Saturday, March 29, 2014

Three seasons in, Fresh Meat continues to get better and funnier



When I wrote about My So-Called Life last week, I lamented the lack of quality high school dramas throughout the history of television.  There's a similar dearth when it comes to shows set in college as well.  The major ones include Felicity when it comes to dramas; and Undeclared, Community, and Greek when it comes to comedies; but you'd think there'd be more than those and a handful of others in the last 15 years.  Comedy in particular seems to be perfect for a setting as rife with potential premises and hijinks as college is.

For an example of the greatness the college comedy can achieve at the peak of its powers, then just take a look across the pond at the UK's Fresh Meat, whose third season just finished premiering on Hulu.  Created by Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain (of the legendary Peep Show), the show usually gets pitched as "the British Undeclared," since both are about a group of college kids who are thrown together and united by proximity.  Unlike Undeclared, which was about generally affable people and their wacky adventures, Fresh Meat centers around awful people screwing up together.  

No two characters are a better example of the show's mission statement than the pairing of Kingsley (Joe Thomas, of Inbetweeners fame) and Josie (Kimberley Nixon).  When the show first began, they were set up as the Jim and Pam of Fresh Meat, but Bain and Armstrong quickly revealed them to be a brilliant deconstruction of the will-they-won't-they trope.  These are not the kids you root for because they're sweet and cute together -- they're two petty and immature people who hooked up and were never able to escape each other's orbit afterward.  Season 2 was designed to make the viewer look at their childish one-upmanship and think, "these two are terrible...they deserve each other."  By the end the show did just that, having the two finally pair up in the finale.  Season 3 was so brilliant because it played out their relationship exactly how you would expect it to proceed.  From day one, it's clear that they're toxic together, getting embroiled in the same squabbles and jealousies that plagued them before they became a couple.  But they stayed together -- even when they began to outright pursue other people -- almost as if they were daring one another to leave.  In a group full of people who do reprehensible things, the two who would usually be positioned as the saints of the crew are actually the worst.

In season 2, the show underlined how horrible the main characters are by introducing a new roommate, Sabine, into the mix. She was a balance to the gang's destructive force, effectively serving as the straight man who observed and commented on their antics.  It's a character type needed if they wanted to maintain the show's main drive without it becoming tiresome, and it was made even better by Jelka van Houten's put-upon performance.  This year, they jettisoned Sabine from the flat and relegated her to a few hilarious guest appearances in order to introduce Candice, a freshman who moves in to replace her.  Her character is an even greater examination of the group's contamination factor, because of how quickly she taps into their frequency.  Soon enough, she snaps in place with everybody else, going overboard in a battle of wits with Oregon at the quiz show in episode 3.  By the end of the season, she's fully submerged in Fresh Meat's brand of crazy, donning an amusingly bizarre goth look when she starts developing feelings for Howard (Greg McHugh).

"Isn't it funny to watch these awful people be awful?" is actually my least favorite brand of comedy, yet somehow Fresh Meat is one of my favorite shows right now.  It works because the show is fully aware of how horrific its protagonists are, where a show like Dads is determined to convince you that the main characters are just lovable rascals.  Fresh Meat makes the smart move that shows like Community and It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia do, by frequently highlighting how anybody outside of this circle of friends reacts to them with an appropriate level of disgust and annoyance.  Additionally, the characters on Fresh Meat are real, recognizable people whose awful actions are often coping mechanisms to deal with their insecurities.  Josie may be manipulative and passive aggressive, but it's partially because she has genuine anxiety issues; JP's (Jack Whitehall) posh posturing hides a wounded interior; Oregon's (Charlotte Richie) psuedo-intellectualism is a result of her low self-esteem; and so on.  Sometimes the show's efforts to humanize the characters fall short, as it did in episode 6, when Vod's unhinged mother visits and the gang gets to see just how their friend came to be so reckless.  But for the most part, it successfully gives you reason to believe that you're watching human beings and not complete monsters.

Ultimately we tolerate characters that would otherwise be intolerable because the show is so funny.  This will never be the type of show that makes you fall out of your seat from guffawing so hard, but it packs solid laughs at such a high rate that it still manages to be one of the funniest shows on either side of the pond.  The show's dialogue is excellent -- by the time I'm done with an episode, I have more than a handful of timecodes to rewind back to so I can quote a snippet of conversation.  This is essentially a hangout comedy, which is weird to think about, since the genre is usually hinged upon having characters you want to spend time with.  But everyone in the cast is so good that it's fun just to see them interact with one another, and episodes go down as easy as any lighter, softer comedy.

Because of that, Fresh Meat is usually at its best when it can stuff as many of its characters in one storyline as possible.  It's no surprise then that this season's 4th episode is the best.  The main plot of the episode involves Kingsley, Josie, Vod, and JP participating in a drug trial that requires them to be stuck in a hospital for the weekend.  Though Vod almost immediately drops out, having that much of the main cast bounce off of one another gives the episode a comedic energy that's above the rest of the season's already high standards.  It might even be the best episode in the show's entire run.  Although Fresh Meat is funniest when the gang is together, season 3 might be the first one where every single character gets a worthwhile individual arc or, at the very least, a great episode.  In these individual stories, the writers take an idea that might be considered a hackneyed sitcom plot -- Oregon puts on a play, Kingsley finds out that Josie fakes most of her orgasms, Howard discovers feminism -- and they elevate it past the level of cliche through the sheer power of good jokes and sharp character beats.

The finale sidelined the laughs in favor of a weightier conclusion, but one that summed up the story the show was trying to tell this year: these people may occasionally squabble, but in the end they'll wind up together because they're all each other has.  Because of its release schedule on Hulu, Fresh Meat didn't qualify as a proper 2013 show for the sake of my end of the year list, but it's sure to appear on the top 20 (if not the top 10 or five) this time around.  And if the show continues its upward trajectory, I don't think the world will be able to handle this hurricane of horrible, hilarious people.

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