TV got better when I stopped reviewing it

That’s how it seemed to me, anyway. Once I left BBC Ceefax and when my Radio Times work became more news and less reviews, I felt that television drama and comedy took a lurch upwards.

Just saying this to you now makes me think of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle where if you measure something’s location, you affect its speed and vice versa.

But really all that happened, all that changed was that I no longer had to watch to the end of rubbish shows. So now I was only seeing series that I enjoyed.

Still, there is a thing about being required to watch TV and specifically to be required to watch to the end. Usually it’s a good thing, too, although again as my fingers type this to you my head has just flashed back to Harbour Lights. That was a 1999/2000 BBC drama by many good writers but you didn’t watch it. You can now: it’s on YouTube.

I watched it back before YouTube was imaginable. I remember this night so particularly clearly because I was trying to get ahead one week and this was the big launch, this was the big new show, clearly it was going to be the one reviewed and I had the tape right there. What I don’t remember is exactly what happened next but some other show get that night’s review slot and you are now reading the first words I’ve ever written about Harbour Lights.

But then there are the shows I probably wouldn’t have watched, might not have got around to watching, or wouldn’t have caught until years later.

I’m thinking of three of them.

Some time around 2003, I think it was, two DVDs with the Battlestar Galactica mini series came in to the Radio Times office. This is a TV show but it was funded by Sky and that broadcaster decided to put it out first on its movie channels. So RT wasn’t going to review it as television and the film team had already written a dismissive 50-word description broadly saying how rubbish television is compared to movies.

Then for some other reason I never knew, Sky delayed airing the movie. So those disks lay there on a desk for a week or more until one night when I was coming home to Birmingham by coach and had nothing to watch. You’re thinking I took those disks and loved them, but you’d be wrong.

I took one of the disks and was furious at myself because it was going to be a week before I could get the second.

Then let me take you back again to VHS tapes. I used to get piles of VHS tapes from the broadcasters and I particularly enjoyed going to collect them from the BBC Previews Department. Great people, I liked them tremendously, and on the supremely circuitous route you had to walk from Ceefax to their office, you went through the scenery bay where they kept the TARDIS.

This was long before Doctor Who came back and the new show built its own police box so this old one was just left there from affection. Plus you could store so much inside it.

I definitely got the Harbour Lights tape from them and just looking up air dates now, I think it’s possible that in the same week Channel 4 sent me Queer as Folk.

I don’t remember if I watched them on the same night. I do remember staying over in London in some B&B that had a TV set and a video. I remember being dog-tired. I remember being rather hungry. And I can see something like six VHS tapes in a pile that felt like the most enormous slog to get through.

Until I popped Queer as Folk in.

There’s a story that the first scene of Queer as Folk was coming across as a bit serious, that its tone was setting up the show to not feel the way it should. So an extra scene was written, shot and inserted at the start of the episode. It’s Craig Kelly as Vince talking to camera about one night out on Manchester’s gay scene and concludes with a description of a man who “has every episode of Juliet Bravo on tape”.

It’s fast and funny and booms you into the series – and I didn’t need a word of it because I was already grabbed. I tell you, I can vividly recall sitting up as the title sequence started. I just watched it again now and there is a verve, a call to action, a delighted energy in the music and that was it. A dog-tired, hungry slog of an evening was now great.

The music was by Murray Gold, the series was written by Russell T Davies, produced by Nicola Schindler and the first episode directed by Charles McDougall.

Can I tell you one more? Because it’s the reason I’m remembering all of these shows this week. For twenty years ago on 6 June 1998, Sex and the City began.

That’s the original US air date and apparently Channel 4 first aired it here in 1999. I know it’s not from the same night’s reviewing as Harbour Lights and Queer as Folk because I can remember the different hotel room.

And I can remember having only it to watch. If I hadn’t, if I’d got other shows to get through, I’d have got through them. Because I didn’t think episode 1 of Sex and the City was good at all.

