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Forgive us our trespasses – review of State and Main

Wednesday, April 11, 2001

In an early episode of ‘The West Wing’, a character remarks, ‘There are two things you don’t want to see being made – laws and sausages.’ It’s a nice line, but I’d add a third thing – films.

David Mamet’s ‘State and Main’ is a satire on movie production, and he shows us underage sex, rampant egos, bribery, towering hubris, incompetence and more scheming than the average GAA Congress.

Of course, this is Mamet’s territory (the nastiness, not the GAA), but his story of a small Vermont town overrun by a Hollywood film is also surprisingly warm and tolerant. There is the usual rapid-fire dialogue and spiky characters, but we also get a sweetly natural romance and more compassion for people’s faults than you might expect.

The performances are excellent. William H Macy plays the director who simultaneously wheedles and cajoles on one phone while berating and bullying on the other. When he’s trying to persuade the shallow starlet (well played by Sarah Jessica Parker) that she doesn’t need an extra $800,000 to show her breasts in a scene, you know he’s lying like a carpet, but for as long as it takes him to say the words, he entirely believes them. It’s not a lie, he argues, it’s ‘a talent for fiction’. And what’s a movie anyway, if not a big lie?

Mamet’s wife, Rebecca Pidgeon, also shines as Annie, the local bookshop owner who falls for the movie’s writer, combining grace and intelligence with a good-natured wisdom.

The scenario is hardly original, and there’s more than a nod to Frank Capra and Preston Sturges – the Mayor of the town is named for James Stewart’s character in ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’, and just like that George Bailey, a lot of the characters get second chances.

Alec Baldwin (reprising his obnoxious film star cameo from ‘Notting Hill’) escapes the consequences of sleeping with Carla, the underage waitress from the hotel, but Carla was intent on giving him more than a tuna BLT anyway, so they probably deserve each other.

The writer Joe White almost quits the movie but returns with Annie’s help, and also gets two attempts to do the right thing in court. Annie herself gets a second chance at romance with Joe, ditching her ambitious politico fianc?, who’s made so little impression on her that at one point she can’t even remember his name to introduce him.

Her relationship with Joe is one of the quiet delights of the film. Joe has very little choice in the matter, underlined by the way he’s hooked and burned while Annie looks on with kind amusement. 

The small touches show Mamet’s personal experience of life on the set. Nobody gets to finish a conversation without being interrupted by news of the latest crisis, and quality and commonsense are sacrificed for expediency. Crew members run tap water into the stars’ Evian bottles before melting the seal back together with a lighter – a perfect symbol for a shoot: subterfuge and behind the scenes trickery, but it looks like the real thing in the end.

In true comedy style, everything works out fine, and as they finally start shooting the film you see that Mamet has managed a deft maoeuvre with his gentle satire. He’s shown the film people as selfish, unfeeling, arrogant and corrupt, but we already knew that, so he also makes us forgive them their trespasses. 

Movies revolve around the suspension of disbelief, and the process of their creation seems to demand a suspension of normal rules of behaviour. So we give them a second chance to make the same mistakes again.

Posted by David in • Square EyesUSAFilm

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Survivor of the Fittest – Survivor 2 reviewed

Thursday, February 15, 2001

Forget the fly on the wall drama of The Hotel or The Airport, forget the social engineering of Castaway 2000, forget even the claustrophobic hype of Big Brother. You want reality TV? Survivor 2 is the real deal.

Two teams of gung-ho Americans are abandoned in the Australian outback with little more than the clothes they stand up in. As well as building shelters, trying to make fire and avoiding the scary bugs, the teams compete against each other for possession of the Immunity Idol. It sounds pants, but lose immunity and you have to vote off one of your own team.

Every three days, someone has to go, and at the halfway stage in the series, the two teams will combine, and the competitions become individual struggles for immunity. The denouement is perfect, since when the last two survivors remain, the final winner is determined by the previous half dozen folks voted off.

You might get muddy and hungry and more than a little uncomfortable in the outback, but the real challenge is to survive the machiavellian intrigue and chicanery of your fellow competitors. Too nice and you’ll not form the alliances necessary to get you into the last stages, but too nasty and no way are those people you shafted going to vote for you to get the million dollar prize in the end.

The original Survivor took the US by storm last summer, and TG4 are running the current series twice a week, while in the US, NBC has supersized Friends to 45 minutes an episode to try and compete with the show there.

