Friday, February 9, 2018

Operation Good Guys

Before The Office, the Good Guys were already lampooning TV's fly-on-the-wall fad with grimy, semi-improvised realism. For a little while at least, before celebrity cameos and increasingly wacky antics made it easy to forget they were supposed to be police officers in the first place.

The Informant (1x01) ****

I had a great love for this show back in the day - the fly-on-the-wall docu-drama 'spoof' that some people like to point out predated The Office, but still came after plenty of stuff like This Is Spın̈al Tap and The Larry Sanders Show.

It's not like it's all about the filming style, though with all the relaxed ad-libbing, genuinely shoddy production values and a cast that really don't look like actors (apart from the ones you can't disassociate from being EastEnders actors, or the one from This Is England) it's more convincing than all those post-Office bandwagon jumpers. In this first series at least, when D.I. Beach is frequently preoccupied with how his team is coming across on film, and when the writers trusted the viewers enough to understand that it was a comedy without the need for a laugh track or increasingly preposterous premises. I'll get to those in time.

This first installment establishes the first series' arc - to take down crime lord "Smiler" McCarthy - as well as the general ineptitude of the crack squad Beach has assembled when no one better was available. Along with his trusty lifelong subordinate Ray, who prefers to see himself as the "Colonel Riker" to Beach's John Luke Picard, but who is clearly more in the Smithers mould.

In this episode, the Good Guys prod a punk hairdresser for misinformation that, combined with Bones' over-zealous policing, leads to them footing the bill for an expensive lawsuit filed by David Seaman. It's the first of many pointless celebrity appearances and the start of the team's deep financial and legal hole.
"It was like Sesame Street out there. Sesame Street with guns" - Sgt. Dominic de Sade

Radio Silence (1x02) ****

Even with finances dwindling and increasing pressure from unpopular accountant Roy Leyton (who oddly seems to be financially better off with each episode - weird that), the Good Guys arrange several costly undercover ops to snag drug dealers that invariably don't lead to any convictions or any chance of recovering the cash.

One of the things I love about this series - apart from the Beach/Ray dynamic, obviously - is that the characters are somehow believably incompetent. Mark screws everything up because he's fresh out of police academy and only got the gig because his uncle's the commissioner, half of them are emotionally unstable and prone to violent outbursts, and the team's lack of access to hi-tech equipment means their set-ups need to be unhelpfully suspicious in order to accommodate bulky cameras and awkward vantage points.

Under the circumstances, holding an impromptu picnic in the car park was borderline genius. As for Ray not realising it would get quite so stuffy and suffocating when staking out inside a car boot, that's a mistake any optimistic simpleton could have made.
"It's called the three Ts. Number one: timing. Number two: teamwork. Number three: truncheons" - Bones

Frisk 'Em (1x03) *****

In this certified classic of an episode, the Good Guys benefit from the aggressive input of New York's finest and best-selling author Lou "Frisk 'Em" Ferrino, whose dynamic, gun-toting approach to crime solving doesn't exactly mesh with the Good Guys' approach of making dodgy wall charts and getting pissed when they're supposed to be gathering information, but his emotional and mental instability suits their operation to a tee as he loses it and ends up staging a siege.

The introduction of this outside element is a great jolt for the series, as we get to see Beach's jealous side explode and understand why the Good Guys should never be allowed to play with hi-tech gadgets that they will screw up immediately. After a few hints in earlier episodes, Beach openly dispenses some handy transvestite survival tips, Ash's habit of endorsing painful and damaging home remedies is established and Gary's domestic troubles are seen to be increasingly affecting his work. He's definitely one of my favourites.

Beyond the detonation of the aluminium dye bomb, and the various punchlines the dye leaves on characters' faces for the duration of the episode, other painfully comedic moments include Gary's impractically large "hidden" camera, Beach's impractically jangling rabbit's feet charms that jeopardise the undercover aspect of the operation, and the attempt to covertly dose the hostage taker's pizza with gigantic, colourful pills. A contender for the best episode, though I have a soft spot for some of the later ones from the laugh track years too, even if I'm not supposed to like those as much for artistic reasons.
"He's doing what a drunk would do because he's drunk" - Lou "Frisk 'Em" Ferrino

Holiday (1x04) ***

The team is given an undeserved day off, solely to allow Beach time to catch up on the paperwork needed following their various expensive and litigious screw-ups, but even he gives in to the holiday spirit as he and Ash go out on the town and work through several seasons' worth of Burns/Smithers innuendos in the space of a few short montages.