Whereas episode 2, Models and Mortals, was great. Both the first two were written by series creator Darren Star but I thought then that pilot was heavy handed and this next one flew. There’s got to be an issue of how I knew the characters going in to episode 2 but still, pilots are hugely difficult and I don’t think this one worked.

So there’s a lesson for us both. Watch every episode of everything because it might turn out to be brilliant. There you go.

Two minutes back

Please stop me. If Angela asks me when dinner will be ready and it’s almost done, I will call out something like “Two minutes back”. It’s a quote. I’m quoting. While I’m cooking.

I say cooking, it’s usually more heating and stirring and microwaving, but that’s not the point. The point is that my everyday conversation is riddled with quotes that nobody knows, at least until Angela happens upon some film or TV show that I got it from.

For it all comes from TV, radio and film. Imagine if I’d read the classics when I was younger. I might’ve become a weather bore every time the wind was in the east but at least that allusion could sometimes make sense. “Two minutes back” never does. Back to what?

It’s from Sports Night. I have no measurable interest, knowledge, experience or even really awareness of sport, but this show that first aired 20 years ago is a favourite. Imagine Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing done as a half-hour comedy and set behind the scenes of a TV sports show. This should be easy to imagine because that’s exactly what this is.

Take a look at this example. It’s the opening few minutes of an episode and I guarantee that you’ll wish it were the whole thing.

 

I should say right now that you can see a lot on YouTube but the only place to get the show itself is on DVD. Well, if you’re in the US you can stream it on Netflix or buy it on iTunes.

Or come round to my place.

I do relish its moments when characters will be in a heated argument and then, because the TV show’s cameras are now live, will be smiling, happy hosts until the commercial break and wallop, right back at it. I don’t know why I relish that so much, except that it’s a heightened dramatic situation that’s also real. I’ve done that, to a vastly smaller extent, in radio, and that turn-on-a-second move from personal to professional, that mental juggling of conflicting demands on your head, it’s gorgeous.

It also forces arguments into bite-sized chunks which is fantastic because drama does that anyway and here the need to stop and start is imposed, it’s an external pressure and you can feel the frustration. You can feel how when it’s released, when they’ve gone to commercial and can speak freely, that the next part of the row burns out of them. Plus even as they’ve been professional and talking on air about some sports thing I’ll never comprehend, you know the real drama has been continuing in their heads so when they can speak freely, the argument has moved on.

That’s an amazing thing to me. It means the Sports Night scripts pummel through arguments and issues at an incredibly artificial rate yet specifically because of the context, it feels natural and uncontrived. It feels real.

This is a comedy I’m talking about and I actually hesitated calling it that because for me, it’s drama. There is a very quiet laugh track in the early episodes, the result of the producers not wanting one and the network insisting and presumably some editor accidentally leaning on the volume control to minimise it. And it is also very, very, very funny.

Yet it’s the drama that keeps me coming back to this show – and I do keep coming back. I can visibly see me putting the DVD boxset in my car boot after having had to pay a gigantic import duty to the post office and saying aloud “I hope you’re worth it”. That must’ve been around 2001 or 2002 and it was. It is.

This show about the making of a sports show runs for 45 episodes of around 22 minutes apiece. What’s that? Something like 16 and a half hours of television. I watched the first one that weekend I got the DVD – and then I watched the following 44 before Monday.

I’ve done that binge about four times since.

And I’m in the middle of another one now. It’s been years since my DVD player was even connected to my TV set but I found a way to stream any video from my Mac to my TV set so I was looking through my shiny discs for what I’d want to see. I only meant to watch one episode of Sports Night. That was Tuesday. It’s now Friday and I’ve seen 15 episodes. Again.

This is a series about the making of a show and much of it takes place during the time that fictitious sports programme is on air. It has an awful lot of commercials. And every time this show-within-a-show cuts to a commercial, a character in its gallery will announce how long they’ve got before they come back from commercial.

