Empty10-10:30 p.m., Friday, March 9
If I may apply a medical proverb to the world of television comedy (not a terribly common comparison, I realize), an ounce of subtlety is worth a pound of quirk. It's one reason why I perhaps wasn't the world's biggest fan of that British sitcom classic "Absolutely Fabulous," whose protagonists always struck me as adorably broad yet at the same time utterly forced.
In order for comedy to work, there has to be some grounding in reality, however thin. I never got that from "AbFab" (which also is why I never called it "AbFab"). Similarly, "Clatterford" (co-starring and written by "AbFab" co-conspirator Jennifer Saunders) soars too far over the top to be at all relatable. I've nothing against eccentricity, but outrageous needs to be doled out in spoonfuls -- and balanced with straight-ahead interaction -- to work with any consistency.
The British-produced "Clatterford" arrives on American TV via BBC America, and it does have its moments of genuine hilarity. But they are separated by too much self-aware eccentricity. Sorry, but older ladies who spend way too much time bonding in a small-town women's club just aren't this weird all the time. But Saunders likes to play things to their ridiculous extreme, and because she currently lives in just such a tiny town in Britain, she no doubt feels she is shaping it all based on her own observations (completely with a healthy ratcheting up of the zany factor, to be sure).
Sue Johnston actually serves as the action center in "Clatterford." She plays a local practice nurse named Sal Vine whose life in the burg of Clatterford gets tossed into a tizzy when her husband dies of a heart attack in the premiere. She loathes the whole knitting and cake-baking scene favored by her oddball contemporaries but finally gives in to the idea of joining the women's club because she's got little else to do. This means she gets to hang with such colorful characters as the overly indulgent Eileen (Maggie Steed), the dim crossing guard Queenie (Doreen Mantle), the emotionally overtaxed Grievance Group rep Kate (Rosie Cavaliero), the obsessive multitasker Caroline (Saunders) and the crazy old lady Delilah (Saunders' "AbFab" co-conspirator, Joanna Lumley).
There is a scene featuring Kate attempting to comfort the freshly widowed Sal (and instead going to pieces herself) that's wildly funny. And in general, there is witty insight that sports an undercurrent of sweet affection. But again, it's taken too far in that Saunders' opening script fails to make allowances for restraint or understatement, leaving all of the characters in something of the same behavioral condition. Can't somebody here be sane? You need to straight man (or woman) for a modicum of balance, but it's unlikely ever to be forthcoming in "Clatterford."
Saunders and French Prods. and the BBC
Credits: Executive producer: Jon Plowman; Producer: Jo Sargent; Directors: Steve Bendelack, Mandie Fletcher, Sarah Smith; Teleplay: Jennifer Saunders; Director of photography: Rob Kitzmann; Script supervisor: Lucy Crawford; Production manager: Ali Bryer-Carron; Costume designers: Lucia Santa Maria, Rebecca Townsend, Faith Thomas; Editor: Tony Cranstoun; Composers: Kate Rusby, John McCusker; Title song performed by: Ray Davies. Cast: Sal Vine: Sue Johnston; Caroline: Jennifer Saunders; Delilah: Joanna Lumley; Tip: Pauline McLynn; Eileen: Maggie Steed; Rosie: Dawn French; James: David Mitchell; Tash: Sally Phillips; The Vicar: Patrick Barlow; Queenie: Doreen Mantle; Kate: Rosie Cavaliero.