Elsewhere, Bones has a frustrating time in A&E after a failed attempt to pull a car with his teeth; Strings "entertains" his neighbourhood by setting up Marshall amps in the windows and blasting out his "1977 hit" until the (real) police are called; Kim and her flirty flatmates get one-dimensional with the camera crew; Gary salvages his fish from a break-up; and De Sade and Bill delight in making Mark run a gauntlet of armed response and BDSM training sessions.

I prefer episodes where the Good Guys pool their talents and spectacularly fail to tackle crime, but this is a welcome break to get to see more of the characters in their day-to-day lives. More than we would perhaps want to, in the case of Mark's exposed arse.
"With all due respect, Doctor, you namby-pamby liberals make me laugh. I'm a have-a-go hero" - Bones

Safe as Houses (1x05) **

The series' propensity for unusual 'celebrity' guests reaches its strangest point as the Good Guys find a valuable informant in "Mad" Frankie Fraser, who's moved into a safe house where he has to deal with Bones' poor hygiene and Beach's pushy attempts to get him to dress up in a frock.

Sadly, his appearance isn't anywhere near self-deprecating enough to leave me feeling comfortable.
"You've left a log in the toilet the size of a bottle" - Kim Finch

Open Day (1x06) ***

Desperate for funding, Beach organises an open day to raise several valuable pounds and impress the Commissioner, aided by some unnecessary flamboyance from Christopher Biggins.

The day isn't a complete success, especially with Gary's mental wife derailing things, but the Commissioner leaves feeling satisfied enough, having unknowingly won the charred corpse of his beloved Alsatian at the coconut shy after Mark and Bones' attempts to teach it tricks got a tad too ambitious and there was confusion about which bin bag contained the prize.

Beloved pets dying in cruel ways is a tried and tested black comedy staple, though it was less overdone back then. I don't know what it says about me that those scenes are just as funny now as when I was a teenager.

"It would have looked quite sensational, of course, if we had a motorbike" - D.I. Jim Beach

Sylvia La Plage (1x07) ***

The operation comes to a downbeat close as the Commissioner has understandably withdrawn further funding (it might have something to do with that time they burnt his dog and awarded it to him as a prize) and sleazy accountant Roy elopes to Spain with what was left. Beach is devastated but the team try to comfort themselves that they did their best, apart from those multiple times they made situations worse. And apart from Mark, who ate Beach's prescription pills and now thinks he's an airline pilot.

The documentary gimmick is played up more than ever in this finale, and the long denouement in which Beach opens up about his transvestism is the only time the series could conceivably be mistaken for a serious documentary by a 90s viewer switching channels. Apart from Gary's stubborn belief that Sylvia is a real woman anyway. Look at it.
"Those of you with any modicum of intelligence will have noticed that we don't have furniture any more" - D.I. Beach

Back to School (2x01) ***

The Good Guys are inexplicably allowed back on TV, despite the colossal failure of their operation and the public's distaste for Beach's letterbox mouth. This time around, they're joined by a pleasant voice-over and an obnoxious laugh track to inform us that this isn't a genuine documentary because apparently we're fucking idiots.

They're not completely off the hook though, and before they can get back to the undercover work they do so poorly, the team needs to endure gruelling retraining under a complete dick, as well as being given psychiatry that helps re-introduce the characters through their various issues.

It doesn't feel like the series has caved in yet, but the premise that they're being followed around by a camera crew all the time seems to have been largely forgotten, as it tends to when these shows get a second year. But amidst the forced innuendos, there are still plenty of endearingly absurd scenes, like Strings having to sign a career-making music contract from inside PE equipment and the revelation that Bones carries his amputated testicle around, followed by Mark's genuine enquiry as to whether the preserving liquid is wee-wee.
"Four or five of them held me down and put a whole jar of Colman's Mustard over my uro-genital area" - Bones

Star Dust (2x02) ****

I have a soft spot for this one, as it's the first episode I saw and the one that instantly enamoured me to the show. They had me at Bones covertly making his own butter during training exercises, and said butter subsequently coming back to haunt him while he trains Mark in the ways of the vigilante crime fighter.

