With Netflix, there are titles constantly grabbing your attention but there’s never a way to satisfy all your viewing desires. As Halloween draws closer, there are more and more people scouring the menus of Netflix to find titles to appease their scare fix.
Most people are going straight to the horror selections to get these needs met, but who’d have thought that one of the most frightening shows you’ll ever see was hidden away in a British sketch comedy show.
The selection this week is the upsetting, experimental, inspiring sketch comedy series that ran on BBC Two from 1999-2002, The League of Gentlemen.
Imagine if you had a sketch comedy show that was run by Michael Haneke or David Lynch, and you’ll start to scratch the surface of the weirdness of this show. Part of the reason that The League of Gentlemen feels so polished and precise is that the series was going on long before the television show went into production. Reece Shearsmith, Steve Pemberton (the two would go on to create the equally weird and brilliant Psychoville and Inside No. 9), and Mark Gatiss, are the three masterminds that made up The League of Gentlemen back in 1994, but initially saw it in the form of a sketch troupe, originally doing radio and stage shows (both of which you can find online if you search hard enough) before finally becoming a TV sketch show.
This process isn’t exactly unusual for British comedy shows, especially those that indulge in the dark (see Jam for some more terrifying stuff), but it’s nice to think of this deep well of characters had a longer life and appreciation beyond the show.
The League of Gentlemen ended up stirring things up so much, and being such a success for BBC Two, the series more or less rejuvenated sketch comedy as a whole on the BBC, with series like Little Britain being directly responsible for the trails that were blazed here, all of which is pretty incredible.
The League of Gentlemen is a sketch show that’s uniquely set up in it all takes place within the fictional town of Royston Vasey, with the townspeople of this strange hamlet making up the sketch performers. A new road being built in Royston largely drives the action around the first season, as you really just get to meet the people that live there, taking the sketches to a deeply character-based place. Shearsmith, Pemberton, and Gatiss each play dozens of characters, and it’s incredible how well they camouflage in and completely eclipse themselves. There are a lot of actors, like Sacha Baron Cohen and Chris Lilley, that morph themselves so seamlessly, but these three really kill it and you’re constantly reminding yourself that this cast is merely three people, and they’re populating the entire town.
Perhaps most interestingly, the show’s third season re-invents things by focusing on one character each episode (with others appearing and overlapping within), and turning it into a sitcom, plotted with three acts and everything. It’s a wild break from form, like if an SNL episode followed Steffon, Gilly, or Drunk Uncle for an entire episode, building each sketch from the situations he gets into, retrofitting to that, as a full story is told. At the same time this multi-layered story is being told that chronologically goes all over the place as you try to piece this interesting puzzle together that feels really reminiscent of the cold opens of Breaking Bad’s third season. It’s a wholly unique experience.
The series ran for three seasons, with 19 total episodes. All are available to stream on Netflix.
Why You Should Watch It:
Refined British sketch comedy at its weirdest and most innovative.
Not only is The League of Gentlemen some of the funniest comedy that’s been produced out of the UK and you’re seeing these three performers in the top of their game, but it’s also unmistakably a scary sketch comedy show. I can say without a doubt that some of the scariest stuff I’ve seen is out of this show, and the series is all too comfortable with letting the only joke of a sketch being the palpable darkness and fear that’s driving it forward.
It’s certainly the most tense you’ll be during a sketch show, worried of where the next turn may go. It’s some amazing, upsetting stuff. Even the second season of the series sees a phantom nose bleed striking people all over Royston Vasey, focusing on this uncomfortable bleeding from everyone, as these victims eventually begin to die. Never before has a sketch show had such a high body count, as the show is more than fine with pulling the trigger on people.
But then there’s also just sketches that are straight up the stuff of nightmares, like the character of Papa Lazarou, the wife-collecting “monster” who calls everyone “Dave.” Can you imagine seeing that on any other sketch show? Let alone Saturday Night Live?
We see lives ruined, people driven to their bitter ends, and constant hatred seeping out of people. There’s even a character named Hilary Briss, “The Demon Butcher of Royston Vasey” who’s a Sweeney Todd analogue, serving up “local” meat. Matthew Chinnery is a veterinarian who is cursed with every animal who comes in contact with him dies a violent death. There’s a German homosexual with a deeply disturbing personal life, named Herr Lipp. Another focal point is the Hulls, who are in a failed marriage. These are your comedic players here. This is the material that makes up this show, almost as if Royston Vasey is this hotbed of negativity, a black hole of evil that no one can escape from. It also just happens to be where this sketch series is set.
The aforementioned format change in the third season is also amazing to watch unfold and see this segmented series turned into a sitcom. It’s a fascinating experiment and regardless of how well it works (it’s not loved by everyone, but one of my personal favorite touches of the show), it’s nice to see the risk being taken. Even if they didn’t pull it off, they’d still be standing out in a big way.
The League of Gentlemen also has a Christmas Special, and a movie (The League of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse), which also sees the sketch characters intermingling with the actors who play them in an effort that might be too meta for its own good, but there’s more League out there if you find yourself hungry for more, and you probably will with its low episode count.
This Series Is For You If:
A wife-collecting creature is your idea of a good joke. If you enjoy being the tumultuous combination of scared and amused at the same time. If interconnected micro-plotting that evolves sketch comedy to another level is of interest to you. If deep, deep movie homages towards things like King of Comedy appeal to you. If you’d really like to just get lost in a bizarre world for nearly ten hours.
The League of Gentlemen is a more than worthy show to infest your Netflix with, and a great possible entry point towards British comedy from a show doing it very counter to the norm. This is a sketch show that will surprise and confuse you, and at times shock you over the fact that you’re even watching sketch comedy.