While I've never been that big a fan of American sitcoms, I've long enjoyed many offerings from our cousins across the pond. Back in day, my local PBS affiliate would show classic Britcoms like Fawlty Towers, Are You Being Served?, Keeping Up Appearances, Good Neighbors (known as The Good Life in the U.K.), To the Manor Born, Yes, Minister and the like. Though I especially prize two of Britcomdom's best - the highly-acerbic antics of Rowan Atkinson and company in the history-hopping Blackadder and the charming, iconoclastic and occasional surreal take on life of a rural parish priest in Father Ted - the one that ranks above them all, the one I keep coming back to time and time again, is the scrappy, funky sci-fi comedy turned huge cult phenomenon, Red Dwarf.
Ah, Red Dwarf. How do I love thee? Let me count the ways:
1. The premise
An accident occurs on the immense deep-space mining ship, Red Dwarf, killing the entire crew except the lowest ranking human on board, one Dave Lister, a Liverpudlian space-bum safe in cryosleep as punishment for bringing a pet cat on board against quarantine regulations. 3 million years after the accident, Holly, the ship's computer, brings Lister out of stasis and breaks the bad news. "They're all dead, Dave." To keep Lister sane, Holly animates his old bunkmate and detested sparring partner, Arnold J. (for Judas) Rimmer, git extraordinaire. Soon they discover another life form on board, the last of the cat race, descended from Lister's original pet, called, simply enough, the Cat. Wacky sci-fi adventures ensue.
A great and original set-up for a TV series, with plenty of room for pathos as well as yucks galore served up in the acerbic, insult-laden British style. And the show continued to evolve and stay fresh, as well as consistently funny, for most (1) of its (so far) 10 series and 61 episodes.
2. The Characters.
Sketch comedy and stand-up are all well and good, but for my money the best comedy grows out of character. And Red Dwarf has 4 (eventually 5) standouts:
- Lister (played by Craig Charles), the last human as perfect everyman, lazy, slobby, big-hearted, quick with a wisecrack, vindaloo-scarfing, lager-guzzling, his scuzzy exterior camoflauging a poet's soul.
- Rimmer (Chris Barrie), perennial loser, anal, arrogant, annoying, and cowardly, with a fine flair for insults and a deep sense of self-loathing.
- The Cat (Danny John-Jules), a shallow, narcissistic fashion plate and resident dumb straight man, but fully capable of lobbing frequent pithy putdowns (not a slouch in this cast!)
- Holly (Norman Lovett for series 1, 2 and 8, Hattie Hayridge for series 3-5), the ship's rather wooly-headed, deadpan computer, mostly seen as a disembodied head.
- and, starting as a regular from Series 3 on, Kryten (Robert Llewelyn), a conscientious domestic service android, programmed to serve humans no matter how wrongheaded their commands are, who quickly becomes a sort of bargain-basement science officer and frequently acts as Mr. Exposition.
In other words, a classic line-up of underachievers with a mother lode of recognizably human faults to be mined for comedic gold.
***And for those thinking I forgot Kristine Kochanski...see (2) below.***
3. The performances
All the cast are good from the get-go, and their facility with a quip and sense of timing only grows stronger as the series progresses. They feed off each other perfectly, a terrific ensemble, though it must be said that the obvious standout is Chris Barrie, who so adroitly plays Rimmer and gives him just the right shade of likeability and human frailty - as well as razor-sharp wit - to keep an otherwise potentially unbearable character sympathetic to the audience. Rimmer's antics are perhaps the most memorable part of a show with many memorable parts. Simply put, he is the Homer Simpson of Red Dwarf.
4. The Writing
Red Dwarf is not written by committee, like many American sitcoms (sometimes this method works wonderfully well - witness the best years of The Simpsons). In true British TV fashion it's written by the same person over the course of the entire series, or in this case, 2 persons: Rob Grant and Doug Naylor (at least the first 6, and arguably best, series; series 7 and beyond have pretty much all been scripted by Naylor, after the team split up). The scripts are tight, and though a fair amount of ad-lib, mugging and tweaking are encouraged, the cast rarely if ever have a chance to change the lines in any substantial way. The one liners are numerous, outrageously imaginative and often screamingly funny. As mentioned before, the humor grows out of character and the audience's expectations of what certain characters will do in given situations. And, as an added bonus, the stories are full of clever and sometimes mind-bendingly twisty explorations of science fiction tropes. The writers never forget to tell a good story as well as pump out a lot of laughs.
This is a hard enough show to explain to the uninitiated, so most quotes won't work as well out of context, but here are a few choice morsels to give you a taste of the kind of dialogue that graces the show:
“I tell you one thing. I've been to a parallel universe, I've seen time running backwards, I've played pool with planets, and I've given birth to twins, but I never thought in my entire life I'd taste an edible Pot Noodle." - Lister, "Demons and Angels"
"I am Holly, the ship's computer, with an IQ of 6,000; the same IQ as 6,000 PE teachers."
