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"What I'm doing is helping people."
Facts of the Case
Vivienne Vyle (Jennifer Saunders, Absolutely Fabulous) is the host of a Jerry Springer-style talk show in which she examines such savory subjects as incest, cheating, racist midgets…you know the drill. One day, Vivienne makes one guest particularly angry and is assaulted. The incident earns the controversial talk show host a great deal of attention, immediately launching her program to new heights. Vivienne determines that her program will now adjust to being a form of on-air therapy, and that she will attempt to sell the public on the idea that her brand of emotional humiliation is actually helpful psychoanalysis. Will the show soar to new heights or sink under the weight of its new ambitions?
Daytime talk shows are ripe subjects for satire. It's hard to watch an hour of Jerry Springer or Ricki Lake or Maury without becoming a bit overwhelmed by the sensationalistic stupidity of the whole thing. I was excited about the potential of the funny Jennifer Saunders tackling the subject matter in her new sitcom The Life and Times of Vivienne Vyle, but alas, the program proves to be something of a disappointment. Despite the fact that picking on daytime chat shows is a bit like shooting at the side of a barn, the show misses the target quite a lot. What should have been a smart, funny, merciless comedy is instead an awkward and surprisingly toothless experience.
Part of the problem comes from the show's attempts to parody the sort of preposterous themes that define such talk shows. We're supposed to laugh whenever Vivienne informs us that the theme of the show is something like, "I want a vagina but I can't kick the crack," but the problem is that such themes can be found every day on television in real life. These programs exploit the lives of real human beings who want nothing more than to have their lives exploited on television. Pointing that out isn't comedy; it's merely a statement of facts. I get the sense that The Life and Times of Vivienne Vyle wants nothing more than to make us gasp with laughter at how sharply the program comments on modern society, but there's very little in the way of humor or insight.
The problematic humor issues extend to the characters, not least of all Saunders' vile Vyle. She smugly promotes herself at every turn, willingly messes up people's lives for the sake of ratings and generally acts like an arrogant jerk at every opportunity. It's as lazy and stereotypical a portrayal as the oh-so-frequent portrait of reporters as shameless vultures who will do anything for the sake of a decent story (as you might expect, a couple of those turn up too). Saunders is a gifted comedian and she occasionally manages a moment of spot-on humor (watch her reaction as she witnesses a horribly cheesy promotional ad for her program), but it's hard to overcome the weaknesses of the script. Incidentally, that script was written by Saunders and television psychologist Tanya Byron (that would explain the pointless moments in which various mental conditions are explained to us for no apparent reason of note).
The supporting cast doesn't fare much better. I was sorely disappointed in the work of the generally-wonderful Miranda Richardson (Southland Tales), whose over-the-top portrayal of the boozy television producer gets old after about five minutes. Conleth Hill (Blue Heaven) is forced to run through the same two or three comic tics over and over again, while Jason Watkins never manages to make show psychologist Dr. Jonathan Fowler a terribly intriguing character. There are a couple of ultra-flamboyant gay characters thrown in for comic relief, but such wheezy stereotypes only add to the long list of disappointments I have with The Life and Times of Vivienne Vyle. Rather than building up to any sort of satisfactory comic payoff, each episode simply rambles along aimlessly until stumbling into the end credits. Though I'm uncertain of precisely how much is scripted, much of the acting here seems like poor improvisation, and the basic structure of each installment is pretty flimsy and disorganized.
The DVD transfer is okay, getting the job done without really being anything particularly special. As with far too many Britcoms, the show suffers a bit in terms of detail at times, but is otherwise clean and effective. Audio is just fine, conveying the frantic combination of dialogue and sound design with reasonable clarity. There are no extras on the disc.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There are fleeting moments of brilliance to be found throughout these six episodes, few and far between as they may be. The imaginative and surreal fifth episode is a definite high point amidst what is otherwise a very flat program.
By the time this 174-minute disc reached its conclusion, I was more than ready to call it quits. It's somewhat unfair to compare the show to Absolutely Fabulous, as it's really apples and oranges, but fans of that Saunders show should hesitate before checking out this one.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
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