When you’ve had a big hit, it’s often all anybody wants from you. To artists, that level of success can feel like a trap. Fearful that the breadth of their creative genius may go unacknowledged, a singer might spend years trying to shake off a number one single, turning their back on requests for the old stuff and attempting to captivate fans with their Fresh New Sound. In such instances, results vary.
A saner alternative is to embrace what made that success happen, and try to repeat it. That’s what The Inbetweeners creators Damon Beesley and Iain Morris have done in new BBC sitcom The First Team. Bar the cast, they’ve got the old band back together – the same writer-directors uniting with the same script editor and executive producer under the same comedy controller. Instead of breaking the mould and wasting energy simply to demonstrate versatility, Beesley and Morris have done The Inbetweeners again, on the BBC, set at a football club.
That’s no criticism. The effortless rhythm and crude fun of The Inbetweeners resulted in an iconic British comedy that lodged in a generation. Quotes of an irresistibly disgusting variety were gobbled up and are still spewed out by fans a decade on. People saw themselves and their schooldays in the comedy, recognising a more truthful and bathetic vision of teenage life than the beauty and hedonism of its channel-mate Skins.
The Inbetweeners gave us sixth-formers Simon, Will, Neil and Jay; The First Team gives us young footie pros Mattie, Jack and Benjy. The Inbetweeners had a school bully and a sarky head teacher; The First Team has a changing room hard man and a callous club chairman (Will Arnett, lending a bit of US star power). The leads are a bit older than the Rudge Park Comp boys, but hardly more worldly. They have more money, but are rubbish with it. They can get girls, but lose them as soon as they open their mouths.
Signed to a top-level club, Mattie, Jack and Benjy are living a lot of people’s dreams. If a lot of people dreamt of living with their mum, playing Fortnite in their pants and lacking the self-possession to buy toilet paper.
The sole grown-up among them is 21-year-old US signing Mattie, played by Jake Short. Mattie’s a fresh-faced optimist who, as a college-educated product of the American sports system, passes for a sophisticate next to the British lads. (As well might, say, a spoon that’s read a book.) Shaquille Ali-Yebuah plays Benjy, a flash, would-be A-lister whose ambitions don’t match up to his reality. Ill Behaviour’s Chris Geere is terrific as the team’s tragi-comic coach, but Jack McMullen is the comedic stand-out as deadpan Scouser Jack Turner, a young man who not only didn’t pack any metaphorical sandwiches for life’s journey, but also is probably also secretly intimidated by bread.
Theo Barklem-Biggs commits fully to the role of psycho club captain Petey Brooks, a hard nut vestige of 90s culture (not the only one, unfortunately – the female characters extend so far only to a nagging mum, a tutting ponytail who sorts out the boys’ problems, and a gold-digging would-be wag). Petey is one of the series’ antagonist. The other is the public – more specifically the fans. Readers of a website with ‘geek’ in its name don’t need telling that nobody delivers hatred like a fan, and The First Team lays that experience bare and shows it from every angle. The same goes for Petey, who wields nudity like a floppy gun.
What really links the two shows is their shared portrait of youthful naiveté/total cluelessness butting up against uncomprehended reality. Beesley and Morris are fluent in the dynamics of young male friendship and in milking comedy from the collision of none-too-bright lads clumsily negotiating the early stages of adulthood alternately supported, and mercilessly mocked, by their mates.
The writers also have a good eye for commonality of experience. The First Team has a rarefied setting that could feel like another planet. Unlike adolescence, a career in pro-football is not universal. Almost all of us had schooldays, but regrettably few ever get selected to play in Saturday’s cup fixture against Huddersfield Town. This comedy’s focus on mundanity though, on laser quest and whiled-away afternoons on the sofa playing FIFA, shrinks that gap to nothing.
Football’s answer to The Inbetweeners? Yeah. Proudly so.
All episodes of The First Team are available to stream now on BBC iPlayer.