But Bones' troubles are just one of several plots, as celebrity guests Jude Law and Johnny "Bobby" Lee Miller arrive at the station to help them prepare for their roles as policemen in an upcoming film. As far as lame excuses for celebrity guests go, this is right up there, and all the late-90s actors have to do is look confused/distressed as Beach takes Jude through his J. Edgar Hoover collection while Johnny assists De Sade and Bill in stripping the Commissioner's house of all valuable objects and selling them down the reclamation yard.

Typically, the stars both wind up worse for wear.
"They'll be alright. Johnny's leg is on the mend, and Jude... well, you can live without a spleen" - D.I. Beach

Forensics (2x03) **

I thought the show's decline was going to wait for series three, but this is already a low point. The opening scenes are funny, in which the Good Guys ineptly investigate a sweet shop robbery, but then Beach takes us on a murder mystery weekend with a nonsensical script that left me feeling as restless as De Sade.

It's not a good sign when an episode that elsewhere relies on ironic awfulness also falls back on the sort of crowd-pleasing cheap shots that would later be lambasted in the sitcom-within-the-sitcom on Extras, including Beach's "hilarious" "Chinaman" "impression" and his advertising nostalgia duet with Ash that the laugh track audience bloody loves. Ha ha, do you remember stuff?

I know the show isn't exactly a satire of police work, but I'd still prefer to see these characters doing their day jobs terribly rather than pretending to be actors for no discernible reason. Also, why's Gary hardly in it any more?
"Fingerprints have been found. Unfortunately, D.I. Beach forgot to wear gloves" - Narrator

I Will Survive (2x04) ****

One of my most fondly remembered episodes, largely thanks to an increasingly rare appearance from Gary Beadle whose solitary black copper now only shows up when they have room for racism gags.

The Good Guys learn survival skills from an insane white supremacist and things get impressively tense as he inflicts strange pig-based punishments on transgressors, mows down their tents and hunts Gary in a tank. ("I'm not imagining it, am I? He doesn't like black guys.")

Beach refuses to acknowledge the mounting evidence that "Big" Jim Appleby's Hitler memorabilia indicates more than a harmless interest in military history until they encounter burning crosses and sinister barn rituals and their survival training becomes a matter of life and death.
"It's not a burning cross, it's a barbecue" - D.I. Beach

Viva Espana (2x05) **

This two-part conclusion revives the classic tradition of sending sitcom characters to Spain for a summer special, but first they have to work through a few airport jokes - from old chestnuts about excessive luggage to less well-trod ground, such as Beach being driven insane by painkillers and almost causing an aerial catastrophe.

Sleazy ex-accountant Roy Leyton is back for some unnecessary but appreciated continuity, and Ray goes on the first date of his life thanks to an unconvincing wig, just so they have the set-up for a closing music video that finally lays the show's credibility to rest. 'The Baldy Song' is admittedly catchy, but it belongs on another show. I guess they were getting restless with the format by this point.
#"It's not fair that I've got no hair" - D.S. Ash

Operation Zorro (2x06) ***

In a break with tradition, the crack crap team's second major operation is a surprising success... if massively underwhelming for the production team and BBC execs, leading to Beach directing a spiritual recreation with his established flair for the nonsensical. The absurdity gets more of a pass this time, since it's the last day of term.

With Operation Zorro itself taking all of 10 seconds, most of the episode sees the Good Guys getting into various scrapes on their holiday, from Beach's severe sunburn to Mark and Bones being arrested for indecent exposure after overestimating the country's laid-back attitude.

The downbeat conclusion would have been a fitting end for the series, but they got a final batch of six to explore further realms of implausibility. I look forward to the convincing in-show explanation for that bizarre decision.
"Oh, these bladdy explosions" - Bill Zeebub

That's Entertainment (3x01) **

Paul Jackson INEXPLICABLY wants a Good Guys Christmas special, and Beach diligently sets about planning a crap variety show. This would be more effective if every other episode wasn't already a song and dance spectacular.

