New Half-Hour Comedy: Russian Doll, Derry Girls, The Other Two and Sally4Ever.

There’s a fine line between “passion project” and “vanity vehicle”. You’ve really got to love Natasha Lyonne’s shtick to fall for Russian Doll, her undoubtedly original and committed half-hour eight-part comedy / drama on Netflix that may also be outrageously indulgent. I was out after two episodes; your mileage may vary, and I would warrant, on your love for Lyonne’s vibe.

She plays Nadia, a hard-partying Manhattan-based video game coder having a strange episode that may be drug-related, a mental illness, or supernatural. Essentially, she’s suffering from Groundhog’s Day Disease; she keeps dying and coming back to life at exactly the same moment. Naturally, this is freaking her out, and rather than use her endless loop to woo a pretty girl as Bill Murray did, she seeks professional help.

Lyonne plays Nadia as an old Jewish comedian from the Catskills would. Seriously. It’s an outrageous, very big, very bold performance that is so loud and intense it wore me out. As did the repetitive party scenes which Nadia keeps returning to. The series has a definite voice, utilising its vibrant Manhattan streetscapes well and plenty of intriguing music choices, but by the end of ep two it felt more exciting for the creators than for me.

Netflix’s Derry Girls will tire you out, but after a breather I warrant you’ll be back for more. Set in Northern Ireland – specifically, County Derry – in the early 1990s, it follows the daily trials and tribulations of a group of four sixteen year old girls and one of their male cousins as they navigate (very Catholic) school, family, and The Troubles. The girls’ performances are all big big big – especially Nicola Coughlan, whose face never stops twitching – and the humour is as broad as the  River Foyle, but it works in small doses. The dialogue is the fastest on television, and for every gag that doesn’t land there’s one that does. The whole thing is also very sweet; by the end of ep two, I felt not only for these girls, but for their friendship, and that’s the key to the show. The milieu is also fascinating, and fascinatingly used; soldiers, guns, bombs and fear are ever-present, but as such, also somehow everyday, mundane, and often the source of humour. Great fun.

For easy-going good times in a mellow tone, Foxtel’s The Other Two goes down like a butterscotch candy. It’s a show-business satire with warmth and colour but very little bite. Heléne York and Drew Tarver play adult siblings whose younger brother, 13 year old Chase (Case Walker), has become an overnight YouTube sensation a la Justin Bieber. Since their own artistic aspirations  are mitigated by total failure, they’re ripe for a spot of jealous intrigue and possible career sabotage, but so far the show is sweeter than that. Rather than make Chase a monster, so far he’s a very nice boy, and his older siblings, now stuck in his shadow, still adore him. It’ll be interesting if things are allowed to go a little off the rails; if not, the show’s sweetness may be its undoing. It’s not funny enough to get by on laughs alone. Interestingly, the siblings’ dynamic (and the Manhattan setting) recall the recently and tragically cancelled Difficult People, which really did have an edge.

Julia Davis’ work certainly has edge; her 2016 show Camping was uncomfortably brilliant (NB: not the recent US remake). But her new one, Sally4Ever (also on Foxtel) is outrageously and unforgivably indulgent. Davis plays a truly awful compulsive liar, Emma, who worms her way into the life of mousy Sally (Catherine Shepherd, doing surprisingly subtle work) and upends it. Sally is discovering same-sex sex for the first time and seems absolutely obsessed with it; there’s no other real way to justify her continuing acceptance of Emma, who is the most obnoxious screen character since David Brent (and who exists in his shadow). Essentially the show provides one set-up for Davis to improvise after another, and once we “get it” – that Emma’s the worst – it becomes terribly wearing. If you really still love to cringe, that’s all this show is about; after five eps I really couldn’t take it anymore.

Succession

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HBO’s Succession, now airing (and available for full-season download) on Foxtel, is not only the best season of television of the year, it is one of the best debut seasons of television I’ve ever seen, up there with the first seasons of Deadwood, Spiral and The Wire. It’s entertainment on a grand scale, what you may call Shakespearean, dealing, as he did, with humanity’s foibles through the prism of the very rich and powerful. It is also incredibly funny, which may not be apparent from its signifiers: it’s an hour-long show, it’s got a cast of actors mainly known for dramatic roles, and it looks, from stills and trailers, like a drama. But its pedigree is not only very much comedic, its golden.

The creator is Jesse Armstrong, a very English comic author whose crowning work, before Succession, was fifteen episodes of The Thick of It and the screenplay for the movie that accompanied that incredible series, In The Loop (co-written with Thick of It co-conspirators Armando Iannucci, Tony Roche and Simon Blackwell). If you know those, you’ll recognise that Armstrong (along with his collaborative team) is a spectacular creator of character-based, intelligent humour, spectacular dialogue, and an uncanny knowledge of the workings of power. All those combine magnificently in this season of television, this magnum opus.

