Friday, September 27, 2013

Weekend Stream for 9/27/13

The Weekend Stream is a weekly feature curating content for you to watch this weekend from the current selection on Netflix's US streaming service. Just search for the bolded titles on your preferred Netflix-watching device, and you're in business! Since content can disappear from Netflix with little or no warning, there's always a chance a title will no longer be available by the time you read this, so you'd better act fast, comrade!

Weekend Stream for 09/27/13

This extra-long edition of the Weekend Stream has a special theme: In honor of the great British sitcom The IT Crowd returning to UK airwaves tonight for a farewell special, I've decided to spotlight streaming choices featuring the show's cast members and creators! HOORAY!

First up, we've got, well, we've got the show itself. Created and written by television veteran Graham Linehan, The IT Crowd aired for four six-episode series between 2006 and 2010. A workplace sitcom, the show concerns the misadventures of newly-hired IT "relationship manager" Jen Barber (Katherine Parkinson) and her coworkers at the intentionally vague conglomerate Reynholm Industries. After lying her way through an interview with boss Denholm Reynholm (Chris Morris), the computer-illiterate Jen goes to the basement to take charge of her misfit techie underlings Moss (Richard Ayoade) and Roy (Chris O'Dowd). The three become reluctant friends, dealing with difficult bosses (both Denholm and his wanton wastrel son Douglas (Matt Berry)), wacky situations, and the general mismatch between how they perceive themselves and how they actually are. Now, this may sound like a very sitcommy set-up, but Linehan's clever writing and the strong performances by (and chemistry between) the leads is what really makes the show hum. While it does fall back on nerd cliches from time to time, it is neither as pandering nor as oddly antagonistic towards geeks as, say, The Big Bang Theory. Moss and Roy make the ostensibly-normal Jen the butt of the joke at least as often as she does for them. But, above and beyond all of that, the show is just plain hilarious. 

Now, following The IT Crowd's success, the show's stars started finding increased exposure and more opportunities. O'Dowd is now perhaps best known for his role opposite Kristen Wiig in Bridesmaids, which is NOT available for streaming on Netflix. Neither are the Christopher Guest-created HBO comedy Family Tree, in which he starred, nor Girls, on which he had a featured role, nor really much of his work apart from Jennifer Westfeldt's 2011 film Friends With Kids. Now, I haven't seen the film, but I like the cast (Westfeldt, Jon Hamm, Wiig, Adam Scott) and writer/director (her Kissing Jessica Stein may well turn up in this space one of these days), so it seems like it should be an enjoyable film to watch. Here's the trailer, at any rate:

Richard Ayoade parlayed his time on The IT Crowd into a featured role in Ben Stiller's The Watch (which I have not seen, because I hear it's ghastly apart from Ayoade's scenes). But he also has something of a directorial eye, and his second feature The Double (starring Jesse Eisenberg) is currently making the festival rounds. Which means it's a perfect time to recommend his first film, 2010's Submarine. Based on the novel by Joe Dunthorne, Submarine is a coming-of-age story about Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts) a teenager from Swansea with an active imagination and a love of cinema. Oliver falls for Jordana (Yasmin Paige), a smart-alecky, tough girl at his school, while his parents' (Sally Hawkins and Noah Taylor) relationship endures the threat of a new-agey guru (Paddy Considine) who moves in next door. The film is touchingly observed and unafraid to confront the darker side of Oliver's character, and Ayoade shows off his admirable cine-literacy—the film's tone falls somewhere in between Wes Anderson, Hal Ashby, and the French New Wave. Submarine doesn't reinvent the teen coming-of-age/guy-meets-girl genres, but it has enough heart and sincerity to elevate it above many of its fellows.

Katherine Parkinson has, unfortunately, been the cast member with the least international success, as almost all of her credits stem solely from UK productions. You can apparently see her on three seasons of Doc Martin, which streams on Netflix, but as I have never watched it and know little-to-nothing about it, I can't quite recommend it to you. However, Parkinson DOES appear on one episode of the BBC's brilliant Sherlock, the modern-day Sherlock Holmes adaptation created in 2010 by Doctor Who's Steven Moffat and The League of Gentlemen's Mark Gatiss. Here, Benedict Cumberbatch stars as Holmes, an obstreperous, hard-to-handle genius with a brilliant mind and a near-total lack of social skills. He's balanced by The Office (UK)'s Martin Freeman, perhaps best known now for The Hobbit, as Dr. John Watson, a recovering Afghan war veteran who becomes Holmes's flatmate, chronicler (here via a blog), and the closest thing he has to a friend. The show's brilliantly twisty scripts and non-standard episode length (typically ~90 minutes) make each three-episode season more like a set of three loosely-connected films. Parkinson appears as tabloid reporter Kitty Riley in the final episode of the show's second series, "The Reichenbach Fall," but for maximum enjoyment, I would recommend watching the whole thing before diving into that episode. Sherlock returns this fall for its third series, and I for one can't wait.

