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.