The writing is sweeping, kaleidoscopic, vibrant, sharp and all kinds of outrageous, as well as being remarkably empathetic given the base-line venality of the characters. That’s the thing about Succession that you really need to know in order to take the plunge, and ride out the first few episodes which are very important to building this incredible world’s foundations: even though you may hate these characters, you’re going to weirdly end up loving each and every one of them, because they may not be good human beings, but they’re ludicrously good characters.

From the top down, the acting bench is uncommonly deep. Brian Cox, as a Murdoch-styled patriarch, lords over the action in the role his entire illustrious career has prepared him for. Australia’s own Sarah Snook is fascinatingly complicated as his only daughter, Kieran Culkin weird, funny and tragic as his cheeky, woefully unfocused youngest son. Jeremy Strong, who worked with episode one director and series executive producer Adam McKay on The Big Short, is quite brilliant as Kendall, the son who is meant to inherit the empire but keeps screwing it up; it’s an ensemble show but at the end of the day – and season one – it’s Kendall’s story and Strong is the lead, his relatively “unknown” status as an actor contributing effectively to Kendall’s mercurial, slippery, unknowable nature: is he dumb as an ox, smart as a whip, spoiled, ruined, traumatised, or just a brat? He’s all; they’re all all; the writing is encyclopaedic and the playing fully committed.

Then there’s Matthew Macfadyen, an outsider playing an outsider, the love interest to Sarah Snook, a sycophant to Brian Cox’s Logan Roy, giving the funniest performance of the year. Strong may carry the show’s weightiest dramatic burdens but Macfadyen is given the responsibility of delivering some of the best lines Armstrong’s ever written, and he’s written a lot. If you know Macfadyen as the tall, incredibly British lead from Spooks or Pride and Prejudice then his wicked performance is all the funnier. It’s masterly work, worthy of a multiple awards. (Weirdly, the only Golden Globe nomination for this undeniably accomplished series is for Culkin, who is the only “American star” in the cast, which makes the Globes once again guilty of star-f***ing, of which the people in this series would probably approve).

What else can I say? That the season concludes so perfectly that I was shaking my head with wonder at Armstrong’s plotting genius? That Nicholas Britell’s magisterial score had me replaying the opening credits over and over? That we haven’t even mentioned “Cousin Greg?” This is some of the best television I’ve ever seen. Don’t miss it.

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TV: Big Mouth, Norsemen, Trust

Two extremely clever, original and defiantly edgy half-hour comedies return to Netflix for their second seasons. Big Mouth, from creator Nick Kroll, is an animated look at every uncomfortable, mortifying, terrifying aspect of puberty. A group of American teenagers are going through it, egged on by their own, literal, hormone monsters; masturbation, menstruation and everything else is covered in graphic and lurid detail, with mostly very funny results. Deliberately over the top, everyone whose been through all this mess can relate, but some may not want to go back there; it could be just too painful.

Meanwhile, Norsemen is a Norwegian spoof of that country’s Viking history, and often extremely funny. It’s the closest show I’ve ever seen to old-school Monty Python humour: dry, absurd, and played straight. It’s also in English; somehow, that makes it funnier and more charming (and a Norwegian friend of mine agrees). The series doesn’t shy away from the Vikings’ predilection for invasion, pillaging and rape, and there is occasional gore, but always deployed for humorous effect. There is also intrigue, a love quadrangle, ancient ritual, a psychotic villain and stunning locations. The large ensemble cast are all superb; many of them have been seen as cops, politicians, soldiers and bad guys in Nordic noir, and it’s a delight to see them here, being delightfully, unapologetically silly. Terrific.

Simon Beaufoy and Danny Boyle’s Trust (FOXTEL) shares a lot of story DNA with Sir Ridley Scott’s All The Money In The World from last year. Both take J. Paul Getty’s response to his grandson John Paul Getty III’s kidnapping in Rome in 1973 as their general plot, and there are certainly similarities; in both, the rich old man is portrayed as a miserly controlling creep, and his seat of power, a mansion in England, is a prime location in both. But Trust, at ten hours, obviously has a lot more room, and on the basis of the first two episodes it is clear Boyle’s going to use it. He’s always been interested in money and its effect on people, and J. Paul, played exquisitely by Donald Sutherland, gives him a marvelous monster to sic amongst a large cast of family and employees (J. Paul, like many of the über-rich, didn’t have friends), each of whom is subservient and sycophantic to, rebellious against, or disgusted by him to varying degrees. The production design is stunning and the story massively entertaining (and quite lurid). Typical of his work, Boyle is superb at character delineation; this is a big universe but everyone is exquisitely and clearly defined. It’s also funny, a lot more than Scott’s somber movie.