The Shelf: “The Thick of It,” “Oblivion,” “The Best of Fridays”
By Kyle Anderson on August 6, 2013
This week on Ye Olde Shelfe, the new Doctor’s old show, Tom Cruise’s new digs, sketch comedy from the edge, plus some Disney, some sci-fi, and the fourth in the “six seasons and a movie” line. Hear ye! Hear ye! There be Blu-rays and DVDs ashore! (What am I trying to do anymore? I’ve lost the plot.)
Well, well, well; what do we have here? It seems the folks at BBC Home Entertainment know what they’re doing. Not two days after it was announced that Peter Capaldi would be taking over the role of the Doctor we get the release of perhaps his most famous program that, as of yet, had not been released in the U.S.: The Thick of It. Created by Veep‘s Armando Iannucci and very much in that style, The Thick of It is all about the bumbling and behind-the-scenes bickering of government types in Britain, specifically the Secretary of State for the Department of Social Affairs and Citizenship (or DoSAC for short) and his or her staff. They do their best not to make the Minister look stupid, although that’s often very difficult. All the while, whenever things get bad, or even when they don’t, the staff has to be on the lookout for Malcolm Tucker (Capaldi), the exceedingly angry and foul-mouthed head of Public Relations for the Prime Minister, who excels at screaming at people until they do what he wants.
This show is hysterical, top to bottom, and Capaldi really shines as the fast-talking curse-inventor. Aside from Malcolm Tucker, my other favorite character is Ollie Reeder (Chris Addison), the junior policy adviser, who is often the target of Tucker’s rage, though there is a begrudging respect. The pace of the show is exceedingly fast, so you do have to get into the rhythm of it, but that’s really no different to watching Deadwood or any Aaron Sorkin show.
This DVD set brings together all four series of the show, plus the two specials that were done between Series Two and the spinoff movie In the Loop, for which Iannucci and company got an Oscar nomination. Series Four only just aired in October 2012, so it’s pretty great that we’re getting it all so relatively soon. Definitely check it out if you’re unfamiliar with Capaldi’s work. (NOTE: this is NOT recommended to show your kids. It’s full of swearing, you guys.)
As many regular readers of this column and my other regular features, I adore science fiction. I love any excuse for writers to be inventive and create a world and circumstances wholly unlike our own. This genre has also become synonymous with huge special effects and CGI stuff, which can certainly be breathtaking, but for me, it’s story first. Joseph Kosinski’s film Oblivion definitely checks all the boxes in the visuals department and begins to do so in the words department until it sort of becomes a bunch of stuff we’ve already seen.
The story follows Jack (Tom Cruise), who is one of two (as far as he knows) remaining people on Earth after an alien war. As he says in voiceover, Earth won the war but lost the planet. He and his partner Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) are in charge of making sure the drones that protect the massive resource-extractors keep working so that they can finally leave and rejoin the human population wherever it was they ended up. Jack seems increasingly distraught about the idea of leaving Earth and often slips away in his awesome-looking bubble jet to a secluded area by a lake where he’s got a cabin full of artifacts, like records and basketballs.
He often runs across scavengers, remnants of the aliens who attacked them, and has to fight them off. Also at one point a ship on autopilot crash-lands and Jack goes to investigate. It’s full of people in stasis but the drones attack and kill all but Julia (Olga Kurylenko), who is literally the girl of Jack’s dreams. WHAT IS GOING ON?!?!
To say that Oblivion has a lot of balls in the air is a bit of an understatement. There truly is a whole lot going on in just about every aspect. What’s interesting is that it seems like Kosinski and the writers had about seven different plot ideas and decided they all needed to be put in and, weirdly, it mostly works. I said this in my initial review of the film: Oblivion is a pretty good sci-fi movie, but it’s also EVERY good sci-fi movie. Especially toward the end, there are elements, especially certain visuals, that are directly lifted from other movies. If you can get passed those, it’s a lot of fun, and it looks truly phenomenal.
In 1980, NBC’s Saturday Night (not yet known as Saturday Night Live) was in its fifth season and a lot of the edge it had seemed to be dulling; Young people weren’t as excited about it. Surely, once the original Not Ready for Primetime Players high-tailed it, it sort of lost its appeal, with all due deference to Eddie Murphy and Joe Piscopo. This is why, when ABC premiered its attempt at late-night sketch comedy (which made fun of its similarities to SNL in sketch one, episode one), it was a bit of fresh air. This was Fridays, a grungier, even more irreverent, and even slightly dangerous take on sketch.
The series, which only ran three seasons, featured future comedy giants Larry David and Michael Richards and also had funny people you’d recognize like Mark Blankfield, Melanie Chartoff, and Rich Hall. The series was also notable for having excellent musical guests (on their third episode, they had The Clash making their first US television appearance, playing four songs from London Calling) and a series of infamous appearances by Andy Kaufman, one in particular where a sketch broke down and ended in what appeared to be the beginnings of a fight on live television. The “live” aspect of this show seems much more frightening than even the early days of SNL. Perhaps this comes from the cast and crew being less prepared, but it might also be that the buttons Fridays pushed were bigger and less obvious.
Long thought that these episodes (they totaled 58) would never see the light of day again, the cast finally signed off on a “Best-Of” DVD release featuring 16 complete episodes from the three years. There’s over 13 hours of comedy on display here and while, like a lot of sketch comedy, some of it isn’t funny (certainly 30 years has taken some of the bite off), fans of comedy will find a lot to enjoy. Also in the set are hours of interview footage: one with a reunion of the cast, minus Larry David, one with a writers’ reunion, and one talking about what really happened with the Andy Kaufman incident. It’s solid set and a great look at the alternate alternate comedy show.
Community The Complete Season Four – It may not have been the best season, but it ain’t the last!
Robin Hood 40th Anniversary Edition – Another classic Disney animated feature getting the Blu-ray treatment. Catch it before it ends up back in the ominous “vault.”
The Sword in the Stone 50th Anniversary Edition – Same as above.
Oliver & Company 25th Anniversary Edition - Boy, Disney sure likes putting things out in years with 8s and 3s, don’t they?
Swamp Thing – Wes Craven’s attempt at a “big budget” action movie is incredibly silly. Fun, though.
A Boy and His Dog – A psychedelic bit of sci-fi comedy from the mid-70s starring Don Johnson (and Alvy Moore — Hank Kimball on Green Acres!), written and directed by veteran character actor L.Q. Jones from a story by Harlan Ellison. It’s a blast.