No chance. The makings of another great series are there. Conflict is crucial of course, and the contestants have been carefully chosen to rub each other up the wrong way. But given the voting structure, everyone has to appear to be friendly (you never know when you’re going to need that support), while at the same time eliminating the competition.

The challenges are also designed to test individual abilities and the cohesion of the group. On Wednesday’s episode we saw Rodger, the mild-mannered Kentucky farmer, jump off a cliff into a lake, then wrestle with a huge crate as it and he went careering through the rapids. All the other survivors did that too, but Rodger can’t swim.

And then Kimmi the vegetarian New York bartender was forced to try to eat cow’s brain (CJD, how are you?) to win immunity for her team. She failed, but then got the chance to redeem herself in a sudden death eat off of foot-long worms. I didn’t see that on Big Brother.

So we’ve got intrigue, conflict and triumph over adversity, all carefully managed to heighten our viewing pleasure. Throw in sex – most of the competitors are beautiful bronzed people in their 20s sitting around in their swimming togs – and it’s a winning combination.

Posted by David in • Square EyesUSATelevision

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Playing on the Wing – The West Wing reviewed

Thursday, February 08, 2001

Irish and British viewers seem to get more than their fair share of American TV shows. From the highs of Seinfeld and The Simpsons to the lows of Temptation Island and Jerry Springer, we know our way around US output as well as most Americans. 

Better in some cases. Over there shows such as Sex in the City and The Sopranos are only available on the premium cable channel HBO, so not everyone gets to see them. 

But surely not everything plays as well here as it does there? Take The West Wing, for example. Why would we be interested in a drama about the inner workings of the White House? There is nothing more uniquely American than its political system, and while a documentary might at least show us some facts, what benefit can there be in a fictional account of a non-existent president?

Well, good TV is good TV, and The West Wing is top drawer stuff. It’s intelligent (and assumes its audience is too), and it wears its cleverness lightly. A recent episode included a brief disquisition on the Latin phrase ‘post hoc, ergo propter hoc’, which was sharp, funny and relevant. You’ll watch a lot of Oprah waiting to see that. 

It’s also artfully constructed. The show’s creator, Aaron Sorkin, wrote the critically acclaimed but rather neglected comedy, Sports Night, which was set in a fast-paced TV studio. He’s expert at moving quirky characters around an office environment in quick scenes that are funny but also advance the plot. 

So how much is the programme about politics? Well, on the surface, not that much. It won’t tell you much about the structures or operation of government, or lecture you on policy issues. The characters know this stuff backwards, and the show keeps up the pretence that the audience is just observing, so no-one’s going to sit down and explain everything. (Unlike in medical dramas, where there’s a lot of technical stuff happening, but from time to time this has to be explained to patients or their families, and by extension, the audience.)

But underneath the character-driven storylines and the witty arguments is a very clear political agenda. President Bartlett, played with sharp good humour by Martin Sheen, is a Democrat, and there’s a prevailing sense that everyone in the administration is honestly trying to improve the lot of the country, and act in a fair and decent way. 

Bigotry and intolerance is treated in an impressively uncompromising way, as when leaders of the religious right are summarily shown the door after making insinuations about Jewish members of the administration. 

On occasion, however, the President can be a little too good to be true. While the camera jerks around following the officials down corridors, and nobody can say more than a few words without someone else cutting across them, when we see the President on screen, the pace slows down and the approach becomes more reverential, sometimes cloyingly so. President Bartlett mouths platitudes eloquently and with conviction – he’s a pre-lapsarian Clinton. 

And now, with a famously stupid President in the real White House, the show feels like a party political broadcast. Look what you could have won, it says: a bunch of attractive likeable intelligent young people and a President who does good work. Boy George and his team of Cold War re-treads look decidedly feeble by comparison. Gore is no Martin Sheen, that’s for sure, but the message is clear. 

So we should watch The West Wing for its shining script and great performances (Rob Lowe is surprisingly good as a policy wonk so intelligent and committed as be clumsily stupid in real life). But we should also watch it to remind ourselves that more than than half of the people in America would rather have a President Bartlett than a President Bush.

Posted by David in • Square EyesUSA

Articles Life Modest Proposals USA

Under Construction – raising a tipi

Sunday, March 19, 2000

Last weekend I helped raise a tipi with some friends near Santa Fe, New Mexico. 

