Judge Bryan Byun didn't get where he is today by watching old BBC comedies. Actually, he did. Sad.
"That's the trouble with living for the moment. Buggers up the next moment."
The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, the classic 1970s BBC comedy series, starred Leonard Rossiter as the title character, a middle-aged middle manager trapped in a suffocating middle-class existence, whose quiet desperation builds into the granddaddy of all mid-life crises. A masterpiece of dark satire and surrealistic wit, Reginald Perrin perfectly captured the post-industrial angst of modern Britain, and skewered the absurdity and conformity of the corporate, suburbanite culture.
The series ran for three increasingly bizarre seasons and ended in 1978, living on in the hearts of its devoted admirers as a cult classic and a PBS pledge drive staple. Three decades later, Reginald Perrin has been resurrected in the form of Martin Clunes (Doc Martin), in an updated (and slightly retitled) reboot written by original creator David Nobbs and Simon Nye (Men Behaving Badly). As promising as a remake sounds, however, with a shiny new post-millenial generation to lampoon, the new Reggie Perrin isn't so much a fresh telling of a classic story as a clumsy retread that attempts, with only occasional success, to recapture the subversive charm of the original.
Facts of the Case
Reginald Perrin is a world-weary, discontented middle manager at Groomtech, a manufacturer of personal grooming products, where he's the executive in charge of disposable razors. While he has everything a person might expect to need in order to be happy in life—regular employment that pays enough to afford a decent house in the suburbs, a stable marriage to a loving wife, no missing limbs or debilitating disease—Reggie is drowning in boredom and the daily aggravation of being surrounded by idiots.
Those idiots include: his boss, Chris Jackson (Neil Stuke, Silk), an aggressive workaholic and the kind of guy who voraciously consumes motivational books by "management gurus" while drawing all the wrong lessons from them (at one point he removes the desk from his office, so there won't be a barrier between him and the person he's speaking to…only the guest seat is a dinky little chair that ensures that he dwarfs the person sitting in it); his two eagerly obsequious underlings, Anthony (Jim Howick, Hellboy) and Steve (Nick Mohammed, The King is Dead), a pair of bright young lads seemingly joined at the hip and full of staggeringly ill-conceived (but hip-sounding) ideas; and his dimwitted, apathetic secretary, Vicki (Kerry Howard, Him & Her), who fails to register the cruel insults her boss is continually flinging her way.
At home, Reggie enjoys an amiable but largely passion-free marriage to Nicola (Fay Ripley, Cold Feet), who spends most of her time with her career and social causes, neither of which involve Reggie. While the two share a mostly contented union, they're living separate lives, leading a romantically starved Reggie to fall into the kind of comically pitiful infatuation that only a middle-aged man can develop, with an attractive fellow exec, Jasmine (Lucy Liemann, Moving Wallpaper), "head of balms and lubricants."
Reggie's humdrum, joyless life grinds away at his soul—and his sanity—leaving him with only his Walter Mitty-like fantasies of petty vengeance and sexual conquest as a refuge from his misery. If you're wondering at this point why Reggie Perrin is filed under "comedy" and not "desolate Kafkaesque tragedy," the laughs come from Reggie's increasingly unhinged, anti-social responses to the vapid absurdity around him, as he struggles to fracture the orderly civilization that has entrapped him.
I discovered The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin as an eleven-year-old staying up way past his bedtime on weekend nights. (Why I spent that time watching PBS is a question too complex, and sad, for this review.) While a good deal if it went straight over my head, I was immediately hooked. As with most things that make a huge impression on us at a particular time and place in our lives, it's impossible to look back at the show with any objectivity. What I remember, though, is a pitch-black social satire that wonderfully captured the desperation and anger of a man who has woken up from his comfortably numb pseudo-existence and refused to continue going along to get along. It may not have been a particularly revolutionary concept, but it was one executed with wit, brilliant comic timing, and a willingness to let the story and characters unravel in totally oddball, unpredictable ways.
I haven't watched that series in decades; I imagine much of it would seem dated today, which is understandable. Less understandable is why so much of the new Reggie Perrin, which premiered in 2009, feels so dated. Not in the surface details—Reggie Perrin makes sure the characters and setting are updated for the new century. Reggie's previous boss, stuffy, pompous old C.J., is now hip, pompous young Chris Jackson. Reggie's wife isn't just a dull housewife anymore, but a vibrant career woman with a life of her own. And the object of Reggie's infatuation is a fellow middle manager now rather than his secretary. The script is well-seasoned with Internet era buzzwords and up-to-the-minute pop culture references.
So why does the show seem so much like a relic from another decade? It doesn't help that the jokes are the kind of moldy-oldie "Who are the ad wizards who came up with this one?" observational jokes that lived to a ripe old age and passed away peacefully in their sleep sometime in the '90s. For example, Reggie's take on feminism: "I take my hat off to anyone who bleeds for five days a month and doesn't die!" Seriously? Who still laughs at lines like this? Apparently the studio audience, whose inexplicable roars of laughter are preserved at deafening volume, perhaps to assure viewers that what they're watching is in fact funny, and not wincingly corny.
Not that the original Perrin wasn't generously larded with broad, obvious gags (overbearing mother-in-law, cut to shot of lumbering hippopotamus), but have we not progressed at all in our comic sensibilities since 1976? The answer: Yes, yes we have. It seems the ideal audience for this new series is people who originally watched, and laughed at, the old series, and were subsequently preserved in a time capsule until 2009. Which, as you might expect, is not a huge group (and which might explain why Reggie Perrin was cancelled after its second series.) The failure of the show isn't the fault of its capable cast, though Martin Clunes plays Reginald with a bitter glumness that tips the mood a bit too far towards the tragic; the actors bring energy and goofball charm to their roles, but they're saddled with leaden, pedestrian material.
Cornball humor aside, Reggie Perrin is dated in more fatal ways. In 1976, the notion of a middle-class white man—with a well-paying job and nominally functional nuclear family—becoming discontented with his lot and acting out still had some comic resonance. In the post-financial-meltdown era, however, some of the romance has gone out of the premise; Reggie's comfortable boredom and mid-life angst are the textbook example of what are derisively referred to as "First World problems." In a time when few people who aren't in the very highest tax brackets can afford even to feel comfortable in their life, let alone jaded, the idea of having secure employment at decent wages—the agonizing hellscape Reggie's trying to escape—is, for most of us, the fantasy life we'd like to escape to.
Video quality on Reggie Perrin is excellent, though perhaps misguided; the show is shot on high-def video, not film, and while the image is expectedly vivid and clear, it gives the series a stark, low-budget feel that somehow doesn't work for this series, perhaps by calling too much attention to the absurdity of the goings-on. Audio, presented in Dolby Digital stereo, with optional English SDH subtitles, is clean and clear, perfectly adequate. The sole special feature is a photo gallery.
The original Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin was a brillant response to the Weltschmerz of its time, a dark satire that parodied, not just conventional society, but the alternative subcultures that rose up around it. There's certainly room for that kind of unsparing satire today, a series that captures the updated frustrations and desperate aspirations of a world that has had thirty more years to screw things up; unfortunately, Reggie Perrin isn't it.
The court finds Reggie Perrin guilty of deplorably disregarding the
value of a steady paycheck.
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Studio: Acorn Media
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