Ask me how long before I watch the next episode.

Flipping hecklers

It would be really good, I would feel really great, if you just read the next sentence and then looked away.

I’ve now performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

Okay.

Not really. I was in the audience for maybe 15 comedy acts or so and twice I was repeatedly called on by the comedian, once I was both called on and called up. I have now stood on a Fringe stage being laughed at. Now that I think about it, I’m not sure why I felt this was good.

But while I was climbing through an unstrung tennis racket – you had to be there – and later when Tim Vine was asking if my face always looked like this, I was thinking about the workshops I do.

I run day-long things, half days, two hours, one hours, all sorts and in every case the job is showing people something so you’re getting them to do it. It is entirely audience participation, but it doesn’t feel as heightened or as clenching as it does in a comedy because it’s continuous through the day.

Also because I’m the one calling on people, not the one fearing being called. That does make it easier, you’re right.

I was thinking how it’s actually quite hard to contribute to a show if you’re used to running them. I’m really not comparing my workshops to comedy sets, neither in good or bad ways, but it is all performance. So when a comedian asks you to describe something, you want to do it, you want to provide what she needs for her act, you’re more than willing to be laughed at, but you don’t want to actually perform. You don’t want to get in the way.

It’s their show, not yours.

I’m not saying that this is a huge issue or that it’s somehow unique to me as a special little flower but it was one of the two things that kept crossing my mind every time it happened. The other was to wonder why I’d chosen the front row again.

But then I saw Ivo Graham.

He’s a standup comic who does plenty of audience interaction which this time did not include me – and did include hecklers.

I loathe hecklers. If you know someone who heckles at comedy acts, give me their work address: I’ll pop over tomorrow and drunkenly interrupt them at their job.

The best comedians can get a very big laugh out of reacting to a heckle but when they do it that well, as Graham did that night, the stupid hecklers think they’re responsible. That their half-pissed spontaneous call out is what’s funny, not the maybe hundreds of hours of work that the comedian has put in to be able to deal with them.

Ivo Graham was the only one of all the acts I saw that got heckled and it is of course unrelated to the standard of his material. He is very good and he is very funny and he was on Friday evening. There you go. The hecklers were fuelled by alcohol and I imagine Graham had to have a few after the show himself.

You get that I abhor hecklers, you get that I admired Graham’s handling of them. What I liked, though, the only thing I actually liked, was the rest of the audience. Even Graham himself commented in the middle of asking the audience questions that it was great and funny how there’d be a heckle but immediately someone else would call out a serious answer to move it all along.

That was good and that worked. The whole act worked very well, it wasn’t even soured too much by those hecklers. But I did tweet Ivo Graham afterwards to say how deftly I thought he’d handled them. He replied saying it had definitely been an eventful night, hadn’t it?

But.

This is a week ago now and I’m still thinking about it but not for the hecklers and not for how this or any comedian reacts to them. I’m thinking about it because I watched some YouTube videos of Ivo Graham.

Like all the best comics, his act on the night feels fresh and new and like he’s just chatting with you. Of course you know that it’s written and rehearsed but there’s a lightness and a bounce and it’s engagingly new. Watch the same comic on YouTube and, whoever they are, you’ll often see the same act.

Fine, but what fascinates me is when you see something that is an earlier version. The internet and how much gets recorded, how much gets kept forever and made immediately available, it means we can now often see the development of an act. See which lines stay the same, which get tweaked or added or dropped or tuned.

Comedians are like poets, I feel, with every syllable considered, every pause planned and none of that effort meant to be seen. It’s the same swan analogy that you can apply to all writers, all shows, but with much of the development being done in front of audiences.

There is one workshop I do in schools that, just between us, I’ve now done so often that it truly feels like a scripted show. Of course it’s always different, of course each school needs different things. Yet still, there are many times when I feel I’ve slipped into the script and I know when I’m going to get a laugh out of these kids.

