OK, I admit it… largely on account of I’ve just finished a lengthy essay on Horrible Histories, so there’s no sense denying it: My interest in new SkyOne Britcom Spy — currently also available on Hulu.com in the US — was initially about seeing more of one particular Horrible Histories star, Mathew Baynton, in an environment I didn’t have to keep justifying every time another adult walked past the TV.
On the plus side, this means the readership will be spared the usual rant re: how only in TV-land would we be expected to believe either Baynton or Spy’s star, 6’4” Darren Boyd, as random computer-shop schlubs. No offense to my local Best Buy, but one look at these two and I immediately thought of 87 questions I needed to ask about cabling alone.
Not that there aren’t other, very real rewards in paying attention to Spy, especially since the first six half-hours proved so popular that a second series of ten have been ordered for this fall (plus a Christmas special). It’s essentially a cross-Atlantic take on the modern American sitcom – most obviously Chuck, although 30 Rock is what gets mentioned in the publicity – the kind wherein the down-to-earth star serves as the eye of a perfect storm of neurotic character comedy. Rapid-fire dialogue and snarky punchlines abound. (“I’m in love?! Tell me all about it! How long has this been going on?”)
The main difference here being that the British take the attendant neuroses a bit more… seriously than the rest of us might be used to. And Spy takes it a bit further, still.
Thus, as the first series opens, Our Hero’s woken up — as you do, in sitcoms — to the realisation that he’s not only a dead-end drone but is also just coming off a bitter divorce from a brittle, pill-popping harridan (Dolly Wells). Meaning he’s struggling to retain custody of their preteen genius offspring Marcus, a mini-Armani-wearing snarkmeister whose heart significantly fails to warm to the idea of re-enacting Kramer vs. Kramer.
Not helping matters is the ex-wife’s creepily ingratiating new boyfriend (Tim Goodman-Hill, who dances away — occasionally literally — with every scene) who also happens to be Marcus’ school headmaster. It will not surprise even the most naiive viewer that Tim’s one bulwark against all of this is his best friend Chris (a sweetly ruthless Baynton) whose own superiority complex borders on sociopathy.
The only possible out for Tim’s self-respect is to quit the computer shop. Then (as you do, in sitcoms) get lost on the new job hunt and end up accidentally taking the MI5 entry exam. Which, as an early viewer clue that this won’t exactly be Spooks/MI5, turns out to consist of his favourite Sudoku puzzles. By day’s end, still largely unaware, he’s convinced ‘The Examiner’ (My Family’s Robert Lindsay, breaking away magnificently with the aid of a hip flask and throwing stars) that Tim’s relentless bumbling is actually uber-badassery… and also won the reluctant admiration of cute-but-driven fellow trainee Caitlin (Rebekah Staton).
The kicker is, despite now being the official Coolest Dad Ever, Tim can’t tell anybody else about his new job — certainly not the son he’s so desperate to impress. (Sitcom rules, of course, dictate that he instantly blabs all to Chris the sociopath, but that’s it.) Which means he’s still got to deal with the nutball family counselor, who’s convinced Tim’s in an active relationship with her…
Yeah. When the series was optioned to American audiences, comments along the lines of “Look, they gave him a gun, why does he still put up with this crap?” piled up rapidly.
It’s a fair question, even if it does miss the point. The quest here is for humour, not humanity — and anyone who has ever seen a Monty Python sketch knows just how maniacally detached from reality that quest can become.
Meaning that structurally Spy is a perpetually uneasy balancing act, because it’s trying to have it both ways, all the way. The central character, as played in British Comedy Award-winning fashion by the ever-dependable Boyd (Whites, Green Wing), is nothing if not profoundly realistic, the sort of dorky-but-decent Everyman audiences unquestioningly take to heart. If not in the opening scenes, trust me, the action-figure mascots at the exam will do the trick.
And this is the character trapped in the latter-day MP-esque scenario in which every other character — not at all excepting minor guest roles, down to the very recognition software on MI5’s door — is an over-the-top caricature designed, Looney Tunes-style, solely to keep him off-balance. To the extent of actively mocking the ‘hidden hearts of gold’ the viewer keeps expecting… then, quite possibly, hoping… they’ll display.
Not excepting the cute little kid. In fact, the kid, as played by young newcomer Jude Wright, is the centrepiece of the production in more ways than one: such a perfectly-executed combination of pink cheeks and cool malice that he actually trips the Uncanny Valley reflex in some scenes (notably the ones where his literary interests turn out to be a cover for an illicit casino: “The first rule of Book Club… is that you do not talk about Book Club.”)
Please note also that, while Spy is technically a family sitcom – meaning, if nothing else, no overt language – it’s still considered essential for Chris to call little Marcus a dick. To his father’s face. In the first few minutes of the pilot:
“You can’t say that about my son!”
“Why not? I’ve met him, he is.”
…And the end of the pilot, upon learning Tim now has a gun, Chris excitedly suggests shooting the little kid. By then, whom the viewer agrees with on this question will undoubtedly have a lot to do with their enjoyment of the subsequent series.
(I must admit that, while my own heart had already melted right around the MI5 interview scenes, that last moment made it irrevocable. Pre-existing prejudices aside, Baynton — who really does have the most pricelessly vivid face — just looks so happy about shooting the little kid…)
Things like this are what makes Spy something fairly special overall: it treats this whole dichotomy between real and surreal as a Gordian knot, with its cast as the sword that – well, renders it mostly irrelevant, anyway. All these people aren’t just talented, they’re dedicated. Somehow, they’ve been convinced to buy into a cable family sitcom as though their comic lives depended on it — not so much stealing scenes as owning them — and they’re on a roll that lasts all six episodes and steadily increasing levels of surreal detachment.
The writing is sometimes clunky — amazing, how many sitcom clichés turn out to be international — and there are a few things done to continuity (not to say character integrity) in the name of funny that will make even the least perceptive viewer wince; but the intelligence and style of the performers not only carry Spy through but actually earn it credibility, as a world unto itself whose rules must be respected. They are almost certainly the reason the show itself was also nominated for a Comedy Award.
It’s honestly a wonderful thing to watch. Basically, everything that’s wrong with this show is technical, fixable stuff. What’s right about it — if nurtured properly — has the opportunity to become one of the classic Britcoms of the new decade.