Joking Apart - The Complete First Series (DVD)
The story behind this release has been well publicised - fan of the show sets up his own company, and releases the show himself. All extremely laudable, and the guy has to be praised for even getting this far. But the question remains - is the release worth buying?
Packaging & Menus
I'll be honest. I'm not that keen on the visual design of either of them.
However - this is due to the fact that they're both based on the title sequence. And I think the title sequence for the show is possibly the worst I've ever seen for a sitcom - dull, ugly, and... well, just a bit shabby, really. The whole logo and pages motif just don't work. You can't, however, blame a DVD cover or its menus for basing themselves on it, though - they are supposed to represent the series, after all, and for a show with little other graphical material available, there's little else that could have been done. To be fair, the back cover works a bit better - although the chapter listings on the inside of the cover could have been more readable. Blue on dark yellow just doesn't work that well, especially with the busy background.
As for the menus, the same thing applies - although in general, it does work slightly better. It's perhaps slightly irritating that you have to sit through a 30 second unskippable montage at the start, and if I was being really picky, it's slightly annoying the subtitles selection is on a pointless separate screen - a common complaint when it comes to DVD releases. Why it can't just be switchable from the main menu I don't know.
Apart from this though, the design is fine - Episode Selection, into Chapter Selection, which pleasingly has chapter titles - it always seems cheap when they're just numbered. As for the extras menu, you've got the Fool If You Think It's Over featurette, and excellently - the commentary tracks, where you simply select one of the four episodes which have commentaries, and off you go. This is far better done than on some DVDs where it's on a separate Setup menu, which can just end up being fiddly.
I won't waste my time repeating the premise of the show: see Lewisohn for that. But the series is, in a word: superb.
I knew Moffat could write sitcom - I seem to be about one of ten people in the entire world who think Chalk was fantastic - but despite me thinking I know ALL ABOUT COMEDY, I'd only vaguely heard of Joking Apart. Going into it, I certainly had high expectations given the pedigree - and I was not disappointed.
In an odd way, the show shouldn't work. The premise: a comedy writer going through a divorce. Written by, erm, a comedy writer going through a divorce. It should be self-indulgent and just not work - but Moffat is such a good writer that he more than pulls it off (ho). As he says in the commentary, this is mainly because the fact that Mark is a comedy writer is put firmly into the background, turning it into a more general tale.
I really want to go on for hours about how good the show is, but to say a huge amount would really ruin it for those of you who haven't seen it - and the show is just too good for me to do that to you. Suffice it say it manages to both say Some Interesting Things About Relationships, and be spectacularly funny. As Moffat has said:
"If you're watching Fawlty Towers you're thinking, 'God, that's very, very funny lots of times' - why can't a show be like that?' So I just took a leap into farce immediately, because I was also trying to be extremely funny as much of the time as possible. I'm not saying it was as good as Fawlty Towers, but that's what I was trying to do."
Something all sitcom writers would do well to emulate: be extremely funny as much of the time as possible. You would think people wouldn't need reminding of this fact...
But not only are the jokes there, but the character development is excellent too. Just take Tracey, who in the first episode comes across as the ditzy blonde... and yet by episode five has changed into something altogether more interesting - and yet totally believable. The acting is of a universally high standard - no weak links here. And Bathurst was a revelation to me - he clearly hasn't had the opportunities he deserves, as he carries the show effortlessly, not putting a foot wrong, whether it's the overt comedy stuff, the more serious stuff, or (as so often in this series) a painful and hilarious mix of the two.
As for the plotting: Moffat really is a master of writing farce, and complicated plots, all beautifully building to a crescendo at the end of an episode - and yet never losing sight of the character moments. It is, frankly, a master class in how to write sitcom.
To be honest, I can only think of two duff notes. The first I've already mentioned - the excerable title sequence. (My darling girlfriend also objects to the sig tune - especially the saxaphone at the start, which she calls "offensive and unnecessary". I quite like it, though, so she can fuck off.) The second is the stand-up bits that pepper the show - occasionally they can be quite enlightening, but more often than not, they get in the way, and simply remind me of something I shouldn't be when watching a sitcom: a bad comedian. It's interesting to note from the extras then, that:
a) Moffat doesn't like them,
b) Bathurst doesn't like them,
c) They were meant to be reshot anyway - but weren't due to lack of money.
All of which makes them rather more bearable - and certainly not a mis-step that ruins the show. It's also interesting to note that the sequences are supposed to be in Mark's head - something that I didn't get whilst watching the show, and only found out during the extras, where Moffat admits it's a problem. (A half-hearted attempt at smearing the edge of the picture to indicate this just Does Not Work.) When viewing the shows again with this knowledge, it does improve the sequences somewhat.
