re watching from outside the UK.)

2414: Stranger Things

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I watched the first episode of a new Netflix show people have been raving about recently: Stranger Things. I came away very impressed with the whole thing.

Stranger Things is set in 1980s small-town America and appears to have been shot to bear more than a passing resemblance to a 1980s movie. Coming off the back of Turbo Kid, this is something that appealed a great deal to me, and it was interesting to compare how the two works approached it. While Turbo Kid took the extremely graphic approach of violent action movies of the era, Stranger Things’ first episode felt a little more like a somewhat more family-friendly movie — perhaps a PG or a 12 at most. Any violent aspects were de-emphasised in favour of depictions of close friendships between children, the adventurous souls that many ’80s kids had (partly as a result of the awesome movies we had to enjoy) and the dysfunctional nature of many nuclear families.

Stranger Things’ first episode centred around the disappearance of a young boy who had… something happen to him on his way home from a game of Dungeons and Dragons with his friends. His sudden disappearance allows us the opportunity to meet his single mother and older brother as well as the more traditional (albeit extremely dysfunctional) family of one of his friends as they struggle to determine what happened to him. The local police force also gets involved, and in true small-town ’80s America movie tradition, they’re all seemingly lazy and incompetent, but buck their ideas up sharpish when something genuinely serious finally happens in this sleepy little town.

There’s also a touch of high school drama through the older sister of one of the central kids, who has just begun a relationship with a boy who appears to be one of the “cool” kids. In true ’80s movie tradition, their relationship revolves a lot around seeing one another in secret, even though many people — including her younger brother — know exactly what they’re up to. And there’s a strong sense that the boyfriend is very much the sexual “aggressor” in their relationship, for want of a better word, while the sister Nancy herself is keen not to get distracted from her studies; again, this is typical of ’80s movies, which often had not-so-well-hidden messages of abstinence buried in them.

And on top of all that, there’s a mysterious organisation of scientists, because there was always a mysterious organisation of scientists in ’80s movies, and some sort of weird, possibly otherworldly biological horror. And a girl with apparent telekinetic powers who escaped from their clutches.

It felt like Stranger Things was trying to cram as many ’80s movie tropes as possible into its 50-minute first episode — almost too many — but it managed to do so without buckling under its own weight, and without being too self-conscious or self-referential about it. What it ended up being was a remarkably authentic-feeling slice of ’80s nostalgia that offered enough intriguing little plot threads to make me very keen to see what happened next. It never felt over the top or overt with its ’80s references; it was just when it was set, and everything about it supported that setting, right down to the fact it looks like it was shot on film rather than video.

I’m looking forward to seeing where the show develops from its strong first episode. I’m expecting great things. Strange things, even.

2401: Episodes

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I’ve just finished watching the first season of a Showtime show called Episodes, which is available on Netflix. It stars Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Greig as a husband and wife writer duo who head to LA to make an American version of their successful (fictional) British sitcom Lyman’s Boys, only to discover that taking a show across the pond isn’t an entirely straightforward affair. Along the way they become involved with a number of colourful characters, most notably a fictionalised version of Matt LeBlanc played by ol’ Joey himself.

The overall tone of the show is pretty much what you’d expect from something Greig and Mangan are involved with, and they’re perfectly cast in their roles as Beverly and Sean Lincoln. LeBlanc, too, is excellent, with his characterisation being made up of a combination of the popular stereotypes about him — or rather, about his most fondly-remembered part, Joey from Friends — and a surprising amount of depth and moral ambiguity.

The show is deeply critical of the way American TV networks and showbusiness in general do things. Initially brought to LA on the assurance that network executive “Merc” is in love with their show, Sean and Beverly subsequently discover that very little of what they’ve been told is true. Merc hasn’t seen their show and lots of people already have their own opinions on how best to “Americanise” the whole thing. Most notable is the casting of LeBlanc in the lead role of the headmaster Lyman, who was, in the original British version, an erudite, witty, portly and middle-aged man who developed a strong bond with his young male charges and a doomed infatuation with his school’s lesbian librarian. After a number of “suggestions” and changes far beyond Sean and Beverly’s control, what was once called Lyman’s Boys and was about a headmaster in a boys’ boarding school subsequently becomes Pucks!, a show about a lacrosse coach who is in love with a not-at-all-lesbian librarian.