On a flat step above a bend in a river we camped out the previous night, sitting round the campfire making s’mores and drinking wine from mugs.  The stars were out above us, and as the moon set behind the hill opposite we picked our way down the steep path to the river.

Lying on our backs on the flat-topped boulder on the bank, a shooting star traced a stitch of light above, and we heard the freezing water slide by beside us. If you really listened, you could almost catch a tiny whisper of the world’s quiet roar. A place for everything, and everything in its place. 

The next day, with snow nestling amongst the cacti on the north-facing slope across the river, we set to work on the tipi. None of us quite knew what we were doing, but with instructions printed from a Welsh tipi website, we lashed the first three poles together, and raised the tripod against the azure sky. 

I sat whittling sticks for the pegs (which don’t work well in sandy soil, it turned out – metal pegs are a much better if less romantic choice), and as my friends placed the other poles in place it seemed as if the frame had somehow always been there, on that step above the river. 

There were certain customs to be observed in the building. The opening faced eastwards – away from the prevailing winds, and towards the morning sun – and when all the poles were in place, they were secured with rope that was walked clockwise four times around the frame – one revolution for each of the seasons. 

We threaded the lifting pole into the canvas cover on the ground, and then lifted it into place at the back of the tipi and unfolded the cloth, wrapping it round the poles like putting a coat on an impatient five year-old. 

OK, so the cover didn’t quite match up at the front at first – there’s lots of room for misadjustment in an 18’ tipi – but after moving some poles forward and some back, we were done. 

The smoke flaps, the oval opening, the tops of the poles criss-crossing, the soft light inside as we all stepped in and stood there, splintered, scratched and happy – marvelling at what we’d made. 

Made? Or revealed? It was as if the tipi knew how and where it should be built, and we’d simply helped it along. More like archaeology than construction. From a pile of sun-bleached wood and a mildewed bundle of cloth we’d uncovered something noble and determinedly right. A place for everything, and everything in its place. 

And my modest point? My extrapolation from the specific to the general?  My thought to leave you with? None, really. I just wanted to tell you. 

(first published as a Modest Proposals newsletter, March 2000)

Posted by David in • Modest ProposalsLifeUSA

Articles Life Modest Proposals USA

Cabin Fever

Saturday, June 19, 1999

In the last 15 months I’ve been on over 70 aeroplanes. Since this January, from my base in Kansas, the list of cities I’ve been in seems ridiculous – Atlanta, DC, Chicago, Dallas, Tucson, San Francisco (twice), Dublin (twice), Galway, Cincinnati, Denver, Santa Fe (three times). 

You can spin this unlikely itinerary in a number of ways. Either it’s a fact of modern day business life, and something that an increasing number of people do all the time.

The dystopian version of this points to the grind of long distances, the soullessness of airport hotels, the grim-faced grey acceptance of the folks at the gates in business attire carrying bulging laptop bags. 

Or it’s a glamorous jet-set lifestyle of expense account living, a new shiny city every week and a year-round tan. 

My truth lies somewhere in the middle. I have little enough luxury on the business trips – I fly coach and eat as many Burger Kings as lobster bisques on the road – but I get treated pretty well (big hand for the deeply stylish W Hotel in San Francisco) and I appreciate the opportunities it gives me to see all kinds of stuff I wouldn’t otherwise know about. 

Reading the local papers and watching the local news wherever I am is crucial – to read the unctious USA Today (the calling card of the travelling salesperson) placed outside your hotel room door is to participate in the pretence that where you are is exactly the same as where you’ve been. 

This is so bad because the one thing that can never be forgotten is how completely unnatural this all is. No matter how many times you get in a metal tube in one city and get out of it 400 miles away, or ring your kids on your calling card from an airport telephone, you should never once think that this is what you’re meant to be doing. 

Your body knows how weird it is. You can rationally understand jumping continents at your employer’s bidding, can justify your astronomical travel expenditure with a convincing business argument and can even develop tips and techniques to make it all seem a bit more normal, but all the stress of this time travel is building up in you somewhere or other. 

People aren’t designed to do such bizarre things as fly across the Atlantic, go to work the day they arrive, go out drinking that night, put in another couple of days’ work, then fly back home like it was an hour’s drive up the motorway. 

