Tuesday, July 16, 2013
'Spy' S1: 'Get Smart' Meets "After You've Gone'
The hilarious award-winning 2011 first series (my people call them seasons) of the britcom "Spy" is another example of how British shows kick the arses of American fare. A review of the even better second season of this show will be posted tomorrow.
The pilot of "Spy" depicts how typical suburban dad Tim Elliott transforms from an electronics store clerk to an MI5 trainee. Darren Boyd's smashing (my people call it awesome) portrayal of that everyman won him a well-deserved BAFTA, a.k.a. British Emmy, award for "Best Male Performance in a Comedy Programme"
A condensed description of the pilot is that Tim's hilariously pathetic desire to gain the love and respect of his equally funny 9 year-old son Marcus, who is a great combination of deadpan robot and evil super-villain, prompt Tim to seek employment as a civil service data entry clerk.
Tim's quest for government works results in accidentally taking the qualifying exam to be an MI5 trainee. In classic sitcom fashion, the head of MI5 hires Tim despite his lack of any relevant education or typically appropriate experience.
The rub as they say is that knowing that his dad is a spy would impress Marcus enough for his face to actually display emotion, but Tim must keep his vocation secret from his friends and family. Watching Marcus openly and venomously deride his father in ways that the audience, who are aware of Tim's secret identity, knows is false is terrific comedy.
This dynamic allows Marcus to truly steal the show as a brilliant pre-teen who gleefully embraces the dark side to the extent of being a brutal enforcer but loves the Miley Cyrus Disney kidcom "Hanna Montana." Marcus' quest for power extends beyond dominating the perfectly nice Tim to rule over both the students and teachers at his school.
The segments that involve Tim's MI5 training are reminiscent of the granddaddy of all secret agent sitcoms, Mel Brooks' extraordinarily brilliant "Get Smart." Ongoing schtick right after the opening credits in which Tim experiences assorted challenges getting through the secured door to his office is a great nod to "Get Smart's" classic opening credits that depict the titular Maxwell Smart's arrival at CONTROL headquarters.
Having Tim work for a man known only as "The Examiner" is reminiscent of Maxwell Smart reporting to "The Chief." Unlike "The Chief," "The Examiner" is a mentally unstable and completely unethical leader who delights in intended torture of underlings and shrugs off accidents such as wounding a trainee with ninja stars that "The Examiner" flings throughout one episode.
Casting 11-season britcom "My Family" Robert Lindsay as "The Examiner" is as perfect as having Boyd play an ordinary bloke with an extraordinary job. Choosing Lindsay evokes memories of Sherwood Schwartz selecting Bob Denver to play Gilligan in essentially the same manner that Denver had perfectly portrayed beatnik Maynard G. Krebs in "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis."
"The Examiner" is as hilariously pompous and insensitive as "My Family's" Ben Harper. Even the manner in which "The Examiner" says "Tim" when "parenting" or coning his underling is exactly how Ben addresses younger son "Mikey, Mikey, Mikey" under similar circumstances. "The Examiner's" tone when expressing disdain is exactly how Ben addresses utterly charming but imbecilic older son Nick.
The "Get Smart" parallel extends to the character of attractive female spy Caitlin, who is more competent than Tim and possibly shares his romantic feelings. This pair lacks the extraordinary chemistry and comic timing of Smart and Agent 99, played by the still gorgeous and sharp Barbara Feldon, but do a great job.
The domestic side of Tim's life closely resembles "After You've Gone," which is another must-see britcom. That one stars lovable British goofball Nicholas Lyndhurst, who is an older version of Boyd, as a slacker divorced dad who circumstances force to move back in with offspring who openly do not respect him.
Much of the comedy in the first season of "Spy" relates to Tim's professional training overlapping with elements of his personal live. These include a particularly amusing episode, titled "Codename: Tramp" in which the effort to conceal the true nature of an accident in which Tim injures a homeless man early in Tim's training leads to the man moving into Tim's house and joining forces with Marcus against Tim.
Some of the best moments from "Tramp" relate to an ongoing storyline regarding Tim's legal battle with very bitter ex-wife Judith for custody of Marcus. The court-appointed family therapist has assigned Marcus to award Tim a black star for every bad act of parenting and a gold star for every good deed. The spoiler alert relates to Marcus rapidly burning through the black stars.
Another episode has Tim and Marcus simultaneously becoming drunk with power. Marcus' new-found admiration for this assertive version of his dad is very amusing.
The season finale expertly sets the stage for the exceptional second season by including both the custody hearing and Tim's final exam regarding becoming a full-fledged spy. This episode has Tim's gonzo sidekick Chris undergo a comically dramatic transformation and introduces very studly CIA agent Portis, who is Caitlin's former boyfriend, as the MI5 team's newest member.
The audience is also treated to a slight thawing of Marcus' tough shell at the end of this episode in which he packs his luggage before the custody hearing in anticipation of both Tim losing the case and Judith "rescuing" him from living with Tim.
The conclusion to draw from the intel in the first season of "Spy" is that it this genuinely wry and witty show will not disappoint.
Anyone with questions or comments regarding "Spy" is encouraged to email me.