Despite everything, Pucks! actually turns out to be a rather good show that test audiences respond well to, but the stress that piles on top of Sean and Beverly brings the pair of them almost to breaking point on numerous occasions. Sean’s developing friendship with LeBlanc and his overactive libido leads him to consider playing away from Beverly with Morning, the much-older-than-she-looks-but-still-smoking-hot actress who plays the librarian in Pucks!, but ultimately his own sense of integrity wins out. This doesn’t stop Beverly from overreacting and completely misreading the situation, however, leading to some spectacular tensions being released in the last episode of the first season.

Episodes is effective because, for the most part, it relies on a distinctly modern British approach to situation comedy. That is to say, it errs more on the side of comedy-drama than playing out setpieces for laughs. There’s an air of restraint that runs through the whole programme, which makes moments like the furious and rather incompetent fight between Sean and LeBlanc in the last episode all the more effective, because they are symptomatic of how the show depicts “the British condition” as a whole: bottling everything up inside, then releasing it in a spectacular frenzy when it all gets too much. LeBlanc even comments on this in the middle of the whole situation that he is, in part, to blame for: “Man, I can’t get over how you guys fight,” he says. “When we fight, it’s just all ‘fuck you’, ‘fuck you’, ‘no, fuck YOU’…”

With everything I’ve said there, you’d probably be right to assume that Episodes isn’t a show that everyone will find entirely palatable. It’s rather brutally honest and plays a lot on awkward situations that some viewers might find uncomfortable to witness. It builds tension between the characters absolutely masterfully, only releasing it when it’s absolutely at breaking point. And, as a critique of the falseness of showbusiness, it does its job extremely well.

Very interested to see how the subsequent seasons go, since the first season ended on a suitably infuriating cliffhanger.

2371: Bad Education

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My favourite thing about Netflix is the fact that it allows you to try out various series that you might not have thought to take a look at when they were on TV, nor do you feel inclined to go and pick up a DVD or Blu-Ray of them, but which nonetheless intrigued you for one reason or another. Because you’re not paying for the series itself — it’s just part of your Netflix subscription — you can try things out, and if they’re shit, well, you just stop watching them; and if they’re good, you can enjoy them to your heart’s content on your own terms.

Such was the case with Bad Education, a show originally broadcast on BBC Three. Something being broadcast on BBC Three is more often than not an immediate signal that it’s going to be shit, but since I’ve always had a certain affinity for media of any kind — books, games, films, TV series, anime, visual novels — set in a school environment, I was very much curious about it. And I’ve been pleased to discover that it’s actually not shit. It’s actually some pretty solid — and unabashedly offensive — situation comedy, albeit almost totally divorced from the reality of working in education.

Jack Whitehall stars as Alfie Wickers, an incompetent History teacher who seems rather more concerned with being friends with his (unrealistically small!) form group than actually doing his job properly. Nonetheless, he does care about the kids’ education in his own way, with many of his escapades concluding in some sort of life lesson being learned by them — or, more frequently, by him.

Alfie’s class is probably the highlight of the show, because it’s the most believable, realistic part of it, miniscule size aside. Speaking from the perspective of a former teacher, I can say with confidence that they’re the very picture of the class that every school has who are a bit shit at everything — apart from one extremely clever student, whose very presence at a school as shit as that seems completely out of place — but you can’t help but like. They remind me very much of class 9VN that I taught in the first school I worked in; for the first few weeks, I thought they were complete shitheads and would never get anything done with them, so appalling was their behaviour and attitude towards Music lessons… and then we discovered that they had a curious affinity for singing songs from musicals. So that’s what we did. Or rather, that’s what most of them did, while I set the few kids who were actually interested in studying music at GCSE and beyond to some other assignments. The class as a whole ended up being one of the few I actually look back on with a certain degree of fondness.