Human’s flexibility is at once our great strength and our fatal weakness. We can adapt to all kinds of things we didn’t ought to get used to, and can overcome by force of will the nagging reminders that we’re not designed to do this. 

This is not to say that I’m not enjoying myself – I’ve been able to do some amazing things through all this travel, and have learned a great deal along the way. But I can only see myself doing this for a limited time – it’s an adventure, not a way of life. It doesn’t take too long doing this before the losses more than outweigh the gains. 

This is last time I’ll write from Manhattan, Kansas, which between my travels has been my home for the last 15 months. I’m going to rest up back in Ireland and England for a couple of months, before moving to San Francisco. A pause before the adventure begins again. 

But the brightest moments of the last few months have all involved doing very grounded things – riding horses on the prairies, or mountain bikes in the Rockies, walking the hills of San Francisco or the beaches of County Clare, going for brunch in Santa Fe or pints in Dublin. And of course, in all of these activities, it’s been the friends and family that I’ve been with that have made the most sense in this unlikely life. 

(first published as a Modest Proposals newsletter, June 1999)

Posted by David in • Modest ProposalsUSALife

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Going deep – why Sports Night is so good

Tuesday, May 18, 1999

How much do you really know about Joey from Friends? Over countless episodes, all that’s been revealed is that he’s not very bright, he’s a short-term hit with women, and he’s not a very good actor. 

In all the years we’ve spent with him, we’ve rarely glimpsed a deeper side. Likeable but stupid. The same superficiality is true of the other characters – Monica (fat in high-school, control freak), Phoebe (ditsy but caring), Ross (something with dinosaurs – yeah, right), Rachel (um . . .).

Chandler has a bit more going on, but in a curious way the lack of any real depth to the characters doesn’t matter at all. If we knew more about them, it might just get in the way of the jokes. We’re given enough information to set up the gags and make them consistent, but no more. 

However likeable these and other sit-com characters are, I can never imagine them walking down the street in my town (although quite often I can’t imagine myself walking down the street in my town).

You might think this reliance on sketchy characters is limited to half-hour comedies, but consider Ally McBeal. The first season was great – fast moving and quirky with a lightness of touch that sterner dramas lack.

But currently the fantasy moments grate, and the parallels between the cases they try and the private lives of the lawyers is becoming a little too cute. At the heart of this is that beyond their catchphrases and signature weirdnesses, the characters are pretty thin. Anyway, bygones.

Compared to the shallowness of these characters, and the increasingly overblown earnestness of ER (who knew I’d miss George Clooney so much?), one show really stands out – Sports Night, a half-hour comedy that’s just finished its first season on ABC.

Prospects of it making it across the Atlantic might not be good, since it’s set in the studio of a US sports TV show (ESPN in all but name), but the show is funny, clever and rewarding.

It accurately describes the appeal and wonder of sport (we have to see why all these clever people are devoting their lives to it), but it’s not really about sport.

In the same way as Seinfeld, it’s not really about anything at all – but whereas Seinfeld worked with ridiculous plot twists, astute observations and a healthy streak of cruelty (’no hugging, no learning’), Sports Night is more understated and has a lot more heart.

It’s so subtle that the laugh track the network apparently insisted on including sounds out of place, as the show’s drama meets Ally McBeal as that so-called drama heads the other way into farce.

Sports Night works because of the clever, witty, slightly spiky characters brought to life by great ensemble playing. Anchors Casey and Dan are not just likeable, they’re believable, as are Dana, Jeremy and the others.

The setting calls for competitiveness and long hours, and so we see characters that are very good at what they do, but are concomitantly missing parts of themselves.

Dana can produce a bang-up show every night under ridiculous amounts of pressure, but she can’t see her boyfriend’s a jerk, while Casey is smart and charming, he’s also hugely stupid pretty often.

We laugh at the characters’ weaknesses while still respecting them, because we see that at heart they’re good people trying to do the best they can. Dan’s handling of his relationship with a woman who decided to go back to her husband was exemplary, but we got to see how hard it was for him to do the right thing.

So as well as the sharp dialogue and perfect pacing, we watch because of the warmth we feel for the characters. Not since Northern Exposure have we seen such a rewarding and smart show masquerading as a light comedy.