I’m a writer so I’m obviously focused on the words but in these cases I am a performer and there is a physicality to it. A pause, a just-remembered, an oops-forgot-to-say kind of stance and gait that I will do that will always get a laugh.

And it does have audience participation. I forgot this. I have a thing, close to a rule, that if you walk into a workshop of mine then you are part of it. And one day in a school I was in mid-flow when a teacher came in to borrow a pen. All he did was come in quietly, get the pen and leave again, not once breaking stride but during that time I had got the kids to cast him as a Doctor Who monster and he had acted the part. Left growling. Did it perfectly.

So naturally the next day when I was in the same school with another class and their head teacher came in to borrow something else, I did the same thing.

And he didn’t.

Just looked at me like I was dirt.

He walked out of the room reeking with disdain.

It was a silent heckle.

And when the door shut behind him, I just jerked my head toward the ceiling – and got a huge laugh from the kids. I was funny and we bonded and it started with that heckle but, you know, it was me, not the heckler.

Love is all around

Don’t look at me like that. If you’ve lived your whole life in the UK as I have, then a blog with the subject heading “Love is all around” can only mean one thing. Clearly, I’m going to write something about world events, about how there are eye-poppingly scary things happening but we should remember that we’ve always got each other.

No.

I got nothin’.

Not on that. In the meantime, if you lived in America at all, you’ve now got a song in your head. Love Is All Around is the theme to The Mary Tyler Moore Show and this week its star died.

I could write you an obituary but people who actually knew her have done that. Instead, I want to focus on just that fact that in the UK you know her name but in the US she’s a deep-rooted part of the culture.

That does fascinate me, the way that we think of writers and actors as individuals but actually their talent and their reach is very much bound up in where they are. Mary Tyler Moore just isn’t as beloved in the UK as she is in the States. Mrs Brown might possibly not get the same reception in New York as in Britain.

Now, Brown is a character and Tyler Moore is an actor but you get it. As much as we try to move forward, as much as we try to create something new, to develop our choice of medium in new ways, we are very much bound to where we are.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show is also an example of being bound to a certain time. This is a sitcom that aired 1970 to 1977 and the word hit just doesn’t cover it. Seven years, three spin-offs and there’s a commemorative plaque at the studio where it was filmed.

It wasn’t just popular, it wasn’t just funny, it was genuinely groundbreaking and all the more so if your ground was America. When the show began, Mary Tyler Moore was best known for co-starring in The Dick Van Dyke Show. More than best known for it, it was one of those cases where the actor is so successful in a role that she’s in danger of never working again.

If you don’t know The Dick Van Dyke Show then the quick way to describe her character, Laura Petrie, is to say she was the wife. For all the character did, when the show was over, Mary Tyler Moore was permanently fixed in the audience’s mind as the wife.

So here’s The Mary Tyler Moore Show where this actor is single, a career woman and joining a television newsroom instead of being a housewife. The writers wanted more: they wanted her to be a divorcee but there was absolutely no possibility that American television would allow that. They were skittish about divorcees in general but they were not going to let anyone think Laura Petrie had divorced Dick Van Dyke.

Today that seems ridiculous chiefly because it is. But it also seems ridiculous because we’ve grown up and if our television still doesn’t treat women as it does men, it’s better. And it’s better in large part because of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, created by James L Brooks and Allan Burns.

So here’s this gigantic hit which changes and develops US television, but it didn’t travel and it has never performed well in repeats, in syndication, even in the States.

There are other examples of this: a show called Murphy Brown was a smash from 1988 to 1998 but you don’t see it around now. Amongst everything else Murphy Brown did, though, it was replete with topical references and those date it considerably.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show didn’t do that. In theory any episode stands up today as it did on first airing. Its most famous one, Chuckles Bites The Dust, has no 1970s political agenda, hasn’t anything overtly tied to 1970s events. But still, the show belongs to its time and that would be fine.

