[31 July 2006]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It’s almost impossible to produce incompetence deliberately. Stunning stupidity in any medium is enigmatic, like the Supreme Court’s definition of pornography, hard to pin down, but easy to identify when you see it. Those who try to draft crap on purpose typically come up short.
British comedian Matthew Holness is one of the rare individuals who can put together an intentionally dreadful entertainment. As macabre maven Garth Marenghi, a self-important scribe whose arrogance is matched only by his ineptitude, the funnyman developed the devilishly dumb sci-fi/horror spoof, Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace. New to the Sci-Fi Channel, the anthology series features the faux author as a ghost-busting physician at a spooky hospital built on the Gates of Hell. In a brief introduction, Marenghi informs us that England’s Channel 4 commissioned Darkplace back in the early ‘80s. After filming several episodes, the production was halted and the episodes remained unseen.
Now, decades later, Marenghi has been invited to televise these exercises in eeriness, and we can finally see what made programming executives pale all those years ago. However, there is a caveat. Marenghi intercuts current interviews with cast and crew into each episode, as if these mea culpas might explain away the installments’ many missteps. In essence, we are presented with a show inside a show inside a fictional universe.
Darkplace is instantly addictive and painfully hilarious. This even though Holness isn’t technically doing anything all that new (see also: Benny Hill or Carol Burnett). But Darkplace uses mistakes—miserable line readings and badly drawn characters—as fuel for a sly show business satire. Even better, it also explores “ego,” how popularity, not capability, leads to less than successful entertainment applications.
For the hospital horror drama, Marenghi is Dr. Rick Dagless, an MD driven by his curiosity about the Occult and afflicted by a backwards bedside manner (he tends to treat the patient’s family, not the patient himself). At his right hand is likeable lothario Dr. Lucien Sanchez. As played by the fictional actor Todd Rivers (UK TV staple Matt Berry), Sanchez is the resident skeptic, unable to comprehend the occasional paranormal elements—exploding people, demonic cats –- that interrupt his daily rounds.
Supervising the lot is Thorton Reed, a by-the-book administrator who seeks a rational explanation for all the spooky showboating. He is played by Marenghi’s publisher, Dean Lerner (Richard Ayoade), a complete amateur when it comes to acting. Into all of their lives comes pseudo psychic and newbie medico Liz Asher. Ditzy and determined to fit in amongst all the testosterone and terror, Madeleine Wool (Alice Lowe) infuses her clueless character with a kind of otherworldly wisdom. Dagless defends his fellow MDs from a constant onslaught of ghouls, ghosts, and goblins. Through metaphysical mumbo jumbo and special effects, our hero hinders the forces of evil while the day-to-day grind of doctoring keeps everyone on edge anyway.
The pilot storyline involves Asher’s entrance, the discovery of the gateway to hell, and a funeral featuring more mindless gunfire and zombie conniptions than a dozen big budget splatterfests. Each performance is pitched perfectly between horrid and hopeless, with standouts being Ayoade’s overanxious bureaucrat, and Berry’s suave stud. As our lead, Holness/Marenghi takes a little getting used to. He is so self-righteous that he’s off-putting at first. But once we see through the bravado to its deliriously dim center, we start to feel sorry for the guy and quite enjoy his problematic production.
Darkplace is infused with seriousness, with no trace of tongue in all the British cheek. Everything about the show within a show is bad, from the repetition of incongruous close-ups to the lack of continuity and basic production craft. It often reminds us of This Is Spinal Tap, keeping so close to its hapless subjects that we can’t help but be hooked.
Sadly, the series only lasted one season, which in UK TV terms means a mere six episodes. Still, Holness keeps up the creepshow comedy on the official series website, so we can catch up on the latest news regarding the “author” and read a synopsis of one of his “novels.” Everything about Holness, Marenghi, and Darkplace feels like a ruse perpetrated for the sheer fun of fooling people. And since the ruse is managed so well, the hoax is hilarious.
Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace - Love Song