Reality television is always open to satire and there have been many fine examples of the genre getting sent up (The Office and Arrested Development are two shows that come to mind). The BBC recently released two of their reality television satires on DVD — one worth checking out, and one a disappointment.
The Life and Times of Vivienne Vyle comes from the mind of the talented Jennifer Saunders, one half of the hilarious Absolutely Fabulous. Saunders plays a talk show host whose show would fit perfectly between airings of Jerry Springer and Ricki Lake. In the first of the three episodes on the DVD, Vivienne is crushed under an overweight crew member when a segment on her show goes wrong. Vivienne experiences an epiphany and decides that she wants to veer into Oprah territory and move away from the kind of trash television she helps perpetuate. Problem is, none of her people, who include her longtime/gay companion, Jared (Conleth Hill) and her drug-addicted producer, Helena (Miranda Richardson), want her to change. They all know her show is a cash cow and don’t see any reason to disrupt the status quo. But Vivienne persists and changes are made.
Saunders is dedicated as the diva Vyle and her supporting cast is top notch (the cast also includes Jason Watkins as Dr. Fowler, a psychologist roped into working on the show). Direction of the show is fine and all technical aspects are held to a high standard. The problem with The Live and Times of Vivienne Vyle is that the writing tries to be biting and dark, but I found the show tedious.
This series was billed as a hilarious new show from Ab Fab’s Saunders, but I found it anything but funny. In fact, I found it nothing but dull. While the acting is impeccable and the idea of a trash TV show host having an existential crisis is an interesting idea, I never really connected with any of the characters, in particular Vivienne.
With only three episodes, I kept hoping for more: more comedy, more empathy and more interest. But none of that materialized.
People Like Us, on the other hand, is witty and smart. If you enjoy the Christopher Guest films of faux cinema verite improvised comedy mockumentaries, this is a series you should look into. Written and directed by John Morton and starring Chris Langham as inept interviewer Roy Mallard, each episode focuses on the day in the life of a professional. In each case, Mallard comes off overly earnest and not terribly bright. Always offscreen, although you do catch glimpses of him, Mallard asks inane questions and gets caught up in the mini-dramas that skew each episode. For example, in the episode, “The Managing Director,” Mallard inadvertently fires an employee from a small company. In “The Photographer,” Mallard follows the life of a photographer (a very dry Bill Nighy) who isn’t very good and who probably shouldn’t have quit his high-paying corporate job to pick up the camera.
Throughout the 12 episodes in this complete series, there are plenty of uncomfortable moments and good laughs. The easy pacing has all of the hallmarks of a real documentary series. In fact, from what I’ve read, some viewers were fooled by the show (because of its lack of a laugh track) into thinking that they were watching the lives of real people. Credit must be given to the fine actors in each episode. Besides Nighy, other notable thespians that appear in People Like Us include Davis Tennant, Jessica Hynes and Sarah Alexander.
I had never heard of People Like Us before I had the opportunity to review it. In the promo materials the BBC states “before The Office, there was People Like Us.” Indeed, this series shares many of the same qualities of Ricky Gervasis’ classic sitcom (which, ironically, was picked up for a full series run, preventing People Like Us from getting a third season). However, there is a gentler spirit in People Like Us that reminds me of the Guest films, a spirit that makes you laugh at the subjects and interviewer Mallard, but also makes you see a little bit of yourself in the lives of these characters. Maybe I’m getting old, but it’s that spirit that made People Like Us more enjoyable than The Life and Times of Vivienne Vyle.