Attitudes about TV comedy are an ever-evolving thing. For decades, the most popular, respected version of the form was done in the style of “I Love Lucy”: shot on a stage in front of a live studio audience who were prompted to laugh early and often. Even on the occasion where a comedy was put on film with no audience, a laugh track would be added later. There were rhythms to the jokes, and to the way each scene flowed to the next, that became a familiar, beloved language among the audience.
So when half-hour shows would deviate from that style, and that language, viewers and/or critics often didn’t know what to make of them. The late ’80s saw the rise of what came to be called “dramedies,” shows (Dabney Coleman in “The Slap Maxwell Story,” John Ritter in “Hooperman,” Blair Brown in “The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd”) that weren’t long enough or heavy enough to quite be branded as dramas, but that didn’t have the steady stream of jokes (not to mention a laugh track) to clearly identify them as comedies.
The last decade or so has seen the rise of more popular and/or critically-acclaimed laugh track-less comedies, sometimes in a mockumentary style (“The Office,” “Modern Family”), sometimes not (“Malcolm in the Middle,” “Arrested Development”). The traditional multi-camera sitcoms are still capable of great popularity (“Two and a Half Men” and “The Big Bang Theory” are among the most-watched comedies on television), but there are fewer of them made than their used to be, and each new one in that mold tends to be greeted with disdain by many critics and younger viewers, who have come to view the set-up/joke style as lazy and irritating – a language that’s outlived its usefulness.
That style is definitely creaky, but good work is still possible in that format. (The laughs I get from “Big Bang Theory” often feel hollow, but I’m laughing.) And at the same time, the new style of comedy can feel just as tired and formulaic if it’s not done right, as viewers can see with the American debut of “Twenty Twelve” tonight at 9 on BBC America.
The series, starring Hugh Bonneville from “Downton Abbey” and Jessica Hynes from “Spaced,” follows the members of a British government committee tasked with organizing the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. They have impressive titles – Bonneville’s Ian is Head of Deliverance, and Hynes’ Siobhan is Head of Brand – and lofty goals, but their abilities and luck often prevent them from living up to them.
The first episode, for instance, mainly deals with the plan to celebration One Thousand Day Day, in which the countdown begins for 1000 days until the Games, as symbolized by a gigantic clock built by a local conceptual artist. It becomes clear in a hurry that Siobhan has no idea how the thing works, and only in part because the artist designed it wrong. It also turns out that her web designer can’t spell the word “Olympic,” that traffic expert Graham (Karl Theobald) can’t figure out how to ease London’s chronic traffic problems, or that even the more dignified, respectable Ian (who, again, is played by Lord Grantham from “Downton Abbey”) is really up to the huge task in front of him.
There are game performers here, and an occasionally inspired joke – like a rivalry that develops between the committee members and the Portugese translator they’ve employed to deal with a visiting delegation from Brazil – but for the most part, “Twenty Twelve” is very soft, very familiar satire. If you’ve seen any Christopher Guest-directed movie(*), you will be able to guess the many, many ways that everything the committee attempts will go wrong. And even the ways that each individual crisis escalates – say, that the bus carrying the committee and the Brazilians to the Olympic stadium keeps getting lost – are presented in a fairly limp, predictable fashion.
(*) Okay, maybe not “Almost Heroes,” but the other ones.
Not helping matters is the use of former “Doctor Who” star David Tennant as narrator of the documentary. It’s a pleasure to hear Tennant’s native Scottish accent wrap itself around phrases like “Perfect Curve” (the name of Siobhan’s PR firm), but the narration is mostly used to underline various bits of satire that were already obvious, or to make sure we’re ready for the joke that we can all see coming. It may fit the documentary aesthetic, but it hamstrings jokes that already can’t afford to be slowed down.
It’s not a painful comedy and from time to time is genuinely clever. Ian spends an episode planning a weekend getaway with his wife, but, as Tennant explains, “It’s subsequently been rebranded as a romantic mini-break, which is a lot more complicated.” And the committee’s difficulty in thinking up a torchbearer who would make them feel proud to feel British is a simple joke, but presented in good, dry fashion.
I often hear fans of traditional sitcoms (and/or the people who used to work on them) complain that mockumentaries and other single-camera comedies get a free ride from critics because they’re newer, and because the format is more forgiving. A show like “Twenty Twelve” embodies those complaints. It’s just as formulaic in its own way as your average mediocre multi-camera sitcom, but because it’s in a trendier style and presented without a laugh track, it’s easier to shrug off its flaws.
Ultimately, format shouldn’t matter, because funny is funny. And “Twenty Twelve” is ultimately too safe and predictable to be funny enough for the time spent watching it.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org