Except for how it makes it harder to really appreciate the power this show had, the impact. Writing about it from another country and decades after it ended, I think I know, I think I intellectually know what the series meant, but I can’t feel it.

Except I can in one way.

I’m saying all this about the show’s impact on television and you’re quite reasonably assuming I mean American TV but you can trace a line from this four-camera, three-wall videotaped 1970s American sitcom to the grittiest of UK dramas today. It’s a line that affected me: The Mary Tyler Moore Show is directly responsible for the fact that I’m a writer even though I can’t have seen above a dozen episodes at the very most.

For you know how it goes, wherever there shalt be a hit show, so shalt there be spin-offs. The Mary Tyler Moore Show had three and it’s peculiar what happened to them. There was The Betty White Show which you’ve never seen. There was Rhoda, which I’d say is better known in the UK than The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

And then there is Lou Grant.

Lou Grant is unique. It is the only one-hour, single-camera, film drama to come from a sitcom. Not only had it never happened before, it has never happened since.

I am a writer because of Lou Grant and how this was the first show where I recognised that drama was crafted, that it was made, rather than just being something on the TV in the corner.

But I wouldn’t have seen it and neither would anyone, really, if it weren’t for the power of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Lou Grant was a character in that sitcom and he was so popular, the series was so very popular, that the network gave the Lou Grant show an on-air commitment for 13 episodes. Do what you like, make what you like but if it’s got actor Ed Asner playing his Lou Grant character, you’re on air for 13 weeks.

Well, okay, no, the network didn’t let anyone loose and if the show had bombed they’d have cancelled it halfway through the first ad break. But they paid for 13 episodes so cancellation is a tougher financial decision for them and this helped keep Lou Grant on for its first few months while it grew an audience.

Lou Grant, like The Mary Tyler Moore Show before it, was made by a production company called MTM and yes, that was named after Mary Tyler Moore. Even if you’ve never seen her show, even if you’ve never seen Lou Grant – come round to my place, we’ll have pizza and watch – then you still know MTM’s work.

For MTM went on to make Hill Street Blues and every single television police drama owes a debt to that. It’s the iPhone of cop shows: everything before it looked a certain way, everything after it looked like Hill Street Blues.

And that would not have happened at all without The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

Her show was bound to a certain time and of course so is Mary Tyler Moore herself but both have impact that is so great that we feel it even when we don’t know where it came from. The makers of The Mary Tyler Moore Show were trying to make a good, funny sitcom, they weren’t sitting there thinking that oooh, after Hill Street we could make St Elsewhere and change hospital dramas too.

They got on with what they were doing and they did their very best. So actually, maybe yes, maybe I do have something about the world today: let’s get on with what we’re doing and do our very best.

Comedy impressions

A friend was trying to remember what the Benny Hill music was called. “Yakety Sax,” I told him, with my head in my hands. Sorry: it’s in your head now, isn’t it? Whether you dislike it or hate it, that music is in your head and you’re thinking how painful it is that Benny Hill comedies were always about him chasing women in speeded-up videos. I know you think that because everyone thinks it, except perhaps for Anglophiles in America who for some reason see Benny Hill as archetypal British humour.

The thing is, he was. I don’t mean for those Yakety Sax videos and I am not trying to be revisionist and claim there was a lot more to Benny HIll – but there was a bit. I used to write a television history column in Radio Times magazine which meant spending a gorgeous lot of time in archives and finding unexpected things. Such as Benny Hill before the speeded-up videos.

Those were always written archives like Radio Times’s own issues but at some point, once I knew Hill had done more, I remember finding footage of him somewhere. And it was funny. Just a very short sketch where a reporter and an IRA informant are in a TV studio: the informant is supposed to be in darkness to protect his identity but instead the reporter is.

