It's the simplest idea imaginable: a blue collar family in England flops down on the couch and watches the telly. Quite literally, that's it for The Royle Family - The Complete First Season ($24.98; BBC Video). But that simple idea is executed so brilliantly that this wonderfully acted, hilariously funny sitcom takes its place proudly alongside classics like Fawlty Towers, Blackadder, Absolutely Fabulous, Monty Python's Flying Circus and the original UK version of The Office.
I'm not exaggerating: for half an hour, the Royles just sit there and watch the TV. It doesn't take long to sort out the cast. Jim Royle (Ricky Tomlinson) is a crotch-scratching, farting, man of the house with a million opinions and none higher than his opinion of himself. He rails against the high cost of living, though if he has any job it escapes notice. His wife Barbara (Sue Johnston) takes a job at the local bakery and is forever lighting up and crushing out cigarettes into an overflowing ashtray. She also has a gift for turning one word lines like "Oh" into multi-syllabic symphonies of concern, admiration, curiosity and whatever other emotion she can squeeze out of it. Their daughter Denise (co-creator Caroline Aherne) becomes more and more sluggish as the season wears on because she's "overwhelmed" with the prospect of marrying the stolid, unflappable Dave Best (co-creator Craig Cash). And underfoot of them all is teenager Antony (Ralf Little) who is abused as a lazy arse even though he is always the one who has to make the tea, empty the garbage, run down to the corner for ciggies, answer the phone and so on.
Like The Honeymooners, The Royle Family revels in repetition and grows richer on repeated viewing. Whenever anyone enters the house, Barbara asks what they had for tea and then parses the answer. ("Liver and onions? Ooooh.") The first season is so pitch-perfect and strikes such a delicate balance between revealing the lives of these people and letting absolutely nothing happen that you fear it should never have been repeated. (When was the last time you watched a US sitcom and thought it was so perfect you hoped they wouldn't make any more episodes?) What's remarkable is how the show manages to both skewer the narrow lives and banal existence of hard-drinking, hard-smoking families without ever condescending to them. A sly smile or a roll of the eyes is enough to take the sting out of the harshest comment and god knows any moment of genuine warmth will soon be undercut by a belly laugh.
The Royle Family - The Complete Second Season ($24.98; BBC Video) wisely expands on the formula. The show was so focused on that couch in the first season that when a scene takes place in the kitchen or at the dining room table or even the upstairs bathroom, it feels like an action sequence in a summer blockbuster. This time the storyline revolves around Denise being pregnant, a situation which turns the raspy voiced gal from sluggish to virtually immobile. But whatever they're discussing, it usually happens in the TV room and about the most anyone can ever bear to ask is that the TV be turned down or muted. God knows they would never think of turning it off. And if you're watching The Royle Family, you wouldn't either. An absolute gem. My only problem? They've yet to release Season Three here. Bloody hell.
Also out: Extras: The Complete Series ($49.98; HBO), Ricky Gervais's fine followup to The Office that was of course not as good but still far better than one might have feared; the long, long overdue DVD debut of Spike Lee's landmark She's Gotta Have It ($19.98; MGM); the stilted and silly An Affair To Remember ($19.98; Fox), which pales in comparison to the 1939 Love Affair version (what was awkward plot-wise in '39 became just laughable by '57) but is offered in a very nice 50th anniversary edition that will make Nora Ephron very happy; When Harry Met Sally Collector's Edition ($19.98; MGM), which I couldn't embrace in 1989 because it was so clearly in the shadow of Woody Allen but now that Woody Allen doesn't make Woody Allen movies anymore, this seems like a relief - at least it's Woody done pretty well; Syndromes and a Century ($27.99; Strand), a placid drama by the festival favorite Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul; two terrific B movies - It Came From Beneath The Sea and Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers ($24.96 each; Columbia) -- but the draw here isn't the unnecessary color-tinted option, it's the great prints and fun extras like Tim Burton chatting with special effects legend Ray Harryhausen; actor/director Cornel Wilde's The Naked Prey ($39.95; Criterion), a spin on the most dangerous game presented with Criterion's usual care; Julia Louis-Dreyfus' curse-be-damned sitcom hit The New Adventures of Old Christine ($29.98; Warner Bros.); two charmingly battered mystery solvers, The Rockford Files Season Five ($39.98; Universal) and antique dealer Lovejoy Complete Second Season ($49.98; BBC Video); The Ten ($26.98; City Lights), an unexpected comedic flipside to The Decalogue; the love-themed Be My Valentine, Charlie Brown ($19.98; Warner Bros.) which contains three Peanuts TV specials in all; Susan Sarandon slumming it in the "gym coach from hell" comedy Mr. Woodcock ($28.98; New Line); the klutzy comedy Good Luck Chuck ($29.95; Lions Gate), which would count as slumming for anyone but Dane Cook; Sidney Poitier's landmark In The Heat Of The Night ($19.98; MGM), which includes commentary by everyone except Poitier; the kiddie combat show Medabots - Complete First Season ($34.99; Shout); and I Am An Animal ($24.98; HBO), an unblinking look at PETA head Ingrid Newkirk.
So what's your favorite Britcom?
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