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Friday, 17 September 2010

Looking back on Grandma’s House

Written for Den of Geek.com.

Simon Amstell has proved himself to be an adept presenter and stand-up comedian, but do his talents translate to the traditional sitcom? Josh looks back at Grandma’s House…

You may have heard a little about Grandma's House over the last month. You won't have watched it (oh, God, no) but you will have heard it spoken about, largely because it has encouraged a disproportionate level of debate given its modest viewing figures.

Discussion point number one has been Simon Amstell himself. Leaving Never Mind The Buzzcocks on an impressive high last year, it seems he's split his time between recording new stand-up DVD, Do Nothing and co-writing and starring in the odd little nugget of observational comedy that is Grandma's House. And the question on everyone's lips has unanimously been, "Yes, but can he act?" to which the honest answer remains: we don't know. He hasn't really tried to yet.

The series is a family situation comedy more in the vein of The Royle Family than My Family, though it walks a perilous tightrope between the two, not truly picking a side with any conviction throughout its six episode run.

Simon plays Simon, a sardonic ex-presenter known for ridiculing pop stars on TV. He's surrounded by an over-encouraging mother (Rebecca Front, best known for The Thick Of It's Nicola Murray), her dull try-hard fiancé (James Smith, Glenn of the same series), a paranoid aunt, her obnoxious son, the eponymous grandma, constantly trying to keep the peace, and her long suffering husband who wants only a bit of calm and quiet.

So far, so situational, and accompanying it the comedy does not disappoint. Amstell has proved himself not only in his stand-up and quick-witted presenting, but also in a proficient guest writing role on Skins, and the family neuroses here are as keenly observed as they are cringe-worthy.

While their culture is a key part of the family's nuances (it's not for nothing that in one episode the outsider Clive is finally labelled the ‘schmuck' that he is) you need not be Jewish to start drawing lines with character traits of your own family members.

And if the working class context of The Royle Family felt irrelevant to you, the Amstells (a surname assumed, but never mentioned) offer a hilariously ‘upwardly mobile' alternative.
Grandma's House is a comedy constructed out of competent, robust parts, the weak links arguably being the irritating young actor playing the cousin (blissfully absent in the fifth and, not coincidentally, best episode) and Simon himself, who plays more the ringmaster of a panel show than a character, regularly distancing himself to address events in a way not dissimilar to Woody Allen's pieces to camera.

A lead who doesn't do much acting need not be a complete deadend (take Larry David's performance in Curb Your Enthusiasm, often sounding more like a man complaining about the lines than delivering them) but it is this jarring confusion of performances that leaves Grandma's House slightly off-kilter.

While Amstell channels the American neurotic greats, half the cast carry on apparently believing they're in the next My Family, while the rest seem to think they're in The Thick Of It (probably because they very recently were).

While these various pieces from seemingly completely different puzzles make for uncomfortable viewing at first, it eventually gels quite well, with the environment of a house where disparate personalities are forced to congregate each week. Viewers who stay with the series long enough for it to find its feet are treated to a comedy that tackles domestic comedy without ever feeling domestic.

While lead personality Simon takes a backseat choric role, his mother Tanya's relationship with Clive becomes a natural focal point, and the series charts their courtship, while in the background, Simon's cousin gets kicked out of various schools, sickly grandpa just tries to stay out of trouble, and by series' end, enough dramatic tension has built that Amstell damn near emotes.

The promise of 'trust me, it gets better' is the fragile last defence of any series apologist, but if you're willing to take on a whole six episode commitment, you may find your investment rewarded with a sensitive and honest comedy that occupies a niche no-one knew needed filling.
Amstell's performance can be bemoaned (mostly unfairly) until the cows come home, but it does bare mentioning that, while this could have become a vehicle for the worst kind of 'everyone's crazy but me' comedian-helmed sitcom (Everyone Hates Raymond, King Of Queens, etc.). Instead the dysfunctional family of well fleshed out personalities invokes more the Bluths of Arrested Development, especially as that series also featured a lead you followed in the madness, only to prove less likable as the series went on, leaving you to find a new favourite amongst the nutcases.

The same is true here, as dark horse grandpa proves to be an amiable hero in his epic quest to not be any bother, which makes it all the more sad that the actor Geoffrey Hutchings died before the series made it to air.

Find the entirety of this series on BBC iPlayer to catch a wonderfully understated final performance by a fantastic straight man.

Episode 1: The Day Simon Told His Family About His Important Decision is here.

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