(first published as a Modest Proposals newsletter, May 1999)

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Travellers’ Tales

Saturday, September 27, 1997

The way you see the world largely depends on the stories you’ve been told about it.

Places you’ve never seen exist in your head as reflections of the things you’ve learned from tv or films or books or magazines.

While we in Europe might be sitting down to episodes of ER and Seinfeld, we are watching them in a completely different way from our American cousins.

There are arguments that if we don’t see ourselves on TV, then we lose some sense of who we are, and it’s certainly odd that more Irish people watch British soaps than our own (admittedly dodgy) home-produced fare.  The current furore over the portrayal of the Irish in a British soap shows how much this matters.

This cultural schizophrenia affects the way we see our own country, but the major effect is in the way we see America – a culture to which we do not belong, and yet in which we feel so comfortable.

When I first went there, there was a curious feeling of homecoming. As I wandered around, I recognised the telephone booths, mailboxes and even the fridges from staying up on childhood Saturday nights to watch American shows like Starsky and Hutch.

My experience of the country, even having spent some time there, is conditioned by the stories I watched as child, and those I continue to watch.

However, while today many of these stories come from pop culture, this is just the latest incarnation of a much older story-telling urge.  Travellers’ tales, complete with weird and wonderful creatures, fantastical cities and their exotic inhabitants are as old as language.

My favourite uncle was a sailor, and his postcards from far-off places showed us that there was a world out there. During his stays with us on his way to or from his ship, he’d tell us of restaurants in Genoa, or driving trips across the desert in Saudi Arabia. He’d travelled to cities that were only names on the map for us, and his brown eyes twinkled as he recalled another scrape or adventure.

His stories brought the world alive for us – we’d picture him sunburnt in Sydney or shivering in Stockholm, drinking in a harbour bar in Tokyo, or buying a little keepsake for us in Cape Town.

Watching NYPD Blue might not seem to have much in common with this, but in fact it serves the same purpose: from it we learn both how different people are in different parts of the world, and also how fundamentally the same.

This access to other cultures (however it comes to us) does not dilute our own, but rather enriches it – for example, Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments and the music of U2 both show Irish people’s ability to take the influence of American music and make something uniquely Irish out it. Combining ideas and values is the only way to keep a culture alive.

So while the tv schedules might smack of cultural imperialism, and another McDonalds opens in Shanghai or Moscow, I’m still optimistic about the survival of a range of ways of looking at the world. The tv shows are like my uncle’s travellers’ tales: helping us to learn about ourselves through glimpsing a different life. 

——— In Memory of Ray Dinsmore, 1946 – 1997 ————

(First published as a Modest Proposals newsletter, 25th September 1997)

Articles Modest Proposals Television USA

David Duchovny vs. Gillian Anderson

Wednesday, June 18, 1997

Discussing The X-Files on the Internet is like being English and talking about the weather – it’s so common as to be stereotypical. However, keeping banality at bay, there are some crucial things to say.

Firstly, the show is deeply manipulative, working on us in a very skilful way. This is done partly by a tight and recurring pattern for many episodes – a precredit sequence gives us an insight into someone we know to be weird, and ends in a death. Then we have a brief piece of investigation, and an autopsy (oh, Scully in her surgical scrubs). By this stage, the viewer is required to have recoiled in horror at least once – uuuuugh! – we say, as someone spontaneously combusts, instantly suppurates or loses a crucial limb.

Scully comes up with a plausible explanation, then looks in increasing disbelief as Mulder starts a speech with, ‘What if . . . ‘, in which his mad explanation is first expounded. The duo split up and Scully rings Fox, saying ‘Mulder, it’s me.’

His suggestion almost invariably proves to be correct, but at the end of the show there’s still a suggestion that this might not really be the end of the matter. Perfect postmodern balance between closure and being left deliberately unsatisfied. The pacing of the series reflects the pacing of individual episodes, as we’re giving hints and suggestions about the big story of abduction and colonisation, but never feel like we really know what’s going on.

The storylines play on our pre-millennial tension – our loss of faith in big government, big religion and big ideas is exemplified in the perfect combination of aliens and conspiracy theories.

However, other shows before and after have tried this – The Twilight Zone and Nightstalker before, Dark Skies and Millennium after. The difference is that in the X-Files, the relationship between the two leads powers the show as much as the weird stuff.

