Mitchell and Webb: third time unlucky

The third series of the comedy duo’s sketch show is too self-referential and knowing to be funny.

Patrick West

Patrick West

Topics Culture

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In the field of artistic endeavour, you can always tell when someone or something is on the wane when works become retrospective, parodic and self-referential.

It’s usually an indication of boredom or hubris, and sometimes both. Looking back on it now, it seems evident that The Beatles were finished after they released their ‘White Album’ in 1968, a record that was essentially about themselves and their contemporaries, replete with tracks such as ‘Back In The USSR’ (a Beach Boys parody), ‘Rocky Raccoon’ (a knowing homage to Bob Dylan), and ‘Glass Onion’, with John Lennon’s lyrics alluding to the Fab Four’s previous songs such as ‘I Am The Walrus’, ‘Lady Madonna’, ‘The Fool On The Hill’ and ‘Fixing A Hole’.

Likewise, the writing was on the wall for The Who when they released their bloated double album ‘Quadrophenia’ in 1973, a nostalgic lament for the days of the Mods in the mid-1960s. And when in 1988 Iron Maiden started re-recording some of their old tracks from their first album of 1980, such as ‘Charlotte The Harlot’ and ‘Prowler’, it was no coincidence that 1988 also proved to be the last time the Maiden produced a decent studio album: Seventh Son of a Seventh Son.

Elsewhere, the science fiction writer Robert Heinlein, who gave us such seminal novels as Starship Troopers (1959) and Stranger In A Strange Land (1961), is unhappily remembered also for his later, turgid overlong fantasies such as The Cat Who Walks Through Walls (1985) which considers a universe as an author-manipulated object, including the plot in the book itself. Heinlein’s madder contemporary, Philip K Dick, went even further in his work Valis (1981), which features a version of Dick himself (going by the name of ‘Horselover Fat’) as the novel’s protagonist.

In cinema, Woody Allen hasn’t made a satisfying film since Manhattan (1979) – with the possible exception of Mighty Aphrodite (1995) – because he’s been too busy implicitly sending himself up. And no one has taken modern installation art seriously since Marcel Duchamp placed a urinal in an art gallery in 1917. ‘What is art?’ we were expected to ask. Artists seem to have asked nothing else since. Piero Manzoni further laboured the point by canning his own poo-poo in 1961. Such a blatant crisis of faith is not an indication of a medium in good health.

Irony, introspection and cerebral cannibalism are no bad things in themselves, but they can often be an all-too-clever mask for an absence of talent and original ideas. In television, The Office, although hilarious, was still a bit too pleased with itself. After all, the fake documentary is hardly a novel phenomenon: Steve Coogan employed it with two series of I’m Alan Partridge in the 1990s and 2000s, The Comic Strip Presents… had previously done likewise with spoof band Bad News in the 1980s and then there’s the grand-daddy of mockumentaries, Rob Reiner’s 1984 movie This Is Spinal Tap.

The fashion for the fake chat show, such as Knowing Me Knowing You (featuring a fictional Alan Partridge interviewing fictional people), The Mrs Merton Show (featuring Caroline Aherne’s eponymous character speaking to real people, including on one occasion, to add to a further level of sophisticated confusion, Steve Coogan), or The Larry Sanders Show (featuring a fictional presenter interviewing real people playing fictional representations of themselves), seems to have briefly abated. But don’t expect it to go away. Extras suggests that actors still like playing facsimiles of themselves. Chris Morris and Armando Iannucci’s bogus news series of the 1990s, The Day Today, may seem a while back now, but the continued success of BBC Radio 4’s spoof phone-in show Down The Line suggests that postmodern parody lives on in the popular media.

David Mitchell and Robert Webb are perhaps the current custodians of this introspective comedic inclination. The pair first achieved TV fame in 2003 with Peep Show, featuring Mitchell and Webb as two sexually-frustrated postgraduates living a dismal life in south London, and it had that classic signifier of the mockumentary: the wobbly camera shots, designed to suggest that what you are watching is not an objective projection, but rather is being subjectively filmed by a human being. The couple have since gone on to produce (born out of an earlier radio series) That Mitchell and Webb Look. First aired in 2006, the sketch show returned to our screens last night (1) for a third series. Ahh, ‘third series’. Those dreaded words – resonant of that phrase which haunts pop musicians: ‘the difficult third album’. And to employ another cliché, one by which sketch shows are always seemingly judged, was the first episode of the latest That Mitchell and Webb Look ‘hit and miss’?

Peep Show purists sniff at That Mitchell and Webb Look as pandering to the mainstream formula of the sketch show. But I thought it has always broke the mould, just as Monty Python’s Flying Circus did in the 1970s and The Fast Show did in the 1990s. That Mitchell and Webb Look resembles not anything Dick Emery, Kenny Everett, the Three of A Kind trio or Smith & Jones did in their wearisome shows, nor the peculiarly overrated Not The Nine O’Clock News, and it has been far removed from the inexplicably popular catchphrase-orientated Little Britain and The Catherine Tate Show.

That Mitchell and Webb Look has, since its inception, featured a brilliantly harlequinesque parade of surreally absurd grotesques, and has managed often to be subversively political at the same time. For instance, their take on the parable of the Good Samaritan is, in my opinion, the finest piece of blasphemous satire since Monty Python’s Life of Brian (2). The demeanours of the chubby, goggled-eyed Mitchell and the creepy, skeletal visage of the plummy-voiced Webb only add to its unsettling allure.

But, alas, Mitchell and Webb have so far failed the ‘third series’ test. Sure, there were some highlights last night, such as the insufferably boastful brain surgeon meeting a rocket scientist at a party, the police officer getting very angry at having to go on patrol with a ‘community support officer’, or the Poirot-esque detective correctly identifying the murderer on account of her ‘evil voice’. But this last sketch in particular hinted at problems to come: Mitchell and Webb have clearly been watching too much television themselves, as so many of their targets seem to be other television shows, and indeed the medium of television itself.

Alongside our cod-Poirot, we had take-offs of Newsnight, 24, The Apprentice and period dramas, in which an actor playing an aide to Queen Victoria complains that in real life Her Majesty wouldn’t have complained ‘I can smell come’. I presume the skit was meant to be mocking anachronisms in period dramas, but the base and repetitive puerility herein proved all-too-much a distraction.

It just wasn’t very funny, and it was the self-referential nature of the programme which hinted as to why it didn’t work. That Mitchell and Webb Look always features a section in which, a la Larry Sanders and Extras, the two ‘play themselves’, usually discussing in the programme how the programme in which they are in is going. Thursday’s episode featured David Mitchell and Robert Webb receiving toy dolls of themselves, with the former being delighted at all the super-powers that his doll featured, including the ability to switch to ‘quick fire panel show mode’, while Webb was visibly disgusted at the feeble abilities of his doll.

Presumably, this is meant to be a joke alluding to the disparity between the fortunes of Mitchell and Webb ever since the two achieved national recognition. While David Mitchell is now ubiquitous on radio and television panel shows on the BBC and cable channel Dave, Robert Webb still has a rather low profile. I saw Webb on The One Show a few weeks back and he came across as a right moody bugger, visibly grimacing with every mention of Mitchell. How he must resent and detest his comedy partner, and covet his success. The self-referential nature of That Mitchell and Webb Look suggests that this double act is not only past its sell-by date, but will soon go the same way as Lennon and McCartney.

Patrick West is spiked’s TV columnist.

Read on:

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(1) That Mitchell and Webb Look, Series 3 Episode 1, BBC iPlayer

(2) Good Samaritan, YouTube

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