TV Review: Channel 4's FRESH MEAT Is A Bit Of A Stinker

In comedy circles it's generally agreed that Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong are among the best writers currently working in the field... so why is Fresh Meat so flat?

In comedy circles it's generally agreed that Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong are among the best writers currently working in the field, and with credits like Peep Show and last year's film Four Lions already under their belts, any new show by the duo is going to be eagerly anticipated. The trouble is, when you keep raising the bar eventually you're going to clatter into it, and sadly that's what's happened to them with their latest Channel 4 venture Fresh Meat (which premiered last night on Channel 4). Don't get me wrong, Fresh Meat isn't terrible, it's just it's not that good either. The basic plot of the show follows six mismatched characters who've missed out on getting into their university halls of residence and find themselves thrown together under one roof. As a result of which we're presented with a posh guy and girl, a slightly less posh guy and girl, a Scottish weirdo and a ballsy working-class girl (is there any other kind on TV at present?) coming to terms with the fact that not only are they now all students, but they're housemates too. In a set up like this (and heck, it's hardly original) the comic value of the whole show rides on the quality of the characters, and unfortunately (and extremely disappointingly), on first viewing they all seem to be lazy clichés. In brief, it breaks down like this: the posh people are naive idiots, the working class people are quirky but cool and the middle class people are naive idiots who can also be quirky and cool. But that's not necessarily a problem - stereotypes can work brilliantly in comedy: they allow the audience to instantly recognise and relate to certain characters, establishing a common ground on which writers can build and develop characters - what is worrying is that during this entire first episode the writers appear to have made no attempt to do either of those things: the people we see on screen end the first episode exactly as they started it. What's more worrying is that two of the central characters seem to have been stolen straight from Spaced - Greg McHugh's Howard is basically a young Mike (even down to the glasses) while Charlotte Ritchie's naive but eager to please Oregon seems uncannily similar to Daisy Steiner (though whether Bain and Armstrong find themselves sweating on a call from Pegg and Hynes's lawyers remains to be seen). But that's not to say some of the performances aren't good, both McHugh (who viewers may struggle to recognise from his exceptional turn in Gary: Tank Commander) and Charlotte Ritchie give their characters as much as they can from the dialogue they're given. Zawe Ashton gives her sassy Vod the requisite no-nonsense attitude and Kimberley Nixon's Josie is innocent enough - but with all these characters, in this first episode you're left with the sense that there's nothing behind the facade. Unfortunately, there are some bad performances too - chief among them Jack Whitehall's turn as JP. You'd think Whitehall would be a perfect fit to play an insufferably smug toff who you love to hate, but unfortunately it seems even this is beyond him as his acting is as limited as his stand-up (miaow, I know, but true). Joe Thomas in the role of Kingsley is certainly nowhere near as bad, but he may as well be called Simon so close is his character to the one he played in The Inbetweeners - which brings me on to a point that really worries me about this opening show: it just feels like no real effort has been put into it - in short, it feels anything but fresh. The characters, the scenarios, the comedy - it's not giving us anything new. The show seems geared towards the 'comedy by embarrassment' trend started by The Office, but where Wernham Hogg was peopled by characters who felt real, the characters in Fresh Meat seem incredibly one dimensional. I assume the show is going to be based around the 'will they/won't they' plot line between Kingsley and Josie, the only two relatively sane people in a house full of weirdos (á la Tim and Dawn), but currently it doesn't seem like either character will have the depth to engage us enough to bring about a satisfying pay-off. There are other things that let the show down too though, such as the little observational jokes that work so well in Peep Show, but feel clunky here - yeah, the working-class girl uses a PC while the posh girl uses a Mac, we get it. Perhaps this failure in subtlety and detail is because the writers aren't as close to their subject as they need to be for their observations to rise above standard hack comic fodder. Or perhaps the comedy feels lame because students are such low hanging fruit - of course they're ridiculous, everyone from the loudmouth in the local to the Mayor of Manchester knows that. So why bother mocking them if you can't bring anything fresh to the table? Bain and Armstrong have spoken with excitement about the fact that they've created the first show about university life since The Young Ones, but the reason The Young Ones was great was because it displayed students in a new light - its characters were such monstrous exaggerations of stereotypes that we couldn't help but pick our favourite and root for them. With Fresh Meat it all gets confused - the characters are certainly stereotypes, but they're also presented as people we're expected to sympathise with - so are we supposed to laugh at them, or with them? Again, perhaps that's down to the subject matter - it's funny watching a schoolboy or an adult humiliating themselves, but when it happens to a student, well, that's just what they do anyway isn't it? The direction doesn't help matters - it's a weak imitation of Edgar Wright's fantastic work on Spaced and it works against the material, shots are held too long, the camera moves unnecessarily and the director seems to think it's necessary to shoot though a tilt-shift lens at every opportunity. I don't know which film-school tutor is responsible for the outbreak of tilt-shift mania that we're seeing in every bloody programme these days but can I please implore any director thinking of reaching for that lens to just stop - no one will think any less of you if you have a depth of field wider than all the other boys. Of course, it's not all bad - as you'd expect from such a pair of talented writers, there's some fantastic dialogue scattered throughout the show, for example a naked-from-the-waist-down Howard apologising because he wears "trousers of the mind" and then eating one all-encompassing meal he describes as "Blinner". Indeed perhaps the highlight of the show was Kingsley attempting to explain why he wants JP to move out: "The thing is, we're very Hufflepuff here. Wouldn't you be happier in Slytherin?" - I got that and laughed even though I've never viewed a second of a Harry Potter film / book. There's definitely some laughs in the show, but the trouble is there aren't enough to satisfy - especially when you consider the show's pedigree. And perhaps that's Fresh Meat's real trouble: if this series was produced by a new writer then you'd say "Ok, laughed a couple of times, not bad - certainly better than Two Pints of Lager..." but the fact is it's been written by two guys who've produced some of the best comedy of the last decade, and therefore you expect far better than what you get. The overwhelming feeling you're left with from this show is that Bain and Armstrong just walked into a production meeting at Channel 4, said: "Think the Inbetweeners meets Spaced - but at University", smiled as everyone put down their iPhone4s and applauded, then walked out with a fat pile of cash and tossed off 50 pages of the first thing that came to mind. That's probably doing the writers a disservice - they probably put as much effort into Fresh Meat as they have all their other projects and thought they were coming up with something new and exciting, but perhaps they should have learnt a few lessons from their subject matter: one of the great truisms of university life is that while you're living it you genuinely believe you're doing something groundbreaking and different, yet when it's over you realise that no matter how original and brilliant you thought you were being, you were actually still a cliché. Unfortunately for the makers of Fresh Meat, their show proves that this truism can be as applicable to comedy as it is to student life. Fresh Meat airs Wednesday on Channel 4 at 10pm.
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