- "Future Echoes"
Kryten [on Rimmer]: "A man so petty and small-minded he would while away his evenings sewing name labels on to his ship-issue condoms...Who allowed this man, this pathetic man, this man who could not outwit a used teabag, to be in a position where he might endanger the entire crew? Who? Only a yogurt!" - "Justice"
5. The look
Until recently, Red Dwarf was made by the BBC. By American standards, it's a cheap show, and - particluarly in the first 2 seasons - looks it. However, compared to the original run of Doctor Who, Blake's 7 and virtually any other British-made sci-fi series, it's rather lush, with good model work and the occasional effective monster. The F/X are good enough to make the stories work, which is all that's required. They're rough and a little goofy --exactly right for this show.
Besides, people aren't into Red Dwarf for the special effects. The writing and the characters are what's important, and the show is rich in those departments.
6. It's an actual Science Fiction Comedy that succeeds on both levels.
This is frankly a startling achievement, all too rarely seen. Though it shouldn't be (in theory), TV sci-fi is terribly hard to pull off properly (especially on a low budget). Add comedy into the mix, and the job just gets exponentially more difficult. Red Dwarf makes it all look easy. The initial series focus more on character comedy, the later ones push the high-concept sci-fi ideas a little more to the fore, but the show runners always seem to get the balance right.
Did I mention what a brilliant character this is?
8. Half the cast is black, yet no mention is ever made of it.
None of that "White people this..." and "Black people that..." type of humor.. Lister is Lister, the Cat is the Cat, plain and simple. They are who they are, and their color matters not one iota. It never comes up, it's never mentioned. It's the future. The show is operating on a species level. If only more television programming reflected this, it'd be a better world.
9. It gets away with stuff American comedies never could.
OK, the show is clever. High concept humor is in abundance. However, crude, vulgar humor cheerfully coexists with it. The bird is flipped, baddies are sometimes told to "Spin on it!," sexual references and lewd, scatological jokes fly fast and furious. And in one episode, Rimmer knees the Grim Reaper in the groin. All in good rowdy fun, in keeping with the general blokish-ness of the show and a source of constant and joyful surprise to the American viewer used to the antiseptic political correctness that frequently passes for sitcom writing in the U.S.
10. Oh, the humanity.
In it's own humble, unostentatious, sneaky way, Red Dwarf has a lot to say about good ol' homo sapiens as a species. About what's important in life. About what it means to be a success, or a failure, and how we define those terms. About how, even if you're a layabout spacebum with no future prospects, you can still be capable of basic human dignity, and decency. It's about blown opportunities, lost chances, and potential shots at redemption. About laughing in the teeth of despair and disaster. About pulling together in times of trouble despite your differences and imperfections, and getting out of tough scrapes by sheer force of will. About the heights and (particularly) the dregs of the human mind, confronted with the vast mysteries of the cosmos. And about how we all basically want the same things: love, friendship, a place in the world, and the freedom to guide our own destiny.
None of this stuff is in your face, but it's there, part of the richness of the Red Dwarf world.
All 10 series of this wonderful show are now out on Region 1 DVD, and in the case of the special (which stands in for Series 9), Back to Earth, and Series 10, on Blu-Ray.
Highest recommendations, but be careful: the show grows on you like a fungus.
1) While it does have its fans, the general consensus (one with which I am in complete agreement) is that 2009's three episode "special" Red Dwarf: Back to Earth, was a misfire. The first Dwarf in a decade, it featured a few good ideas here and there, a generally sleeker, spiffed-up look, and the same game (if noticeably older) cast, but sadly, it just wasn't that funny. Do yourself a favor and pretend, as most fans do, that it never happened. Luckily, Series 10 was mostly a return to form. Hopefully, this quality will be retained for Series 11 and 12, currently filming back to back, 6 episodes each to be aired in 2016 and 2017, respectively. (Update: As of Sept. 23, 2016, Series XI is now airing on Dave in the U.K.)
2) The production team added a sixth character in Series 7 and 8 - Kristine Kochanski, Lister's long pined-for lost love. Claire Grogan (Gregory's Girl) made a few brief appearances as the character in the early series, but Chloe Annett took over the part as a regular from series 7. Ms. Annett is quite fetching, attractive, smart, and with decent comedy chops of her own, but her presence on the show altered its delicate chemistry in ways both subtle and significant (not helped by the indispensable Chris Barrie's absence for most of Series 7), and few fans were saddened by her being M.I.A. when the show returned in 2009.
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