[24 November 2010]
The 1990-93 British television production of Jeeves and Wooster has a special kind of historical and formal unity. The show starred Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry, was compiled and adapted from P.G. Wodehouse’s stories about the 1930s London socialite, Bertie Wooster, and his all-knowing valet, Jeeves. Wodehouse’s “Jeeves stories”, much like the serialized novels of Charles Dickens and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, have a narrative zing seemingly tailor-made for the television format. While they may not have actually inspired how radio and television took shape, they certainly seem like they did, with their episodic form, their light-hearted comedy, their circumstantial conflicts that right themselves with only minimal effort.
Whether Jeeves, as the manipulator of all dramatic action, is a Deus Ex Machina is questionable, since conflict is so circumstantial and the “machine” out of which resolution comes fully formed resides in Jeeves’s own persona. Jeeves is always present on-screen, observing, reacting. He never swoops in from offstage so can’t be said to come “out of the machine”. He merely waits for the most opportune time to make his move, to hedge in his employer’s tomfoolery and set the world right again. If his resolutions are ridiculous, then so are the situations that call for them, and like most good television, one doesn’t really care if any of it makes sense. Jeeves and Wooster are connected most especially to certain American sit-coms focused on the superficialities of relatively privileged characters, the conflict of which is characterized through flights from existential crises, shows like Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Frasier, and Friends. Like them, Jeeves and Wooster is a “show about nothing”.
But the way the show approaches “nothing” is more interesting, more historically-centered and class-conscious than its American counterparts. Wooster is representative of a landed gentry coming to terms with the modern cultural limitations of its own indulgences, and most of the stories are about Wooster’s friend securing proper engagements or inheritances so as not to be released into the wilds of actually earning a living. While educated at the best schools, Wooster and his cronies are more apt to sing minstrel tunes than quote Shakespeare, more interested in Cricket than current affairs. The inevitability of their comedic roles is historically defined, and their upper crust shenanigans are a wonderfully ridiculous comic foil to Jeeves’ workaday common sense.
The verbiage used on the show is also highly reflective of aristocratic indulgence. Wooster often finds himself stranded in the middle of a sentence, unable to find the correct word to express what he means, reliant on Woosterisms like, “Thingummy” and “What’s it.” He speaks “nothing”, because he has nothing to say; he is superficiality incarnate, stumbling from place to place with only a very dim grasp on what is happening around him. This is all meant to signify the helplessness of aristocrats, their total dependency on the workers who make their lifestyles possible and, in Wooster’s case, their speech. The first episode of Jeeves and Wooster features a hung over, recently incarcerated, literally speechless Wooster, unable to do more than mumble and grunt until the newly hired Jeeves concocts a hangover cure that quickly loosens his tongue.
Jeeves, on the other hand, constantly deals in euphemism to keep from offending his boss and companion. He is capable of saying anything but speaks in the measured language of a servant (though with an added eloquence) to keep from overstepping the boundaries of his role. Wooster, therefore, defines dramatic discourse, while Jeeves, the narrative thrust. Wooster’s aristocratic vapidity determines what the comedy means to say, being “nothing”, while Jeeves determines what comedy is meant to show, being a tragic folly tempered through the non-issue of meaningless circumstance. One gets a sense that the show’s adventures are really all Jeeves’s private game.
Stephen Fry, who may be the most well-spoken man on the planet, is perfect as Jeeves, while Hugh Laurie delivers Wooster as equally blustering and endearing. We root for both, so long as they stay within the strictures of the serialized format’s returns to grace. If Jeeves was to assert himself, he would cease to be a gentleman, and therefore cease to be Jeeves. If Bertie was to actually straighten up and fly right, Jeeves would be out of a job, and the adventure (and our entertainment) would end.