That’s all. Must’ve lasted only moments and the overt comedy was in the IRA guy’s reactions, his realisation. I remember it being a nice piece of acting, actually, a comedic double take that was laced with a bit of fear. Very nicely, that acting was from the guest actor playing the informant: Benny Hill himself kept a straight face. That’s pretty good: the star and possibly also the writer of the sketch giving the laugh to the guest.

I remember, too, that the comedy was really Benny Hill mocking television conventions, maybe even taking a poke at the media’s coverage of serious events. It wasn’t The Day Today but it was clever enough stuff and I believe Benny Hill did a lot of this. I can’t be sure because so little of his work is easily available but then that’s for a reason.

At some point in his career, Benny Hill found this Yakety Sax format and that was that. It’s our fault, really: we must’ve responded so much and liked it so much that he kept doing it.

We should all do things that get into everyone’s heads, we should all create work that lasts, though it would be nice if it were work that people liked remembering. I think Benny HIll effectively erased his comedy career by these speeded-up videos.

I wonder if he knew.

I wonder if any of us can imagine what impression will survive of us. I don’t expect to be remembered after the end of this sentence but equally, I wonder if any of us can imagine what impression we give people now.

I keep thinking about how Benny Hill is never repeated in Britain, I keep thinking about how I’m mostly fine with that, yet I also keep hearing how popular he is outside the UK. True, I hear that less and less – he died in 1992 so over 25 years since his last work – but I hear it.

I’m not claiming some statistically valid example here but it seems to me that the people who mention Benny Hill are all outside the UK and they are all either fond of him or at least not wincing.

I keep thinking of this outside opinion and particularly of how things are seen from other countries. How in one place or in one group of people you can be so caught up in opinions or issues that the rest of the world sees completely differently.

Yes, I keep thinking of this because of the idea of Britain leaving the European Union. My niece, working in Luxembourg, tells me that people keep asking her why David Cameron is campaigning to leave the EU. He isn’t, he’s publicly on the side of staying in, but that’s how he’s seen overseas.

Then people who are in favour of leaving the EU act like anyone else gives a damn. I bet most Americans are completely unaware it’s going on at all – why would they? – and I understand that across Europe the attitude is like, whatever, stay or go, Gallic shrug, get on with it.

You’re thinking I’ve taken a left turn since Benny Hill and you’re sure that I’ve done it to argue that the UK should stay in the EU. Actually, I do very much believe that and I am very much angered by the Brexit arguments and not just because I loathe that new word.

But my point really is a writing one: you can’t control what other countries think of your work, you can’t control what other people think of you – and you shouldn’t try.

I think it’s a shame that Benny Hill erased his reputation here and maybe he didn’t have to do that Yakety Sax thing so very often but he did it and he made an impact. We should all have people trying to remember the name of our theme tune a quarter of a century after our death.

Community Script Writing 101

This is going to read like a long and unqualified hymn of praise to a particular TV show but actually, I think it’s about confidence and verve and talent. But you have a point about it being long: grab some tea and a couple of biscuits, would you?

Follow. I have recently binged through the first three seasons of Community (Amazon UK, Amazon US). It’s a US sitcom set in a college, and my wife, Angela, has not binged through it at all. Most episodes, perhaps 70% of them, have left me agog enough that I’ve gone to her insisting that she would not believe what the show had just done.

For instance, she came back one evening and I was blinking at the screen. I told her they’d just done an amazing episode with paintball. Uh-huh, she didn’t say but she could’ve done. Not long afterwards, I was telling her that they’ve done an entire episode with stop-motion animation. They did a perfect pastiche of Law & Order. One episode is almost completely done as a 1990s 8-bit computer game with the characters drawn as Super Mario-like graphic sprites. There is an entire episode produced in the painstakingly precise style of a National Geographic or History Channel documentary but what it’s documenting is a pillow fight. Another apparently straight episode splits off into six alternative timelines with each being worse than the one before.

