October 28, 2021

Television

The host with the most failings: ‘This Time with Alan Partridge’ season two

By Craig Mathieson

Image: BBC / Baby Cow

Steve Coogan’s hapless TV host remains an absurdist joy, while Bilal Baig’s comedy series ‘Sort Of’ and Margaret Qualley’s performance in ‘Maid’ are among the latest streaming highlights

It’s 30 years since Alan Partridge was first heard on the airwaves, a diversionary character voiced by Steve Coogan who delivered non sequiturs with great gusto from the sports desk of the satirical BBC radio show On the Hour. “The British Angling Competition,” ran one, “latest score: anglers 532, fish nil.” Created by Coogan and producer Armando Iannucci (In the Loop, Veep), Partridge has evolved into an iconic comic presence through a succession of television shows and specials. A self-obsessed and mistake-prone host, permanently on the precipice of self-perpetuated failure, Partridge is a lickspittle Tory who reveres the British royal family, ABBA and Margaret Thatcher. His failings range from the petty to the nightmarish – the 1995 chat-show parody Knowing Me, Knowing You with Alan Partridge ended with Partridge accidentally killing a guest. It is hilarious.

ABC iview has recently added the second season of Partridge’s current iteration, This Time with Alan Partridge, which finds Coogan’s hapless but nonetheless gainfully employed media personality co-hosting a BBC current affairs show. (The first season is streaming on Stan.) Partridge has been a sitcom character (1997’s I’m Alan Partridge) and the centre of comical feature film (2013’s Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa), but putting him on the studio floor with the cameras on, editorial input and a capable co-host whose professionalism is sorely tested (Susannah Fielding’s Jennie Gresham) is clearly the optimal circumstance for his sublime buffoonery. “No dimmer switches,” is Partridge’s observation of a cell at a youth detention centre where he spends the night for a story. His segment introductions that veer off into the inappropriate remain an absurdist joy, while Partridge’s encounter with a puppet-wielding entertainer starts off at childish delight and ends with him being assaulted by the puppet while the puppeteer apologises.

While Partridge series are sporadic – often they coincide with Britain taking a wrong turn, such as This Time implying that Partridge is the epitome of Brexit’s ineptitude – they are close to uniformly excellent. These latest six episodes are impeccable comic creations, skilfully written by Coogan and the show’s directors, Neil and Rob Gibbons, and perfectly played. They have sequences of clockwork precision that build, with inexorable dread for the looming setback, so that aside after aside eventually culminates in Partridge’s heinous assumption of an undeserved spotlight. The reaction shots of baffled colleagues and guests tell their own story, and there are so many deadpan digs that a second watch often reveals previously unnoticed gems. ABC iview has the rights to stream This Time until December 27, a window of opportunity worth taking up. Alan Partridge, in the best of ways, still kills.

In the new Toronto-set comedy series Sort Of (Stan), the Canadian actor and playwright Bilal Baig provides a welcome boost to diversity on television: they’re a gender-fluid, queer and Muslim voice from a family of Pakistani immigrants. The same applies to Baig’s character, Sabi Mehboob, but the triumph of this empathetic and wryly inventive show is that all those factors influence but never define a thoughtfully intertwined plot. Sabi is trying to deal with a mother who doesn’t know who they truly are, prompting a crisis that envelopes the hipster family Sabi nannies for, and a performative ex-boyfriend. The question of when to make yourself the cause and not the reaction is the show’s fulcrum, and Baig and fellow creator and lead director Fab Filippo draw that dilemma out with affectionate barbs and genuine emotional stakes. Josh Thomas’ Please Like Me is a helpful reference point, but Sort Of swiftly establishes its own valuable identity.

Maid (Netflix) was inspired by Stephanie Land’s 2019 memoir Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive, a New York Times bestseller about how, as a young mother in the Pacific Northwest fleeing an emotionally abusive partner, Land fell below the poverty line for six years. The resulting limited series, starring Margaret Qualley, is unusually well attuned to the systematic slights and hardscrabble realities of struggling to maintain a household. Here, “living on welfare” is not merely a throwaway term but a detailed backdrop of programs, requirements and disadvantages. It’s as involved as any scripted American drama has been on the topic, with Qualley matching the research with a lived-in lead performance. Best known for dallying with Brad Pitt in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, she brings an honesty – and an exhaustion – to the grind of trying to stay afloat. Inevitably the narrative focuses on challenges to be overcome, but Qualley refuses to let those moments be triumphant distractions.

In brief: If you are missing that one-time staple of American network television, the detective show featuring a sardonic private eye solving a case every episode, the single season of Stumptown (Disney+) is a welcome throwback. As a former Marine with PTSD and debts, Cobie Smulders (How I Met Your Mother) delivers both wisecracks and right hooks in a kind of distaff Rockford Files that is structurally familiar but smartly executed. The European crime thriller Ganglands (Netflix) is a sharp, succinct mix of tightly wound action sequences and terse exchanges that is mostly one step ahead of the genre’s clichés. The science-fiction series Invasion (Apple TV+) focuses on a destructive alien arrival told through five separate global storylines, each focused on an already bleak protagonist. The narrow window of each story and hour-by-hour pacing make for a lavishly solemn and inert epic, as if Michael Bay took a shot at Waiting for Godot.

Craig Mathieson

Craig Mathieson is a television critic for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, an author, and the creator of the Binge-r streaming newsletter.

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