In the best workplace comedies, no one actually works. Green Wing, the latest offering from Victoria Pile, creator and producer of the Emmy-winning Smack the Pony, continues that tradition with the narcissistic, neurotic staff of a British hospital. Unlike other hospital series focused on doctors’ heroics and/or hubris, this show offers no interactions with patients, only the staff’s demented antics.
These antics can be “stoopid,” in the sense that intensely embarrassing moments become cathartic — for characters and, especially, viewers. Like other British comedies of late, such as Nighty Night, you know you shouldn’t be laughing, but you do. The shenanigans begin when Dr. Caroline Todd (Tamsin Greig) drives into the hospital parking lot with a carload of her belongings and a shirt-load of b.o., to begin her new position as surgical registrar. Rather than positioning the audience alongside naïve newcomers, à la ER‘s John Carter (Noah Wiley) or Scrubs‘ J.D. (Zach Braff), Green Wing gives you a weary veteran confronting new, odd colleagues.
Though Green Wing doesn’t exactly challenge sex and gender stereotypes, it does highlight gendered foolishness. Dr. Mac (Julian Rhind-Tutt), a high-flying, ginger-haired young surgeon, spends most of his time taking the piss out of other male colleagues. He taunts his superior, Dr. Alan Statham (Mark Heap), engaging in a test of wills as to who will sit first in Mac’s disciplinary meeting, thus revealing who’s subordinate. Mac’s bullying is so thorough, it leaves Alan hovering between standing and sitting, unsure of his own authority and exposing his own immaturity.
Also up for grabs are women’s preoccupations with their bodies. The hospital’s staff-management liaison officer, Sue White (comedic standout Michelle Gomez), usually appears in her office, making strange noises, and threatening to put spells on workers who dare come to her with workplace concerns. She also likes to taunt anesthesiologist Guy Secretan (Stephen Mangan) about their one-night stand. She takes Guy’s arrogant reference to their sex session to another level, performing a very creepy version of Kylie Minogue’s “Can’t Get You Out of My Head.” With its childish refrain (“Na na na, na na na na na”), Sue highlights Guy’s stunted sexuality in a way that will make him think twice next time he seeks to bolster his self-esteem at her expense.
Green Wing‘s serious relationship occurs between Alan and Joanna (Pippa Haywood). As they leave behind office blinds wrecked by their urgent fumblings, no one doubts they’re an item, but they still operate under the delusion that no one knows. Here, typical gender dynamics are switched: he’s smitten, while she’s cavalier and resistant to his declarations of love (she pours white wine on their dinner fajitas so that Alan, overcome by smoke inhalation, can’t speak). This is no typical sitcom “relationship”: instead of waiting for them to get together, we know their romance will end horribly.
The show emphasizes all these oddball moments by slowing down and speeding up the action. The technique leaves no doubt that the characters are all daft and wacky incidents occur. Speed variation drags out the awkward moments to their most mortifying degree and then rushes us on to the next. Secretary Harriet Schulenberg (Olivia Colman) is perpetually late for work and forgets to take the children to school, arriving to work with them still in the car, or manages to arrive in the hospital parking lot not wearing any trousers. The use of slow motion allows the viewer to absorb fully the spectacle of a middle-aged woman toodling toward work, with her knickers creeping up, and attests to the audacity of the moment.
With Scrubs riding a post-Friends wave of popularity, it’s tempting compare it to Green Wing. But where Scrubs‘ bedpan runneth over with earnest moral lessons, Green Wing lacks any such sincerity. And where surreal incidents in Scrubs are viewed through J.D.’s eyes, Green Wing shows us that life is often stranger than fiction, if we let it be.