As for the show itself, it’s very much a comedy with a certain degree of surrealism to it. In the second season in particular, it reminds me very much of the gloriously bizarre Green Wing, especially due to the presence of Michelle Gomez, who was also in Green Wing and plays pretty much the exact same character in Bad Education. Its seeming homage to Green Wing is emphasised through chaotic, time-distorted interstitial scenes with heavy visual filters on them to denote the passing of time or the simple division between story beats in the episode — though this only really becomes a thing in the second series, where the show as a whole seems to have a much stronger sense of its identity and what it’s trying to do.

The supporting cast is solid, too. Matthew Horne’s woefully terrible (and “banter”-obsessed) headmaster Fra$er [sic] is cringeworthy in the extreme in a sort of David Brent manner, but somehow just manages to stay the right side of believable within the context of the show. Harry Enfield is excellent as Alfie’s father. And Sarah Solemani’s portrayal of Wickers’ love interest Rosie Gulliver brings a much-needed “straight man” to the proceedings, though her characterisation is a bit meandering — in particular, her short-lived dalliance with a lesbian side-plot doesn’t really go anywhere, and the show subsequently returns to the admittedly solid foundation of the “will they, won’t they” relationship between her and Alfie that has been the basis of many a successful sitcom over the years.

Bad Education isn’t the best show on television by a long shot, but it’s laugh out loud funny, well cast and snappily written. For a BBC Three show, it’s god-tier. For something you just want to whack on while you veg out in front of the television, it’s solid. As a scathing critique of the modern educational system in the UK, you may want to look elsewhere!

2325: Science Club

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I’ve never thought of myself as particularly “scientifically minded” — I always felt like I hated maths at school, although thinking about it I did end up doing reasonably well at it at GCSE level, and I did actually genuinely enjoy science lessons — but in the last few years in particular I’ve found myself very interested in TV shows that deal with scientific principles, preferably in an entertaining sort of way.

There are a few shows I have in mind for this sort of thing which if you, like me, are interested in generic sciencey things but perhaps don’t have the opportunity to study them as a career (or as a hobby), you might want to check out.

First up is Brainiac, which I’m pretty sure I’ve talked about on these pages before. Brainiac is a show that aired on satellite channel Sky One between 2003 and 2008. Featuring Richard Hammond (best known for Top Gear and Total Wipeout) in the presenter’s chair, sternly reminding viewers Not To Try This At Home, the show was designed to be “science entertainment” in that it set up all manner of experiments with genuine scientific principles in mind, but executed them with a fair degree of tongue in cheek. This made it both genuinely interesting and informative to watch as well as being something you could just chill out in front of and have a good laugh with. Despite having watched most of the episodes several times, I happily return to it every so often; it’s a pity it’s not on a service like Netflix for some better quality videos — I have to rely on dodgy downloads or YouTube at present.

Next up is Mythbusters, an American show which takes nuggets of popular wisdom and puts them to the test in various ways. The show’s hosts have a background in special effects, so they often make use of this knowledge to perform their experiments in unnecessarily spectacular ways. It takes a little while to get into the show’s groove if you’re not accustomed to the hosts’ rather dry, deadpan sense of humour, but it’s very entertaining and, again, informative if you pay attention to the science bits.

Finally is my most recent discovery, Dara O’Briain’s Science Club. O’Briain is primarily known as a comedian and host of topical panel show Mock the Week, but over the last few years he’s been spreading his wings a bit and taking on subjects such as mathematics and now science. He’s clearly a clever man, and he has some even cleverer friends who come out to play for Science Club. Each show focuses on a specific topic and explores it in detail, and the topics under the microscope (sorry) range from the human brain to the possibility of space travel and Mars colonisation. The show incorporates experiments, “live” studies involving the studio audience, documentary-style footage and layman’s explanations of complicated scientific concepts. It’s an extremely compelling show, and it’s probably a mistake for Andie and I to watch it when we’re trying to get to sleep, because it’s the kind of show you want to pay attention to!

And on that note, I’m off to bed to learn some science and perhaps, maybe, get some sleep.

