You Can Choose Your Friends
It's fair to say that Richard Herring (of TV's You Can Choose Your Friends) receives much love around NTS parts. Whether downloading his older work, attending his stand up shows, or simply reading his blog on an obsessively daily basis, his unique brand of offense-based satire is always welcome. Still, it's clear that not everyone feels that way, because as he'd be first to admit, it's been a long, long time since anyone let him on TV. For whatever reason, Herring is no longer considered the giant of alternative comedy that he once was, and until recently has been sticking to the backroads of the mainstream, doing stand-up and radio with all the other people too old or ugly to stand in front of a camera.
That was until last night, when Herring once again managed to force his way into your living room. I speak metaphorically, of course, he didn't literally force his way into your living room, although for all I know he might have, because if I'm being honest I can't rule out entirely the possibility that he is, in fact, a career criminal, breaking into houses to support a less-than-lucrative stint in comedy and that yesterday, of all days, he did indeed sneak into your house and steal your ageing VCR under the mistaken belief it was still valuable enough to take to Cash Converters, or at least swap down the pub for a free drink, the poor confused fool. But certainly, I feel confident in saying that he didn't break into my living room. He was allowed to appear by virtue of that magical box we call a television, in his first ITV1 Original Drama, You Can Choose Your Friends.
Now, the thing about Richard Herring is that most recently his more recent stand up routines involve fucking the stigmata of Christ and throwing the old onto bonfires. It's with some trepidation, then, that his fans approach his take on a light comedy about family relationships. The type of people this comedy is usually aimed at would almost appear to be the type of people he usually sees leaving his stand-up shows halfway through. The big question, then: Can Herring appeal to a broader audience while still retaining his edge?
Still, with actors this good, it seems that the quality of the script needn't have mattered anyway. Some of Britain's finest TV actors have turned out to realise an incredibly eclectic cast that encompasses several generations, and does so brilliantly. Anton Rodgers as Ken Snell, the family's patriarch, should certainly be singled out as giving the best performance of all, bringing to the screen the benevolent and wise grandparent archetype we all hope to attain some day, while combining it with a father's need to keep his house in order, even if his children are all middle-aged now. Also worth mentioning are Sarah-Jane Potts (Sugar Rush) who is infinitely likable as the painfully attractive Chloe, Claire Skinner (Life Begins) as reluctant housewife Sally, and of course, Herring's newly-adopted protege, Tony Bignell, who clearly has a bright future ahead of him portraying both homosexuals and bisexuals as the role demands, as well as ensuring himself the butt of many a joke due to getting involved with that Herring chap. The sole weak link in the acting chain is, unfortunately, Herring himself, who hasn't entirely made the leap from comic to actor just yet. His performance, while not terrible by any stretch, is nonetheless noticeably more amateur than the rest.
Luckily, Herring has the advantage of playing a character very similar to himself in many ways. Ian Snell, the perpetual Twentysomething, gets almost all of the best lines, and allows Herring's comic barbs to fit in perfectly despite the mundane setting. That's how he manages to keep his trademark humour - by writing a character as willfully and perversely juvenile as he likes to be. In fact, it's so close, it's occasionally a little uncomfortable. Ian is fast-approaching 40, works in acting, and has an incredibly hot woman showing him with love and performing all manner of sexual favours on him. Herring is fast-approaching 40, is breaking into acting, and would presumably not be opposed to the rest of it. It's not unfair to assume Herring has written the life he hopes to have. Still, in the plus column, it's nice to see a take on a puerile, somewhat workshy character that doesn't have to involve a comeuppance at the end where they learn that they need to grow up - Ian, in fact, is the envy of most characters, with his relatively carefree life. It's an unpopular idea to say that perhaps getting married and having a family as quickly as possible isn't the only way to a satisfying life, and kudos to Herring for being willing to put that across.
The lack of any specific turning point for Ian's character, however, is reflected throughout the plots. Clearly produced with an eye towards a series, You Can Choose Your Friends does fail to provide any specific emotional climax to many of the conflicts presented within. If it goes to series, then certainly a lot of the things brought up in this 90-minute special could be expanded upon - will Chloe and Ian commit to a long-term relationship? Will Simon and Amanda repair their damaged marriage? Is Phoebe ever going to come out of her shell or is she doomed to the life of computer-obsessed, intellectual marginalisation that lesser people force their intellectual betters into, failing to recognise the genius in front of them and mocking them just because they like to read comics or because they don't like football or because they're quieter than everyone else, and frankly it's not my fault I don't have a loud voice, didn't they consider that some people just might not like to talk in class? It's unfair, is what it is! TOTALLY UNFAIR.
So, since You Can Choose Your Friends is clearly eyeing up long term prospects, it's fair to consider it on those grounds for a moment. A longer run would allow the resolution this initial episode lacks. Herring's acting would undoubtedly improve. It could definitely hold its own against similar competitors in the genre, that's for sure, and would, if nothing else, be about the only reason to watch ITV ever in the last ten years. However - let us not forget that it wasn't actually presented as a pilot. It was supposed to be an original and complete story. On that level, there's some element of disappointment. Without any big moment of catharsis, the bubbling tensions peter out leaving an unsatisfying conclusion to the whole affair. While it does make an intentional attempt to display family interaction as inevitably less dramatic than we imagine, it still doesn't excuse the lack of any arc for the viewer. The character of Chloe, especially, is so charming and immediately accepted, one can't help finding her a little one-dimensional weighed against the rest of the principal characters, who largely have both internal and external conflicts, where Chloe apparently has nothing but infinite patience, humour and selfessness.
It's definite new ground for Herring. He's kept his edge against the odds, and he's managed to realise a pretty broad situation in a way that should appeal to a wide audience. If anything, most of problems with it would pretty much be solved if ITV commissioned a series. The performance of the actors, combined with the excellent dialogue and jokes kept You Can Choose Your Friends from sinking - all it's going to take to keep it comfortably afloat is for Herring to look at structuring his plots so that they work in a slightly more self-contained way, and it could make the leap from decent to excellent.