Friday, January 27, 2012

The Great War Takes Its Toll When Blackadder Goes Forth!

The Good: Funny, Good character development, Interesting DVD bonus features
The Bad: Short, Some of the humor is more predictable than in the past.
The Basics: Funny - and daring to not be funny - pushes Blackadder Goes Forth out of "average" territory on DVD.

There are only a few television comedy series' found on my shelf. This is largely because I am not so much into humor because I see that it tends not to endure all that long. Humor is largely based upon surprise and as a result, it is hard to find truly great comedy series' that I want to add to my permanent collection. One of the few is the television series, from the BBC, called Blackadder.

Blackadder is a historical comedy, and each season was set in a different time period. By the fourth and final season, the show was up to roughly Modern times and Blackadder Goes Forth, the final regular series of Blackadder was set in the trenches of World War One. The basic concept was to take a twist on British history and make a situation comedy that would have an immortal quality to it. Largely, series creators Richard Curtis and Rowan Atkinson succeed because the humor is both universally funny and historically smart. This series relies on British wit and Atkinson's amazing sense of comic timing. And it works.

With only six episodes in this season, Blackadder Goes Forth tells the story of Captain Edmund Blackadder, trapped in the trenches fighting Germany in World War One. As the Great War reigns, Blackadder looks to survive and he is accompanied by the idiotically patriotic Lieutenant George and the just plain dim Baldrick. Given orders by the oblivious General Melchard and sparred with by Captain Darling, Blackadder finds that war truly is hell.

From the trenches, Blackadder attempts to survive the war by feigning communications problems to prevent him and his troops from going over the top (an act that gets him court martialed), posing as a great artist and sneaking into HQ as a cook. As well, he gets his troops out of the trench by making them into an acting troupe (which almost leads Melchard to marry George in drag) and by joining the air force, which gets Blackadder captured.

Blackadder Goes Forth tells a darker story of living in war and what people will do to survive. The wit in the show is colder and the comedy - when not being predictable to those who are fans of the series - is utterly hilarious. In fact, it is so funny one wonders why the BBC has a laugh track to it; there is plenty that is amusing without the tiresome laugh track going off letting viewers know when it is appropriate to laugh. I mention this because this series has one of the most intrusive and annoying laugh tracks of any series I have ever seen. The only time the laugh track is not engaged is for the bulk of the final episode, "Goodbyeee," which is a strong, unfunny, antiwar episode that works beautifully to enhance the characters and provide viewers with something truly new, even if it is not funny.

The only other real strike against this series is the fact that it was released in the late 1980s and it looks like it was released in the 1980s. The special effects are campy even by BBC standards and it is clear this was never the top of the BBCs list for cleaning up when making the transfer to DVD. As a result, there is quite a bit of footage in the series that is grainy and some that even has lighting washouts.

But what makes Blackadder Goes Forth worthwhile, timeless and funny is the quality of the writing. Richard Curtis and Rowan Atkinson wrote scripts with fairly straightforward plots with Edmund suffering much like most downtrodden and loathed protagonists. This series is preoccupied with Edmund surviving using his razor wit. And in that, there are some absolutely hilarious bits. For example, when dealing with HQ and pretending the phone has gone wonky, Blackadder goes through an impressive array of voices and noises to convince Captain Darling that he could not possibly be understood. And in the trial, when General Melchard enters as one of the judges, it is impossible to not laugh, especially considering he is the one bringing the charges against Edmund!

But more than most comedies, certainly the ones that are this short - Blackadder Goes Forth episodes are less than thirty minutes long each - this series is about characters. Here are the primary characters of "Blackadder Goes Forth:"

Edmund Blackadder - Captain in the royal army. Having survived the war in Africa, he considers colonization foolish and he treats his men with disdain, but does his best to keep them alive. Frequently ignoring orders to go over the top, Blackadder tries every way he knows how to get out of the trenches in ways that will keep him alive,

Lieutenant George - Dimwitted subordinate of Edmund, he is eager to die for King and Country, witlessly believing that going over the top is a chance for glory (Edmund soon illustrates the error of such thinking). He becomes a leading lady for Blackadder's acting troupe and is wounded protecting his captain,

General Melchard - An idiot with a giant mustache, he unquestioningly follows Field Marshal Haig's witless orders to keep sending British soldiers in front of German machine guns,

Captain Darling - Sycophantic assistant to Melchard, he is a coward who frequently spars with Edmund when Blackadder comes to HQ,

and Private Baldrick - The idiot noncom, he tries his hand at poetry, balancing a slug on his upper lip to impersonate Charlie Chaplin, and painting with bodily fluids. Resourceful, but stupid, he is Edmund's most loyal companion.

The characters are vivid and the acting is pretty decent, all things considered. Hugh Laurie's George is ridiculous and funny in a way most American audiences would be surprised, given his performances on "House, M.D." Similarly, Tim McInnerny's return to the Blackadder franchise as Captain Darling is a welcome one with him sniping at Blackadder as his equal, instead of his dimwitted sidekick.

It is Rowan Atkinson who holds most of the series together and moves it. He has a great sense of comic timing and he delivers his period-specific references beautifully with the complete sense that he knows just what it is he is saying. As well, he is adept at physical comedy, erupting when necessary to flinch, jump or fall as needed to sell the physical gags that balance out the scripted comedy.

On DVD, Blackadder Goes Forth has three bonus features, plus trailers for other BBC DVD releases. These simplistic features include cast biographies of all of the major players in the Blackadder series, narrated references to historical events alluded to in the series and an extensive interview with Richard Curtis that describes his take on the history of comedy. The historical information is actually intriguing and some of the more obscure allusions, like to specific military personnel, provide information that I did not have before watching the series.

Those looking for something different from a comedy will find much to enjoy with Blackadder Goes Forth.

For a more complete idea of exactly what is in this DVD set, please check out my reviews of the individual episodes at:
"Captain Cook," "Corporal Punishment," "Major Star"
"Private Plane," "General Hospital," "Goodbyeee"

And while the one-disc season is fun and interesting, I certainly prefer "The Complete Collection" (reviewed here!) because part of the fun of Blackadder is seeing how the line evolves over the various "generations!"


For other television reviews, please be sure to visit my index page on the subject by clicking here!

© 2012, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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