Chris Morris, meanwhile, made his biggest international splash co-writing and directing 2010's Four Lions, a satirical comedy about inept jihadis set in Sheffield. Omar (Riz Ahmed) leads a group of dissatisfied British muslims—including Barry (Nigel Lindsay), a white convert who is probably the most militant of them all—who take arms against the West's immodest, imperialistic ways. Unfortunately (for him), he and his crew are completely out of their depth when it comes to training for, planning, and enacting their terrorist schemes. While Four Lions is filled with farcical, silly, and outright slapstick moments, the film is careful to make sure the butt of its humor is neither the group's prospective victims nor Muslims as a whole. Instead, the film's pitch black satire comes from the disconnect between the group's sincere, righteous anger, and their woeful choices and execution in doing something about it. Sharp, effective, and surprisingly emotional, Four Lions is the sort of dark, biting comedy that rarely makes it to theaters in these days of risk-averse studio conglomerates.

From The IT Crowd's second season onward, the booming-voiced Matt Berry plays Denholm's sexed-up, sexist son Douglas. Berry has had a few appearances in international productions—he guested on Portlandia and had a small role in Duncan Jones's Moon, one of my favorite films of recent years—but is mostly known for his UK TV and sketch roles and his music (indeed, he scored and guested on Saxondale, previously discussed here). He also appeared, alongside Ayoade, on the show Garth Marenghi's Darkplace, which aired on Adult Swim in the US, but that's not available to stream on Netflix, only through less-reputable means. But the 2006 show Snuff Box, which Berry co-wrote and created with Rich Fulcher, IS available, and is certainly worth your time. Snuff Box is an absurd hybrid between a sketch show with interlinked bits and a sitcom, with Berry and Fulcher playing fictionalized versions of themselves as executioners who hang out at a gentleman's club for hangmen and the like. These bits are interspersed with unrelated sketches, often with a surreal or random bent. One running gag, linked below, even went viral (and unattributed) well before I'd ever heard of Berry, Snuff Box, or The IT Crowd. Be warned: NSFW language!

Finally, there would be no IT Crowd if it weren't for Graham Linehan. Linehan had previously created the hit show Father Ted with longtime writing partner Arthur Matthews,  but Ted is no longer licensed to stream on Netflix, and more's the pity as it's brilliant (and was the first British show I ever watched IN the UK, when I visited London during my sophomore year of high school). Linehan and Matthews also had a hand in the sketch show Big Train, which also isn't streaming but which featured, among others, a young Simon Pegg and Mark Heap of Spaced (mentioned here in a prior Weekend Stream), and The Office (US)/Doctor Who's Catherine Tate. But one Linehan show that IS still available on Netflix is Black Books, which ran over three series from 2000-2004 and aired in the US on Comedy Central. Linehan co-created and co-wrote the first season of the show with Dylan Moran, who stars as Bernard Black, the louche, rude, and altogether unpleasant proprietor of the titular shabby London bookshop. His friend Fran (Tamsin Greig of Showtime's Matt LeBlanc vehicle Episodes) runs the shop next door, and convinces him to hire the eager-to-please Manny (Bill Bailey) to assist with all the parts of running a business that Bernard can't be bothered to deal with. As the name implies, Black Books is a black comedy, unafraid to show its main character for the terrible person that he is. It's also frequently laugh-out-loud funny, piling trainwreck after trainwreck into each episode just to watch Bernard and company squirm, as in the clip below, where Bernard would rather do just about anything than work on his taxes:

You've probably noticed, by now, the extremely self-cannibalizing nature of British comedy of this era. The dense web of connection between the cast and crew of The IT Crowd and those of many other contemporary British shows and movies is astounding, when you look at it. You'll notice Black Books's Moran in Pegg's Shaun of the Dead, Berry, Fulcher, and Ayoade (along with frequent IT Crowd guest star Noel Fielding) on The Mighty Boosh, and on and on. Streaming these titles (and renting those unavailable to stream) will give you a great overview of an entire generation of British humor, one whose influence is still being felt today.

And with that, I'm calling curtains on this week's EXTRA SPECIAL and waaay overlong Weekend Stream. I do hope you've enjoyed this look at the work of (seemingly all of the) people associated with the dear departed The IT Crowd. Come back next week for a more normal-length look at Netflix's various and sundry streaming titles.

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