Black Books: 4 Reasons the British Sitcom Remains a Classic
BAFTA-winning show Black Books (2000 – 2004) is easily one of the most successful and beloved British sitcoms of all time – however, it was not initially widely known to non-UK residents. The goofy and creative show has picked up listeners over the last decade though and is on its way to become a sitcom classic already.
Surprisingly, Black Books has no affliction with the BBC whatsoever; created by Dylan Moran (who also plays the lead) and Graham Linehan, the show was filmed at Teddington Studios and broadcast on Channel 4. It centers around Bernard Black (Dylan Moran), the careless, grumpy, wine-inhaling owner of Black Books, his friend Fran (Tamsin Greig) and his assistant shop keeper Manny (Bill Bailey). Specked with a few fun cameos by people not yet famous at the time, this show is a hilarious roller coaster ride that will make you laugh until you cry. But where exactly does its ingenuity lie? How does it continue to entertain after a good 10 years? What makes it a sitcom classic already?
An episode of Black Books will start out quite calm; a harmless joke, amusing outdated intro sequence, the draft of an arising conflict. In classic sitcom style, it will then build up that conflict, add layers to it and perhaps introduce another storyline that will eventually collide with the initial one – and it all ends in one ridiculous roar of laughter. In contrary to regular American sitcoms, this British success goes beyond all expectations and rationality though, introducing one mad scenario after the other – all of them still remaining connected. From Manny absorbing a book full of wisdom that changes him into a Jesus-like messenger of peace to a the Nazi-esque (ironically named) rival bookshop ‘Goliath books’ to a charming travel writer reminiscent of Gilderoy Lockhart, Black Books has it all.
This feat stands in great contrast to the afore-mentioned. However, it’s certainly the rituals that make the madness of Black Books even more effective. The introduction of rituals itself isn’t very unusual in the genre, as every good sitcom needs its rituals – think of the How I Met Your Mother sandwich metaphor or the dream sequences in Scrubs. They most prominently serve the purpose of making the audience feel more familiar with the show and feel like it’s a true part of their lives. Furthermore, rituals can serve as easy laughs, since situations can become even more ridiculous when repeated over and over again. Some of the rituals in Black Books include the daily walk to the pub, Bernard throwing a tantrum and being rude to customers and nights ending in a binge of red wine and cigarettes. As assumed, the audience becomes more familiar with Bernard and his companions through repetition while their characters become more realistic and relatable – after all, most people’s lives consist at least to some extend of rituals.
For a show that consists of only 18 episodes of 20 minutes each, Black Books offers a vast amount of creative and spot-on one liners free for use in daily life. While “I will… drink heavily and shout at you” is an example of the more versatile quotes, there are plenty of more specific options such as “I can feel bits of my brain falling away like a wet cake”. The usage of these quotes will increase the bond between the viewer and the show and furthermore make it easy for the appreciator of Black Books to detect others of his kind. The most-quoted lines from the show are often from the last two thirds of the episodes, which fits with the paragraph about the shows madness. This is when writers Moran and Linehan truly get to prove their capabilities, because after all, a sitcom is more about dialogue and characters than about suspenseful plots. This isn’t to say that Black Books or any other sitcom are dull, but the suspense often arises from a simple scenario that is blown up through dialogue and mannerisms expressed by the characters.
Although there is a clear continuity in the show that encourages the audience to watch the all episodes back-to-back, Black Books is a typical example of a series that you can seen at random (a trademark of most situational comedy shows). The viewer may catch only a single episode on TV or elsewhere, yet will most likely immediately be drawn in, which serves as a bonus in comparison to lengthy, in-depth, dramatic shows like Downtown Abbey or Sherlock. Even mid-way into an episode, one is still able to enjoy and engage in the plot of the particular episode. The briefness of the show may also be a help here – as there are only so many episodes, the enthusiastic fan may not care about the order in which he or she watches them after a while, which makes it easier to watch the show in a larger group. Also, a person is able to turn on the show in the vicinity of another person he or she would like to convince to start watching the show, and will most likely succeed.
All these treats are fairly custom to sitcom tv shows overall. The difference between other shows and this one is that few other sitcoms master all of these treats as well as Black Books. In particular, it is hard to compete with the level of madness that is established in the show and distinguishes it from American counterparts like Two and a Half Men or 2 Broke Girls. It’s what makes Black Books deserve its status as a sitcom classic.
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