2307: The Trip

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When I can’t sleep or am otherwise in a position where I am too mentally impaired to do anything active — in other words, all I want to do is stare dumbly at a screen — rather than, as some people do, put the TV on and just watch it, even if I’m not interested in what’s on, I like to trawl Netflix for things I’ve never seen and haven’t even heard of before, but which sound interesting.

I’ve discovered a bunch of interesting things this way, the last of which was the rather wonderful (if cringeworthy) W1A, and more recently I’ve been watching a show called The Trip, starring Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon.

The Trip is an interesting concept that builds on the fashionable “fake docudrama” trend that began with The Office. Casting Coogan and Brydon as fictionalised, exaggerated versions of themselves, the series follows them as they take a tour of the North of England, stopping at some of the supposed best restaurants in the region with a mind to writing an article for The Observer Magazine. Coogan’s original plan for the trip was to take it as a romantic getaway with his American girlfriend Misha, and still be able to use it as paying work, but prior to the start of the series, she moves back to the States to pursue her own career dreams in Hollywood, leaving Coogan more distraught and lonely than he’d care to admit, only inviting Brydon seemingly as a last resort.

The pair’s trip across the North is largely irrelevant to the main point of the show, though it does take in some of Northern England’s most spectacular sights, a number of which I hadn’t heard of before. Instead, the main aspect of the show is the relationship between Brydon and Coogan, and more specifically how Brydon’s easygoing nature and sense of contentment with his life — even as he is, according to Coogan’s standards, less successful than his friend — gradually draws out Coogan’s true feelings about his situation.

Brydon lives in a small but comfortable family home with his wife and children; Coogan lives in a fancy apartment in London by himself now that Misha is gone. Brydon enjoys his life and calls his wife just to hear her voice, flirt with her and occasionally get a bit down and dirty with her; Coogan calls Misha in the States, sometimes forgetting the timezone difference, sometimes not respecting what she wants, perpetually unusure of what he wants. Brydon brings a sense of levity to any situation he’s in, often filling uncomfortable silences with his (admittedly impressive) impersonations of famous people — something which Coogan is forever frustrated that he’s just not quite as good at as Brydon; Coogan takes everything much too seriously, sometimes admonishing Brydon for his happy-go-lucky approach to life, sometimes clearly wanting to say what’s really on his mind and on one — only one — occasion frustrating a for-once quiet Brydon, who just wants to enjoy the scenery, with a lengthy geological explanation of how the Malham Cove limestone pavement came to be.

The contrast between Coogan and Brydon is potent; it shows two ways you can approach modern life. You can follow Brydon’s path, which is arguably the most traditional, straightforward, unambitious path, and enjoy a happy, contented life while never quite attaining true dizzy heights of, say, stardom or being the top of your field. Or you can follow Coogan’s path, which is a much more significant gamble: throw everything you have into trying to be the best in your field that you can be, and run the risk of being frustrated that other people can’t see what you know about yourself. Coogan’s frustration — outright depression, at times — at his situation is downright heartbreaking; his gamble hasn’t at all paid off, though he does have the opportunity to make one final one by moving to the States with Misha to do a pilot TV show for HBO. By the end of the first season, however, Brydon has clearly rubbed off on him: after what is clearly an agonising session of soul-searching, he decides not to take that gamble, and instead — presumably — to focus on making himself happy rather than continually being let down by his life and the people he thought he cared about.

The Trip is a funny show; it’s a comedy at heart, and the interactions between Brydon and Coogan are well-written, snappy and genuinely amusing. But there are considerably more tragic undertones with Coogan’s own personal journey as the titular trip continues. While Coogan comes across as an arrogant dickhead at the start of the show — and still bears this character trait to a certain extent at the end — as the episodes proceed and we get an occasional glimpse into what he’s really thinking and feeling, it’s hard not to feel bad for him, and the contrast between how his and Brydon’s respective lives have turned out is certainly thought-provoking.

I haven’t yet watched the second season, but on the strength of the first, I’m very interested to. If you like well-written, fairly gentle, character-driven comedy drama with more than a slight tinge of pathos — as many other good comedies have — then The Trip is well worth your time to take on.