Judge Brendan Babish can't put his finger on it, but there's just something about retirement homes that make them hotbeds for comedy.
Our review of Waiting For God: Season Three, published July 16th, 2008, is also available.
A comedy about growing old disgracefully.
Waiting For God is a popular British sitcom that ran from 1990-1994. During its five-season run, 45 episodes were produced in addition to two Christmas specials. BBC Video has just released the first season, comprising of the following seven 30-minute episodes:
• "Welcome to Bayview"
Facts of the Case
Despite being hale and hearty, the elderly Tom Ballard (Graham Crowden) has been deposited in the Bayview Retirement Village by his milquetoast son and vindictive daughter-in-law. At Bayview, Tom finds himself patronized and belittled by Harvey (Daniel Hill), the retirement home's stingy director, and his minion Jane (Janine Duvitski), a lovelorn nurse. While Tom wastes no time confronting Bayview's management on the shabby living conditions, the rest of Bayview's inmates—er, residents, seen to have no will to challenge authority.
That is, except for Tom's neighbor, the irascible Diana Trent (Stephanie Cole). Like Tom, Diana, a retired photojournalist, refuses to go gently into that cold night. Serving as Tom's partner in crime, Diana joins him in a series of high jinx that flummox Bayridge's caretakers, but add vim, verve and vigor to their otherwise humdrum lives.
Retirement homes can certainly be fertile places for comedy. In a sense, they are almost like dormitories for the elderly, with a bit of that end-of-life pathos thrown in for effect. Of course the confinement, isolation and imminent death of retirement homes are not funny, yet from such dire emotions great comedy often arises. The comedy would be quite dark, but dark humor is something the British have handled far more adeptly than Americans, who seem to demand more optimism from their popular entertainment than any other country in the world (with the possible exception of India, whose Bollywood films are almost certifiably upbeat).
Largely to my admiration of Britain's dour sense of humor, I was anxious to see their wicked portrayal of rebellious retirees struggling to free themselves from the tyranny of a miserly administrator. However, my anticipation was dashed within the first 30 seconds of the first episode of Waiting For God. This occurred when, after Tom makes a sassy comment to his spineless son, the laugh track kicked in. I am opposed to canned laughter for a variety of reasons, and I have always felt a singular shame in the mistaken belief that America was the only country that resorted to such tacky lengths to augment their comedies. It is not only the distraction this phony laughter provides that makes it so insufferable. What particularly annoys me is that it implies that the show's producers don't have faith that their material will entertain without implanting cues to the home audience when a joke occurs. It's almost like flashing the word "joke" on the bottom third of the screen after every punch line. In the case of Waiting For God, a show that seems to be self-respecting and aspires to encompass somewhat series issues (albeit in humorous ways), the canned laughter was a particularly unwise option.
Still, two of the best situation comedies ever—Cheers and Seinfeld—used laugh tracks (though theirs came from a live studio audience, not from a can), so obviously this is not enough to doom a series. And while Waiting For God is nowhere near the level of those shows, it is far from the ineptitude of most American sitcoms, which is admittedly faint praise.
How charming you find Waiting For God will depend largely on how amusing you find old people behaving badly. Diana has a bit of an acid tongue, and openly insults the insensitive nursing home staff. Her barbs are amusing (the English have a way with creative put downs), but never really comes close to anything vulgar. This is actually a shame, because there is a slight incongruity between her deep-rooted cynicism and PG-13 language. Certainly, those who prefer their black comedy sanitized and acceptable for a family audience will prefer this, but we have enough homegrown comedies like that. And Even the grumpy old men in Grumpy Old Men get a little blue to liven things up.
Tom Ballard is a bit of an elderly goofball and most of his humor comes from either his weekly high jinx or from Crowden's broad physical comedy. Tom's schemes are usually limited to exacting some sort of revenge on the retirement home, such as threatening to disembowel himself on the front steps or blackmail Harvey with doctored photos. This kind of cheeky behavior is where Waiting For God is most successful, and Tom's acrimonious relationship with his stepdaughter is its most consistent source of humor. And while Crowden is a talented comedic actor, his broad muggings for the camera are occasionally overdone, especially during the running gag that consists entirely of him walking like an ostrich.
Ultimately, Waiting For God is far more likely to be appreciated by fans of dry, British humor. For younger American audiences who have been raised on more provocative comedy like Seinfeld and Friends, this is probably going to seem a bit stuffy.
Considering the source material is a British television show from 16 years ago, BBC video did a fair job with the sound and picture on the DVD. The colors are a bit fuzzy and grainy, though this almost seems to be appropriate considering the nature of the show. There are virtually no extras, but this is to be expected from the Beeb, who have not really embraced the full capabilities of the DVD format. Still, my biggest gripe is that there is no option to turn off the insufferable laugh track. I know many people are so desensitized they won't even notice it, but when a scene takes place outdoors, and it's obvious there is no studio audience, it's an especially unforgivable offence.
Waiting For God is an innocuous, mildly amusing sitcom that will have little to offer an American market that already has a surplus of mediocre comedy.
Guilty of an abundance of cloying and conventional sitcom humor, which may be forgivable in an American comedy, but I expect more from the British.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
• Cast Biographies
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