It’s become a given that the show reverses the normal power relations between the male and female leads. Before, the ditsy woman would be convinced there was something odd going on, and the big logical man would get to the bottom of things and reveal the logical explanation.  Now Mulder is the passionate believer and Scully the hard-headed scientist.

This sounds great, but as has been remarked, in the value system of the show, Scully is still the weaker partner, as her explanations are shot down by a credulous but correct Mulder. The X-Files are his baby, and he gets to discover things, shoot things, storm off in huffs, and look troubled.

Scully meanwhile gets cancer, abducted, and her family members killed while she’s chasing around after the big kid Spooky. Unsurprisingly, she’s been branded a saint in some circles.

Then there’s the Moonlighting-style sexual tension element. If ever we were being manipulated it’s over this. All the hints about Chain-Smoking Man and the big colonisation plans pale beside this blatant piece of titillation. Take two attractive leads, and simmer them gently, always threatening to bring them to the boil.

So up until recently I’ve let myself be led, and enjoyed the trip, still knowing that there was something hollow at the heart of the show. The duo have been through so much, but little of it seems to have left a mark. Scully’s hair and suits are better cut, and Mulder is a bit more wisecracking, but that’s been it.

Thankfully, this is changing, with Scully’s attitude to her cancer lending her a certain grace and dignified fragility, and Mulder’s self-obsession leading (possibly) to his downfall.

The show’s always been good, but now it’s shifting from being knowingly manipulative to genuinely moving as it explores the internal lives of the two leads. The truth is in there.

Articles Modest Proposals Television UK USA

Friends vs. This Life

Tuesday, May 27, 1997

You live with or near a pile of friends in a big city, you’re in your twenties, your problems revolve around relationships and your career, and you spend lots of time in bars, cafes or pubs.

The description applies both to Friends, the ubiquitous US sit-com, and to This Life, the rather more low-profile BBC2 drama-cum-soap. Throw in the tension of a couple of the protagonists going through an on-again off-again relationship, and you might be wondering if there are any differences at all.

You live with or near a pile of friends in a big city, you’re in your twenties, your problems revolve around relationships and your career, and you spend lots of time in bars, cafes or pubs.

The description applies both to Friends, the ubiquitous US sit-com, and to This Life, the rather more low-profile BBC2 drama-cum-soap. Throw in the tension of a couple of the protagonists going through an on-again off-again relationship, and you might be wondering if there are any differences at all.

Unless you’d actually seen the two shows. Friends is bright, comfortable and safe, for all its lesbian couples and ‘commando style’ suggestiveness. They live in nice apartments, look gorgeous, are funny and almost always sort things out by the end of the episode.

Most of the Friends are likeable – except Monica, who’s hateful, one-dimensional and sour (or is that just Courteney Cox?). Ross is affable in a whimsical kind of way, Joey foolishly dishy, Rachel gutsy, Phoebe ditsy and Chandler vulnerable and inimitably pithy.

In contrast, everyone in This Life is horrible. There’s the arrogantly snobby careerist Miles, the earnestly well-meaning control freak Milly, Anna, the vampish sex-bomb past her sell-by-date, and Egg the ineffectual blokish bloke who’s too wimpy even to be a New Man. The new member of the house, Ferdy, might be alright, but he never says anything and it’s hard to judge his true worth by watching him step out of the shower.

The atmosphere surrounding This Life is suitably grimy and unpleasant.  The rooms are all small, it’s never sunny and London’s dirt seeps into every shot. The editing and NYPD Blue-style camera work jar and each episode is full of drinking and swearing. It feels like real life.

Friends on the other hand, feels like a sit-com – but a very well-written one. The pacing of the episode is perfect, and the comic threads are skilfully interwoven. You get the right combination of main plot, subplot, observational humour and one-liners, but it never feels like it’s reality.

So which works better? The full-on gory details approach of This Life, which confirms your expectations about how unbearable it would be to live in a house full of unpleasant lawyers, or the soft-pedal warmth and comfort of Friends’ neverland, in which a waitress and a short-order chef can live in a New York apartment that size?

Friends is sharp without being pointed, while This Life is accurate without being honest. With its journalistic style, This Life appears to be more realistic, but in going for the details they’ve missed the universal verities that Friends confirms every week. When it comes to describing life, a good piece of fiction often tells more truth than a hundred documentaries, or a thousand would-be documentary-style soaps.