It’s difficult to criticise That Mitchell And Webb Look. Firstly, because it’s funny, secondly, because it’s all been said, and thirdly, because the show is so good at doing it for you.
Series 3’s response to accusations of being smug, self-referential and too hit-and-miss was a knowingly smug and self-referential sketch about the writers pre-planning the series’ precise ratio of hits to misses.
Criticising sketch shows for being hit-and-miss is as pointless as having a pop at Big Brother contestants for being vacuous. They can’t do anything about it, it’s just their nature. Setting up characters, scenarios and punch lines in just a few minutes of screen time is no mean feat, which is why many sketch shows rely on recurring jokes and catchphrases that only become funny by a process of attrition.
Series 4 of That Mitchell And Webb Look opens with the pair addressing the camera Fry And Laurie-style and offering a blanket apology for the existence of all comedy when, you know, serious things are going on in the world. Calling themselves “disgusting overpaid wankers”, the po-faced duo promise to stop peddling “levity and filth”, and instead to provide six half hours of sober reflection on the situation. The speech’s ironic sideways swipe at the media hysteria over Sachsgate and the recent flurry of mea culpas served up by the BBC sets the tone for the self-reflexive, knowing media in-jibes to follow.
That Mitchell And Webb Look relies on its audience’s familiarity with TV past and present, with the majority of series 4’s sketches being spoofs of other television genres. The writers take on the fair game worlds of reality TV, advertising and quiz shows as well as making self-aware jabs at comedy. The cleverness doesn’t always work to their advantage. Irritating 70s sitcom send-up Get Me Hennimore! is so ironic it forgets to be funny, the gag getting lost somewhere in the murky levels of irony between the audience knowingly recognising the farcical format, immediately guessing what the inevitable mix-up will be, then finally being presented with the predicted ludicrous outcome.
There’s a sense too with some of the observational TV-based sketches (the excessive trails and recaps for The Gift Shop Sketch or spoof fish-out-of-water documentary Fishmonger Out Of Watermonger, for instance) brilliantly observe and ridicule the visual language of TV, but somehow lack a satirical punch. Maybe it’s because the genres they parody already run a fine line between reality and ridicule.
More successful are sketches that poke fun at the impracticality of conspiracy theories, expose the fragile veneer of anyone who thinks they’re “good with people” and show a grammar pedant picking off his infinitive-splitting staff with a silenced revolver.
Series 4 flogs the occasional dead horse in the return of lengthy entries from snooker commentators Ted and Peter and the tiny office sketch, but rapid-fire spoof ads for budget supermarket Didldidi, Cash4Plutonium and new Apple product iBag speed things along. As do galleries of fake sketches they couldn’t be bothered to, or weren’t allowed to write including the promising ‘Tourettes Pope’ and the creepily titled ‘Paedos in Speedos’.
Creepier still is a recurring sketch that imagines the survivors of an unspecified disaster (euphemistically referred to as ‘The Event’) attempting to maintain quiz show pizazz in the face of dwindling food supplies, voltage calming and the constant threat of ‘Them’. The post-apocalyptic and unnerving Quiz Broadcast replaced the bewildering, high energy Numberwang in series 3 and continues in this series with its strangely affecting mix of theatre of the absurd and telly quiz patter.
Catchphrases are, as usual, few and far between in series 4, limited to The Quiz Broadcast‘s urgent instruction to “Remain Indoors” and a violently inflected “Up yours!” from the Arguing Couple (played by real-life married couple Webb and comedian Abigail Burdess) whose first baby, let’s just say, doesn’t really smooth things out.
The last episode of the six seems better paced than the previous five, storming through an enjoyably misanthropic attack on TV talent show contestants who put their heart and soul into their performances and a nice, quick turn on The Passive Aggression Of The Christ (“It’s fine, I’ll carry it, it’s not like it’s heavy or anything…”). The Battlestar Galactica bits might have been a few years late in the coming but their use of the ‘what if…’ comedy premise to imagine what if “fracking toasters” looked less human and more Robbie the Robot was inspired.
The Sherlock Holmes finale is a call-back to a discussion in the previous episode about the powerful change in tone at the end of Blackadder Goes Forth and is simply one of the best pieces of acting I’ve seen on TV this year. It’s already become one of those sketches people talk about as a stand-out TV moment, and shows Mitchell and Webb achieving more genuine pathos in a few minutes than the entire gurning cast of EastEnders could manage in a lifetime.
It’s a rare thing for a BBC sketch show to be commissioned for a fourth series, and the finality of that last sketch combined with the nod to the final Blackadder might indicate that this is the last the BAFTA award-winning show has to offer. If that’s the case, then it certainly went out on a high.
A few deleted scenes, some out-takes and a ‘Shooting the Cast’ extra that turns out to be just that, the extras on this series’ discs aren’t much cop, but fans of the show will get something out of them. David Mitchell as a Nazi improvising about the “terrible thing” he did for a certain medal and the deleted scene about The Wire are worth the watch, if nothing else.
That Mitchell And Webb Look is out now and available from the Den Of Geek Store.