Appellate Judge James A. Stewart would give Whitney a chance, if only they shot on location in Antarctica.
"Why would there be an emergency number for steamed potatoes?"
Two and a Half Men isn't the only sitcom to rework itself. One of my favorite sitcom changes came in the eighties, in a British series: politician Jim Hacker was elevated out of an obscure Cabinet position into Yes, Prime Minister.
About the same time, someone got the idea that sending the middle-aged suburban British sitcom couple of Fresh Fields to live in Calais would be a refreshing change of pace for viewers. French Fields must have been refreshing for the production crew and stars Anton Rodgers and Julia McKenzie, at least, since they actually did some location work in France. That might have been enough to do the trick; there are three seasons in French Fields: Complete Collection.
Facts of the Case
French Fields: Complete Collection features nineteen episodes on three discs:
• "William the Conquered"—Daughter Emma gets upset about the Fieldses' plans as they consider the move. However, when William discovers that Dom Perignon is cheaper in France, it'll be hard to dissuade him.
• "A Moving Experience"—You may be wondering what Hester's story about a son's childhood chicken pox has to do with forgotten passports; the customs officials in France are, too.
• "Oú est la Plumber de ma Tante?"—As William deals with his first day at the French office, Hester contends with plumbing problems, rats, and a grumpy French housekeeper. Nicholas Courtney (Doctor Who) joins the cast.
• "Who's Been Eating My Porridge?"—When the stove quits, Hester decides to cook for a dinner party at the Trendles' house next door in their absence. Trouble is, they return home.
• "Le Week-end"—The Marquis (Nicholas Courtney) invites the Fieldses to a French bicentennial soiree, just as daughter Emma and her husband Peter are coming for a visit.
• "Inside Story"—A Paris-Match reporter (Malcolm Tierney, Lovejoy) doing an article on "the British invasion of Northern France" wants to interview Hester—until he discovers that the Trendles are even stranger.
• "Sheep May Safely Graze"—Mayor Dax is upset that Hester gave his daughter a low mark on the days of the week, even though Hester's the one who gets them mixed up. William wins the sheep that Dax was eyeing in a raffle, which doesn't help.
• "Home and Away"—As a feud brews between Dax and the Marquis, Hester talks William into a barge trip with Peter and Emma. Of course, it's going to be raining the whole time, keeping everyone cooped up in a small space.
• "Sale or Return"—The Trendles want to buy the Fieldses' house from the Marquis.
• "Double or Quit"—A game of boule could make a difference in whether the Fieldses get to stay at their lovely French house.
• "Noel, Noel"—William's upset because he can't watch Mary Poppins on TV at the holidays in France. However, he could end up anywhere once a farcical race to get visiting Emma's lost keys to the ferry on time begins.
• "The Merry Merry Pipes"—The plumbing is merrily making noises, so Hester and William are decidedly grim. Meanwhile, Hester gives a tour bus speech on France to prospective home buyers from Britain.
• "Make for the Hills!"—The Fieldses enter a raffle for a trip to New York, but win third prize—a caravan holiday. They don't want to go—until the Richardsons, Peter's annoying parents, turn up for a surprise visit. Once on the road, William drives off without Hester, who's in her pajamas, in the rain.
• "Surprise, Surprise"—It's the Fieldses' silver wedding anniversary. Hester says she doesn't want a surprise party, so naturally, William decides to plan one. Just as naturally, Hester suspects that William's cheating with attractive neighbor Chantal.
• "Darling Daughters"—Hester won't give in on the punishment when Dax's daughter sticks her tongue out in class. William won't give in when Emma and Peter want to rent the Fieldses' English home at a reduced rate.
• "Hail and Farewell"—The recession means that William's redundant, just as Emma is giving birth to her second child.
For British viewers, a move to France might not have been unthinkable: the show points out that the Fieldses' move from suburban London to Calais is only about eighty miles, and William is seen reading a book by Peter Mayle, an author who may have been influencing many a Brit back in the '80s.
French Fields, with its location work, looks better than an ITC adventure show. Hester's trips to the market were a picturesque experience that the French tourist promotion board must have loved. It would have helped even more, I suppose, if they'd managed to cast more French actors as French villagers; it isn't just familiar faces like Nicholas Courtney that stick out as unauthentic.
Thus, French Fields ends up with a spiffy new look, but it's very obviously still Fresh Fields. There's lots of opportunity for culture clash, but it's often reduced to the familiar slightly naughty gag that finds everyone recommending oysters for William after Hester tries to explain a problem with the pipes to the plumber. The Fields' ridiculous attempts to escape annoying houseguests in "Make for the Hills!" reminded me of a similar escape in the Fresh Fields set I reviewed.
Still, the change of scenery does help to freshen the show. The ongoing theme makes French Fields seem less scattershot than Fresh Fields, at least in the first two seasons. There are a few gags that are laugh-out-loud funny, such as a French pianist's soulful rendering of "The Hokey Pokey" and a neighbor's reaction to Hester boiling a telephone (don't ask). Most notably, the "automatic scarecrow" turns up in a later episode with great effect. The malaprops and double-entendres can bring smiles, until you get too many of them in a row. Sometimes, though, French Fields just gets frantic—and that falls flat.
There's some signs of aging to the picture, but Calais still looks good.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Powerwatching sitcoms can get tedious. I didn't hate French Fields, but watching the entire series in a week—up to five episodes in a sitting—was a bit much (Is this Christmas episode movie-length or does it just seem that way?). Existing fans of the show will probably want the DVD set, but it doesn't seem like a show that's going to grow a new audience. Of course, it's all relative; a lot of contemporary sitcoms apparently don't have the material for a 30-second promo.
If you want a glimpse of how technology has changed, consider that William has to explain to Hester what a then-relatively new fax is, a mobile car phone still seems like a sign of arrival, and the Fieldses couldn't just pop Mary Poppins into the DVD player—or pick it off their cloud.
If you're looking for escapism, note that the Fieldses' new life eventually runs into the economic reality of a recession. Technology may have changed, but the one thing that you'd rather not have held over from the last century is back.
It seems that expats can adjust well to living in France, as long as their neighbors find them entertainingly goofy and they're free with a ready supply of scotch, at least in the Fieldses' world.
French Fields isn't bad, but if you're a British TV fan, there are probably lots of shows that'll have a higher priority on your wish list. Viewers could adjust well to French Fields if they found it on discount. Otherwise, A Good Year may still be a trifle, but it's a much tastier one.
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