I could spend the entirety of this first paragraph writing a lexically impressive but sentimentally clichéd diatribe about how difficult high school is; or, I could just have you watch one episode of The Inbetweeners. A sort of cross-hybrid between Superbad, American Pie, and Scrubs with a lot more f-bombs and (incredibly awkward) sex scenes, The Inbetweeners ran for three seasons on England’s E4 network, garnering a considerable following that included comedic great Ricky Gervais as one of its own. The program wasn’t well known in the States during its run, but somehow its success across the pond was so great that now the show is getting its own American counterpart on MTV as well as a feature-length movie release. To paraphrase one Abed, this really is a “six seasons and a movie” situation.
If you’re groaning, I don’t blame you; the British-show-to-American-show transition rarely works well. But more than anything else, you should groan because The Inbetweeners isn’t a show worth a second incarnation.
This is a program about the “minefield that is high school;” given the myriad shows that have existed on that subject before, one has to do something special to elevate the show above the generic mass. The CW has teen drama cornered for a reason: it’s fairly easy to make, and the relatability of the characters and storylines are such that anyone can relate, and as a result there will always be a fanbase, however small or large. This naturally leads to a waning in quality; the notion of Gossip Girl ever winning an Emmy is likely on the page of some “Shit No One Says ” somewhere out there.
Similarly, “The Inbetweeners” presses enough of the right buttons to lure viewers in: it’s often funny, even riotous, and each of the four leads fits an archetype each of us probably knows. But upon closer examination, The Inbetweeners falls prey to a trait that also defines each of the main characters: a lack of emotional vulnerability. Superbad at least had moments of honesty; here, they’re only briefly mentioned and not given another thought. You can tell there’s more to these people than failed sexual conquests, but you’re shown little else that provides substance.
The Inbetweeners begins with Will McKenzie (Simon Bird) as he transfers to a new comprehensive school after his mother voices concern about his being bullied at his former private school. Will, who provides a (mostly unnecessary) J.D-like narration to these proceedings, is socially awkward and easy to pick on. His status as “weird new guy” is cemented minutes upon walking into the school, due in some part to the name tag he’s forced to wear but mostly because, well, he is a strange fellow.
In a short amount of time, he attaches himself to a ragtag group of boys: Jay (James Buckley), a pathological liar who bears a marked resemblance to the Gallagher brothers, Simon (Joe Thomas), a kind but somewhat clumsy boy whose high school goal is to confess his love to his crush Carli (Emily Head), and Neil (Blake Harrison), a well-meaning but buffonish character who, much to the chagrin of the other three, always manages to complete his sexual conquests, which happen offscreen and are brought up almost in passing. Together the four seek love (read: sex) and fun (read: getting drunk) over the course of three six-episode seasons, finding misadventure each step of the way.
To The Inbetweener’s credit, there are many drop-dead-hilarious moment. Perhaps the best one arrives during a field trip in the second season. After accidentally catching a fish which, despite being a harmless trout, terrifies all of the boys, Neil decides that the fish couldn’t survive in the ocean due to the wounds inflicted by the fishook. His solution? To punch the fish to death. As you watch the scene play out, you can’t help but ask yourself amidst bursts of laughter, “Did he really just punch out a fish?”
It’s moments like these where The Inbetweeners lives up to its premise. Beyond that, all the sex jokes and hilarious encounters begin to wear thin. At times some of the funniest characters are underutilized. Case in point: Gilbert (Greg Davies), the head of sixth form, is the show’s best secondary player. His line readings are absolutely priceless: he can deliver the words “shut up” in a way that you’ve never heard before, and will have you reeling. Every time he was on the screen I was clamoring for more of his quips, but Will & Co.‘s fruitless sexcapades is always given first priority.
And fruitless they are. When you push all the great gags and memorable characters aside, there’s very little emotively that provides the substance necessary for The Inbetweeners to ring as true-to-life. There are hints scattered throughout the episodes: mention is made of divorce, of parents struggling with their sexuality, or of teenagers like Jay struggling with psychological issues. What’s surprising is how briefly these are talked about; in the series finalé, it’s revealed that Jay’s dad wishes for him to see a therapist. It’s not surprising when Jay shrugs this off; what is is amazing is how his friends join him in doing so.
When things like this happen (and they happen often), you really question whether these people are “friends” or if they’re just four guys who like to hang out and do stupid stuff. There isn’t really any uniqueness to the individual relationships amongst the core four; they’re almost always presented together, and when they’re together they spend most of their time cracking sexist and homophobic jokes. The irony, of course, is that their sexism and homophobia are the key reasons why they rarely ever get laid. Even Will, the smartest and most admirable of the bunch, has deeply held sexist traits, albeit in a way unlike the blatant crudities of his mates. His old-school chauvinism (one peripheral character says “he talks like someone in a nineteen forties movie”) is the source of the most uncomfortable encounters with women in the series.
Funny as it is, The Inbetweeners is only about “the high school experience” at its most base level. The show definitely had the potential to do more: the interplay amongst Will, Jay, Neil, and Simon is fantastic, shallow though it may be. These four “friends” had a lot of laughs during their tenure; they just never got around to truly being who they were. If you’re looking for a laugh, The Inbetweeners is a solid television program to go to. Just don’t hope for anything more.
This three-season set is loaded with bonus features, which will sate the appetites of those who love the program. Bloopers, deleted scenes, and various featurettes are included for each season, giving a thorough portrayal of what it took to made The Inbetweeners, as well as all the laughs that happened behind the scenes. It’s nice to see the actors crack up about how ridiculous some of the gags are; they’re in on the joke just as much as we are.