Who would have thought that a show about an irate, alcoholic, Irish bookstore owner drinking, smoking, reading, and being terrible to people would be so damn funny?
The owner, Bernard Black (Dylan Moran), is a more intelligent (or at least more well-read) UK version of the man-child protagonist which has come to dominate American comedy. For any viewer who has worked in retail, the beauty of Bernard is that he says and does what you wished you could have. He has the fantasy position: reading, drinking wine, and telling off idiot customers sounds like a good way to earn a living. Bernard is balanced out by his assistant and roommate, Manny (Bill Bailey). Manny is everything Bernard is not: cheerful, kind, loveable, and generally happy. Which, as you might imagine, irritates Bernard to no end. Some of the show’s best one-liners come in the form of insults slung at Manny. This is an extreme, British version of the Odd Couple, but with more co-dependency.
The bonus is Bernard’s best friend and fellow shop owner, Fran (Tamsin Greig), who shares his love of wine and distaste for customers (and making money, apparently). The three misfits combined make one fully-functioning adult; each character’s quirks compliment the others perfectly. The beautiful thing about them is that none of them fit into society, or understand the world or people around them, but each desperately tries to in their own way. Fran is especially refreshing as a woman who doesn’t know how to engage in the “womanly” activities she is supposed to (like being a friend’s birth coach, doing yoga, and attending a bachelorette party), and is much more comfortable around her male friends. The world contains social and cultural cues that baffle these outsiders.
Black Books contains the kind of comedic writing that has been missing from American TV for a long time. The show has these crazy, completely bizarre moments, but somehow it all works. It’s hard to explain exactly why it’s funny. The only one who is even remotely likeable is Manny, so this is a show that is largely populated by bad people. So when terrible (and hilarious) things happen to them, it’s ok because they deserve it. The characters are so well defined that when the impossible occurs, you just roll with it and wait to see where they’re going. Like when a cat inherits the building Black Books is located in, and thus becomes Bernard’s new landlord. The show begins with Manny (then an accountant) ingesting The Little Book of Clam, and absorbing its peace and wisdom.
The situations are absurd, but you believe that it would happen to these three. The humor is similar to another great 2000s UK comedy, The IT Crowd. Although Black Books is much darker (“Black” referring to the comedy as much as the main character’s disposition), the set-ups are much the same: a seemingly normal day gradually descends into increasingly inexplicable events which usually don’t turn out too well for the crew.
Both Moran and Bailey are well-known stand-up comedians and actors in the UK. Most in the US would only recognize Moran from his small (but memorable) supporting roles in films like Shaun of the Dead, Run, Fat Boy, Run, and Notting Hill; which is unfortunate, because the actor’s timing and delivery are impeccable. All the more reason to take advantage of the show streaming on Netflix.