Also: any show that includes this shot has to be worth watching.
On four episodes, with Moffat, Bathurst, Gillies and Bennett. And very entertaining it is too, with Moffat continually pointing out geeky things that only about 10 people in the country would care about. It's perhaps slightly odd to only do it on four of the episodes - if you're going to do that many, it's usual to do all six - presumably this was either studio time, or just that the group didn't feel they had enough to say to stretch across all six. Whatever - four is a very respectable number (releases like the first series of Maid Marian only managed one, which is infuriating), and they're very entertaining. And you've got to love a commentary that ends up talking about two members of the cast pissing over each other.
Moffat does bring up something interesting at the end of the Episode 4 commentary - that he thinks the show would have worked better as a single camera show, but unfortunately doing it in front of an audience "was the style at the time". I fundamentally disagree with this - and not just because I have a love of traditionally shot sitcoms. Firstly, it's a farce - traditionally a theatrical genre, not a filmic one - and one that definitely benefits from the reaction of an audience, if only to help the actors, and give them something to play against. Shooting multi-camera also keeps the energy of the piece up, vital for farce - endless retakes can ruin this.
Secondly - part of the reason I like Joking Apart is that it almost subverts the sitcom; instead of being a romantic comedy, it's an anti-romantic comedy. Making it single-camera would lessen this. The shocking moments in the show (there's a particularly unpleasant bit in Episode 3, where Mark corners Becky - in a very sexually threatening way that I've never seen before in sitcom) would seem far less shocking when put more into the context of a comedy drama. Moffat may feel that the audience laughter brings you out of the reality of the piece, but for me, it doesn't - it's just a TV convention like any other. And farce is a heightened reality to say the least anyway - it's not like it's intruding on a kitchen sink drama.
There. That's MY opinion.
Fool If You Think It's Over Documentary
A perfectly informative 20 minutes, looking behind-the-scenes of the show - with plenty of clips, and interviews with the same core team that did the commentaries. It does have the slightly irritating habit of cutting to a second, grainy camera, with fake •REC graphics over it - either this was a stylistic choice, or possibly a way of using a second lower-quality camera to help disguise edits. I found it very irritating for the first five minutes (it reminds me all to much of that horrible habit people used to have of cutting to a second shaky black and white camera), but to be honest, I soon ceased to notice it too much.
The other problem with the documentary is that it repeats lots of points that have also been made in the commentaries - rendering it slightly less interesting than it should be. For all that, it's a nice little featurette to have.
There is one thing very obviously missing from this release - the Comic Asides pilot, shown in 1991 - two years before the series itself debuted. (The script is nearly identical to the first episode, and indeed, the first episode reuses some scenes from the pilot.) Even on otherwise extrasless releases - A Bit Of Fry and Laurie, for instance - we at least got the pilot show included.
But actually, them being otherwise extrasless releases is the entire point - you can fit seven half-hours onto one DVD. But as soon as you start adding things like documentaries, bang goes the space for it, if you've just got a one disc to play with. And, in my one concession in this review to Replay being a one man band - with all the risks and expense involved in getting this release out as it stands now... you can kinda see why he didn't want to go down the two disc road, eh?
Still, if this release is a success, it's a definite candidate for inclusion on the Series 2 release. And if the release is really successful, perhaps we could hope for a two disc set for Series 2. Whilst there might not be much contemporary material, there must be trailers and stuff that have survived as off-airs that could be included. And who knows, perhaps some studio material has survived that could be used - either the original studio tapes, or some VHSes. It might be worth doing a bit of rooting around.
One extra that would be lovely to include is an episode of something Moffat mentions in the commentary - the Portuguese version of the show. This was completely reshot with a new cast, not just redubbed - and, intriguingly, tells the story in a linear way, rather than using flashbacks, making the divorce come rather out of the blue, and being rather too gut-wrenching, according to Moffat. I suspect this would be impractical to licence, however.
Not that I want all this talk to detract from this release - far from it. It's superb, and despite the odd issue with the documentary, and my odd complaint above - well worth you buying. And I'd be saying this even if it was a high-profile BBC release. One of the best sitcoms I've ever seen, combined with excellent extras that actually do what extras are supposed to do - help you understand the thought processes behind the making of the show. And it's something to be applauded, that one person can get this release out with extras that help celebrate the show, when plenty of series that deserve to be celebrated - Hi-De-Hi!, for instance - are put out as a bog-standard extrasless release. This release certainly deserves to sell well - and I hope it does. Because as much as anything else, I desperately want the second series to be released.
And after that, perhaps Replay could consider releasing that other great sitcom about a writer - Colin's Sandwich...