That’s nice, she also didn’t say but could’ve done.

Community isn’t her thing but what I want to focus on here is me and how I would tell her about it. How poorly I would tell her.

You can so easily praise Community for doing these stunts that it comes across, I think, as a comedy that does stunts. Let’s do a spaghetti western this week. Whoop-de-doo.

Plenty of series do pastiche episodes. I’m trying to remember specific examples but I just have this general shrug: I do remember The Young Ones doing University Challenge supremely well, and Press Gang did a kind of Doctor Who that was quite touching, but otherwise, shrug. It feels like a cheap idea, it feels like a stunt. Make this episode be a western and that alone will be hilarious.

But.

When Community did that paintball episode, I was beside myself with its audacity and true imagination. That episode turned this series from a funny, self-aware comedy about a group of students at an adult education college into – well, I don’t know. Within its 21 minute running time, the entire show changed from one of type of sitcom into something like a feature-film epic. Every character under extreme, just extreme pressure; allegiances formed and betrayed; plots made and failed; friendships won and lost.

Also, there was paintball.

The college becomes a war zone with paintball guns and it is very, very funny but it’s also so very, very serious. You feel like you’re seeing characters in their true colours, and it just happens that those true colours are red, blue, orange, green and yellow paint.

It is riveting and I was just agog.

When I learnt that the show was going to do it again in the next season, I was actually excited. It was an effort to not skip straight to that.

I’ve been thinking a lot about why this worked and why a pastiche could be so much more than an empty parody. I’m afraid I think that it’s down to the talent, the verve and the imagination of the makers. Damn them. How can I steal talent, verve and imagination? Bastards.

It’s not that the show is perfect. This is unfair of me but a DVD extra put me off a little: the first one I watched had series creator Dan Harmon narrating a series of clips which had fart noises added. There’s puerile and there’s seriously? you bothered to make that?

I saw that quite early on in my watching, before I was hooked and in fact before the first paintball episode which truly is a series-changing, series-defining moment. So it did put me off and that was unfair because I think there’s really only one puerile joke in the actual episodes. There’s this monkey, right, and it’s a pretty good addition to the show: it is the catalyst for an episode set entirely in the main study room set. But its name is “Annie’s Boobs”.

That just doesn’t fit, for me. Doesn’t seem to fit Troy (Donald Glover), the character who named the monkey, and the start-stop reactions from Annie (Alison Brie) seem like cutaways instead of permanently, inherently part of her character.

Every show takes time to find its feet in its first few episodes and I’d put Annie’s Boobs down to this one working out Troy’s character except that the name persists.

It really interests me how the series visibly changed and developed its characters. Not in the sense of them growing and changing over time, though they do and though they should, but in the sense of the writers fixing what doesn’t quite work. Troy and Annie, for instance: Annie’s defining characteristic at the start is that she’s in love with Troy and he doesn’t realise. That’s going to be a series-lasting kind of thing, a series-long will they/won’t they, except that it isn’t. That’s cut off at the knees quite early on and it’s to the benefit of both characters.

One character that suffers from changes and fixing, though, is Britta (GIllian Jacobs).

At the very start, ie episode one, Britta is the reason the show exists. Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) is a disbarred lawyer having to get some college credits and really only being interested in “the hot blonde from Spanish class”. He creates a study group just for the two of them and it is so very much entirely to get her into bed that he is even lying about knowing any Spanish at all. It is therefore disastrous for him when other people come to the first ‘group’ meeting and, again, this is the start of a series-long will he/why would she kind of tale. They are the sexy not-yet-couple, they are the Sam and Diane of the show. (Which the series actually directly states. I mean directly: it names these Cheers characters in dialogue.)

Except this sexual tension is also dealt with.

After the first episode and certainly after the first season, I think Britta is sidelined and Annie is brought to the fore in her place. I’m uncomfortable with this: Annie becomes the centre of a lot of sexual attention but she’s meant to be 19 and substantially younger than anyone but Troy. Actor Alison Brie was about 26 when the show started, which helps me yet I still squirm a bit.

