If I were more Anglophobic, I think I’d feel pretty grateful for Mr. Bean. British pop art has a history of one-upping the U.S.: the Beatles trump Elvis and the Beach Boys, Monty Python’s Flying Circus towers over Laugh-In, and, thanks to the Sex Pistols, the U.K. can still claim the invention of punk rock as their own. Mr. Bean, though, is a straightforward little slapstick creation, well liked but not worshipped.
The premise isn’t complex: Rowan Atkinson plays a man-child called Bean who embarks on simple, often wordless misadventures. Sight gags and mishaps ensue. Atkinson’s physical comedy owes a lot to the great silent film comedians but, good as he is, the show doesn’t make it into Keaton or Chaplin territory. Finally, a British pop icon that doesn’t beat the U.S. at its own game.
But, then again, maybe it does. Mr. Bean is the essence of situation comedy. It is stripped of the stupid contrivances and banal dialogue present in almost all but the genre’s best (The Simpsons, Seinfeld, maybe The Mary Tyler Moore Show). Think of it as a British I Love Lucy, minus Ricky and Ethel, but with lots of detachment: I’ve Grown Rather Fond of Bean. On these modest terms, the program is quite successful—it certainly makes you laugh more than those old Lucy shows.
Maybe that’s because Atkinson doesn’t make droopy plays for our affection, like Lucille Ball (or even, for that matter, Charlie Chaplin). He doesn’t seem to have the typical comedian’s yearning to be loved. His Mr. Bean is an often selfish, usually solitary creature who will not hesitate to cheat on a test, cause car accidents, or disturb others for his own enjoyment. Emotionally, the show resembles a quiet, one-man Seinfeld: no hugging, no understanding. A run of Bean episodes yields no lessons learned, and only a teddy bear is hugged.
Which brings us to The Whole Bean, a DVD anthology containing every episode of the series, plus extras (as it’s a Britcom, you’d expect that the entire run could fit comfortably onto a single disc, but no, it takes three). Watching Bean in marathon form is somewhat daunting, but the DVD chapter function fits perfectly with the show’s sketch-based structure. You can skip directly to the test-taking scene during the first episode, and avoid some forgettable adventures entirely, like the promisingly titled but poorly paced “Mind the Baby, Mr. Bean.”
Episodes that have less need for the skip button include “Goodnight, Mr. Bean,” which features not only Bean’s bedtime ritual, but a marvelous bit in a hospital waiting room, and “The Trouble with Mr. Bean,” which highlights his talent for dressing himself while driving. You can also try to count how many times he runs that poor little blue car off the road (I lost count).
The extras are modest, but appreciated: some stray sketches, previously uncollected or unreleased, and a documentary on the genesis of Bean, which is to say, a documentary on Rowan Atkinson. It’s dry and tv-ish, rehashing a lot of material visible elsewhere on the collection, but footage of a young Atkinson clowning in theatrical sketch comedy is a minor treat. The 1997 theatrical feature that originally inspired this documentary is missing in action, but much of the film is sort of a greatest-hits-or-misses collection anyway.
What comes through on this DVD set is the Bean character’s staunch dedication to childishness, in the best possible sense. Sitcoms have long indulged in this kind of infantilism (from Lucy and The Honeymooners to Perfect Strangers), as if nothing could be funnier than a woman mugging helplessly, or men acting like dim 10-year-olds (later sitcoms added sassy, wisecracking kids as a peculiar complement to this behavior, not to mention to increase the hug quotient).
Mr. Bean, however, remembers the important ingredient of childish malice, a comedic trope usually only displayed at length in animated form (The Simpsons, South Park). When Bean, in “Good Night, Mr. Bean,” is waiting in line at the hospital (the reason is given a hilarious reveal about a third of the way into the segment), he does not hesitate to switch call numbers with a helpless woman in a body cast. Although Bean does not always get his way, he never really gets his comeuppance, either; at worst, his childish ploys don’t quite work out. But just as often, they do.
Somehow, this isn’t obnoxious. The only-child economy of the show is refreshing, thanks mainly to Atkinson’s physical prowess. I imagine the relief offered by such excess would’ve been more obvious when the series first aired in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, a time when the Saturday Night Live cast started to balloon past a dozen and the number one sitcom was Cheers, featuring a large ensemble.
The Bean DVD set will appeal mostly to hardcore fans, but it’s also available as separate volumes, if sitcom fans want a somewhat less comprehensive look. A disc or two of Bean may be the perfect tonic for those disappointed by Friends’ newfound status as soap opera.