There's more mock racism as Beach is roundly criticised for his "politically correct" reverse Al Jolson blackface, but they aren't even recruiting Gary as their freelance black man any more.

There's also a violent dwarf that Beach sics on people like a bloody dog, which they don't go to the same lengths to justify.

The Onanistic BBC Television Centre stuff might have been fun if you worked there, but most of us didn't.
"Get me some bloody midgets, now!" - D.I. Beach

Castaway (3x02) ****

We're two for two with the gimmick episodes, but this one's a lot more fun and Beach's customary spiral into insanity is a lot better done as he struggles to survive on a desert island. The setting is gratuitously lovely, but it does at least make sense within the show's context as a desperate attempt by their BBC to make the series more appealing. Paul Jackson's continuing positivity about them in general is baffling though.

It's satisfying to see De Sade and the other competent characters finally mutiny against their inept boss now that their lives are at stake, and if you've found David Gillespie's portrayal of Beach a little too convincingly irritating in the series so far, you can overload on masochistic delight as he's put through 29 minutes of hell. As ever, entirely of his own making.

Donna Air's in it too. I didn't know who she was even then.
"Oh for god's sake, there aren't any monsters out there. It's probably just some cannibals" - D.I. Beach

Raging Pig (3x03) **

Boxing episodes are reliably my least favourites in any series, and there's a wealth of in-jokes and homages that wouldn't tickle me even if most of them didn't go straight over my head.

When Beach loses £12 on a boxing bet, his insistence that the match was fixed leads him to go undercover and attempt to infiltrate the sport, after Ray's pandering and well-meaning blackmailing convinces him of his superior skills.

Meanwhile, in an almost entirely unrelated B-plot, Bones suddenly develops insecurity about his earplug-sized penis and seeks a surgical solution. You know you've watched too many episodes in too short a span when you find yourself irked by Bones' genital continuity.
"Bend your eyes, bend your eyes" - D.S. Raymond Ash

The Leader (3x04) ***

There's only a few episodes left and nothing left to lose, which the creators take as license to push the unpleasant gross-out humour as far as it can go.

Beach succumbs to the hypnotic charms of a cult leader who is unusually fixated on balls and shit; Ray puts his own balls on the line to rescue his beloved guv'nor; Strings investigates cat napping and milks the gruesome punchline; and in yet another sub-plot about Bones' toilet area, the guys take multiple plaster casts of his piles... for fun? At least they got some interesting bowls out of it.
"Go away, I'm going to levitate around the room" - D.I. Beach

Jubilee (3x05) **

Due to a series of unlikely circumstances, the team is charged with protecting and escorting Britain's most prestigious family around the station and the East End, where they look forward to interacting with some normal people.

That doesn't happen. When Mark's tasked with looking after the corgis, their fate is sealed. At least they don't present their mangled corpses to their owner as a gift this time: they're getting better. Until Her Majesty gets blown up on the lav.
"You're not like the other old people I look after, you know. You don't smell of pee" - D.S. Ash

Operation Snowdrop (3x06) ****

It's the final outing, and after dallying with ironic racism and other amusing prejudices in the past, they pull out all the stops with this one - along with so many digs at the reputation of the police force, I actually felt sorry for them.

Appalled by the casual sexism displayed in the office, and its lack of diversity in general since Gary and Kim inexplicably left, Beach launches an inclusion program that veers off in an unintended direction when it proves harder than he imagined to actually find any minority police officers.

Under the dubious guidance of a bigoted community relations officer, Beach and Ash black up and seek out some fellow black people on the street; De Sade and Bill become the latest characters to don drag; Mark is forced to add sequins and a moustache to his get-up when he doesn't look gay enough; Strings method acts his disability; and Bones throws himself into his appointed homeless gambler role with impressive gusto.

It's a fine finale and one of the few truly great episodes this show produced, despite the nostalgic love I have for it. Any further series would have been gratuitous, not to mention far too fashionable with The Office raising the profile of the fake documentary format not long after. By this point I'd finally stopped questioning why the characters are still being filmed, so I probably would have just kept watching forever.
"I know the black community very well. Of course, they make very good footballers, don't they, and their coordination as runners is not to be questioned, but as police officers I'm not so sure. You see, it's just that they've got smaller brains" - Asst. Commissioner Terra Blanche

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