Commending a sitcom for its authenticity might sound a bit like damning with faint praise – an “authentic” comedy conjures up visions of something worthy, try-hard and not exactly a massive laugh. But look closely at the last decade of British comedy and the overlap between “authentic” and “very, very good” becomes impossible to ignore. The best shows have been strongly autobiographical: the situations based on lived experience rather than a convenient pun; the characters and plot details meticulously, sometimes strangely, specific rather than blandly generic.
You can see it in This Country (Cotswolds siblings duo play Cotswolds cousins duo), Derry Girls (based on creator Lisa McGee’s Troubles-blighted teen years), Friday Night Dinner (inspired by writer Robert Popper’s own eccentric Jewish family dynamics) and Stath Lets Flats (in which star Jamie Demetriou draws on his Greek-Cypriot heritage). Let’s not even get started on the sadcoms.
Yet, no modern comedy has felt as gratifyingly authentic as People Just Do Nothing. A mockumentary about a Brentford-based UK garage pirate radio station called Kurupt FM, it started life as a YouTube series made by a group of mates who dabbled in the scene: everything from its very precise west London setting to its fixation with a particular musical subculture was based on the lives and loves of its creators. A satire born of deep familiarity and affection, it overlapped tantalisingly with real life – the cast weren’t really the characters they played, but, also, they kind of were (they’ve certainly made a great deal of real music under their fictional monikers over the years).
So, it hasn’t been hugely surprising to observe that this year’s flurry of activity from the team behind the show, which concluded in 2018, has paled in comparison. The Curse, an 80s-set Channel 4 crime caper starring three-quarters of the main cast – Steve Stamp, Allan Mustafa and Hugo Chegwin – was fairly amusing but rather self-satisfied. Peacock, a Stamp-penned BBC Three three-parter about a personal trainer (Mustafa) was also fairly amusing, but rather flimsy and meandering. Crucially – although both were distinctively flavoured and well observed – neither possessed People Just Do Nothing’s bona fides.
Now, however, we have Sneakerhead – ostensibly, the most promisingly authentic of the three. It stars Chegwin – AKA PJDN’s nice-but-dim DJ Beats – as Russell, the newly promoted and deeply ineffectual manager of a crappy Peterborough sports shop. And the actor/writer/musician/nephew of the late Keith Chegwin did indeed once work in a crappy sports shop. Yet despite the close-to-home premise, the contrived and stilted actuality of Sneakerhead is the polar opposite of the show that made Chegwin’s name.
Perhaps that has something to do with the fact that, slightly confusingly, Sneakerhead’s credited creator is not Chegwin, but Gillian Roger Park, a Scottish comedy writer best known for her work on Irish sitcom The Young Offenders. Either way, the specifics that make great autobiographical comedy are sorely lacking here; Sneakerhead is a jamboree of bland genericism. There is no sense of the precise travails of sports retail, no sense of place or regionality. Maybe this is deliberate – a portrait of an interchangeable middle-English high street – but it seems more like a hastily sketched backdrop designed to prop up a sitcom premise that manages to feel as though it was plucked randomly out of a hat, even though it actually wasn’t.
The characters don’t help. Russell is a credulous beta male whose defining quality is his inability to assert himself against the show’s cabal of cartoonish villains: a cruelly demanding yet noncommittal girlfriend, an efficient but sociopathic boss, an efficient but sociopathic young colleague, and a gaggle of thieving, jeering teens. It’s not enough of a personality for a protagonist. The aforementioned cartoonish villains, meanwhile, feel like exercises in talented actors battling valiantly against cringeworthy stereotypes. They lose.
In fact, the whole cast are working their trainer socks off. Russell’s deadbeat colleagues are played by rapper and presenter Big Zuu and internet comedy sensation Lucia Keskin. The latter gamely brings her goofy deadpan to Amber, but she is the type of stoned space cadet who became a sitcom cliche in the 90s. Big Zuu, meanwhile, pours his easy charisma into Mulenga, a man without a single identifiable personality trait. Even Chegwin, who was never PJDN’s primary comic motor, does sterling work attempting to inject the distinctive vocal rhythms and cheery delusion of Beats into the inescapably dull Russell. Characters are either one-dimensional or no-dimensional. The latter are at least less annoying.
There are passable jokes in Sneakerhead, delivered with commitment, and a fair amount of farce. The problem is that the show has nothing else going for it: the characters and plotlines feel overwhelmingly generic and arbitrary, created purely to service a handful of all right gags. It might be based on a true story but, in this age of sitcom authenticity, Sneakerhead proves that capturing that heady, highly specific ring of truth is a lot harder than it looks.
July 14, 2022 at 03:32AM Rachel Aroesti