Whereas Britta loses this role as the centre of sexual attention and that should be good. For a series that specifically knows it is a sitcom and deliberately plays off sitcom tropes, she begins as very much the standard blonde sexy one and it’s good that there came to be more to her.

But Community is a comedy about this study group with seven people in it. Most of the time, it feels like a comedy about this study group with five people in it.

Pierce (Chevy Chase) is the member most overtly and deliberately left out:

JEFF: Annie, let’s not rehash this. The guy’s been a jerk all year.
ANNIE: He’s a jerk because we exclude him.
JEFF: We exclude him because he’s a jerk.

But watch any story from about halfway through the first season and you find that it’s typically about something that involves five of the group – sometimes it’s two stories and the group is divided – plus Britta doing something else. She orbits the group. In the A-B-C kind of storytelling ethos, she usually has the C story.

I can’t criticise the show for it: what this series does with its 21-minute running time is truly nothing short of miraculous. I honestly don’t think there is another show that goes as far and as imaginatively. You get taken to places that are beyond ridiculous and the steps that get you there are not convincing, they are not sensible, yet in the moment you completely believe that they are. When this group steps out of a space capsule – honestly, from a college class to a space re-entry in 21 minutes – you are actually cheering for them.

You triumphantly tell Angela that they made it safely back to Earth.

Uh-huh.

So if they can’t get every character in every story, I can’t criticise. I can lament, though.

I find the show inspiring, actually. I didn’t watch it to be a lesson in writing and I look at its imagination with only yearning, but it makes an astonishing job seem effortless and part of me wants to celebrate that.

Unfortunately, part of me wants to hang on to it and I can’t.

For I lied to you. I haven’t just seen the first three seasons, I’ve also seen half of the opening episode from season four.

It’s gone.

This verve and talent and imagination is gone.

Now, I knew as a media writer that Community had famously had a problem in its fourth season: creator Dan Harmon was fired as showrunner. And I know as a media writer that he got hired back for the fifth season. That’s why I’m going to make it through the fourth, just so I can see whether the fifth comes back. (It’s just been announced that there will be a sixth.)

I see your point that it is unfair of me to judge an entire season on the first ten minutes of its opening episode but I raise you that I only watched those first ten. Where previous episodes scooped me up and carried me at a thousand miles an hour, this one dropped me.

The clue is not in the writing or the story or the plot or the characters, though, it’s in the acting.

It’s the same cast for the fourth season and I have thought that the whole set of them is exquisitely good. But in this opener, the actors are acting.

You’ve seen this. Actors who don’t have good material to work from will go into a kind of mugging. They put their backs into it, they put their worth into it and they make the best they can of the job. I don’t criticise them for this, if I were an actor I hope that I would be good enough and care enough to do it too. But it’s visible. And what I see is that the material isn’t there.

As actors, they are hoping to pull something off with their performance. As a writer, I have a habit of believing that everything is on the written page. We’re all wrong. Shows fly when script and cast are at their best and are at each other’s side.

I saw and very much liked the pilot episode of Community many years ago. The pilot that now seems so ordinary compared to the delicious insanity of the series. I didn’t watch any more until a couple of months ago when writer Alex Townley loaned me the DVDs.

Naturally I’ve thanked her enthusiastically but she’s told me she feels a bit guilty. That she’s led me to the disappointment of the fourth season. And she described this fourth run as being “like fan fiction”. Ouch. It’s the perfect description: Community 4 feels like it’s written by fans who know all the rules of the show but didn’t create it, aren’t moving it forward, aren’t reaching deeper.

You need verve and talent to dig deeper and I think you need confidence too. Now, where exactly can I get me some of those?

Community is on DVD here on Amazon UK and there on Amazon US. I hope you love it as much as I do.