Friday, October 26, 2012

Little Redemption For A Once-Great Comedy: Monty Python's Flying Circus Falls In Season Four!

The Good: One or two good jokes, Conceptually ambitious, DVD bonus features
The Bad: Largely unfunny, No great performances, Only six episodes
The Basics: This two-disc set charts the ultimate demise of Monty Python’s Flying Circus as Cleese-less, the sketch comedy show becomes terribly humorless.

John Cleese may well be one of the smartest comic artists of all time (he and Steve Martin are ridiculously intelligent, actually) and there might be no greater proof of than than the fact that he got out while the getting was good from Monty Python’s Flying Circus. More casual fans of the series might not realize, but in the fourth season of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, John Cleese was notably absent, though he received writing credit for some of the sketches those weeks. I write "those weeks" because "that year" or even "that season" hardly seems appropriate as the fourth season of Monty Python's Flying Circus was only six episodes long.

On DVD as the seventh set of DVD pairs, comprised of Volumes 13 and 14, Season Four of Monty Python’s Flying Circus stands tall as a testament to comedy that has jumped the shark. With only six episodes and five Python's left, the show takes a turn for the worst as it whimpers its way out. In these six episodes, performed by Graham Chapman, Terry Gilliam (who gets more on-air time than in prior seasons), Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin, the sketch comedy series attempts more ambitious shows with longer arcs, but falls flatter.

A big reason for this is that the entire season is plagued by repetition. Episodes like "Mr. Neutron" repeat the premise over and over again. The savvy viewer recognizes that the constant reminders one is given from voice-overs as to Mr. Neutron's powers is a parody of hammy science fiction and how it repeats the premise. Unfortunately, in this case, the Pythons imitate too closely and they become the thing they are mocking. The premise is that Mr. Neutron is the smartest, most powerful being in the universe, yet he walks around as an idiot. Okay, we get it. . . we get it in the first few frames of the sketch; how is the episode enhanced by that premise being repeated ad nauseam? The answer, of course, is that it isn't.

Similarly, the remaining members of the troupe become obsessed with the long segue. At least two of the episodes have jokes about relationships where the monologue begins on one character, leaps to another only mildly related before leaping further and further and further away until the show is about someone else entirely. It is a funny joke . . . the first few leaps. It soon becomes tiresome. Moreover, this is only a mildly different joke than the one used in an episode from an earlier season where extraterrestrial blancmanges come to Earth and turn people into Scotsmen, only to be thwarted by two people who were panned off in the first moment of the sketch.

What the season does well enough to keep it from getting only a single star is that the episodes tend to create a single zany premise and stick with them almost well enough to sustain interest (if not laughter) for a full half hour. So, for example, "The Golden Age Of Ballooning" is a parody of a BBC documentary on ballooning that is over-merchandised. There are jokes within it, like how the Mongolfier brothers have not washed of late, but largely, the episode is a series of jokes peripheral to a pythonized view of the history of ballooning. Similarly, "Michael Ellis" largely follows around an ant-owner who is mistaken for Michael Ellis and the jokes either involve him or are about ants in one form or another. "Mr. Neutron" is, as one might suspect, about a science fiction villain named Mr. Neutron and is mostly a parody of hammy, serialized science fiction melodramas. "Hamlet" has recurring jokes about Hamlet and psychoanalysis.

The problem with this season is that the show is no longer funny. Before, the series was surprising and unpredictable with delicious satire and quirky greatness. In this season, the episodes are less funny and the jokes fall flatter. The timing of greats like Terry Jones seems to be off in episodes like "The Golden Age Of Ballooning" and Graham Chapman did not earn a single laugh from me this entire season. Even the pairing of Eric Idle and Michael Palin is a bit off. The only time they have a glimpse of their previous greatness in terms of comic timing is when they are doing a sketch in the final episode where they seem to be working up to kissing. They mock the television standards and practices as they flirt toward doing what they are not allowed to do on television and that allows them to play off one another well.

Outside that, the season is lacking in the spark which made it great. One of the final sketches, involving a walking tree falls memorably flat and is disturbing for the way it is predictable. It is a shame to see how poor the series became without all six minds working on it.

On DVD, the two-disc set features the usual trivia about the episodes as well as definitions of "pythonisms" (phrases unique to the series). There are clips from prior episodes and filmographies of the Pythons as well as animation galleries using the pieces Terry Gilliam cut out for his animated bits. There is a pretty basic trivia game for fans of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, but it is very easy for anyone who watches the DVDs. These are not the most earthshattering DVD extras and they aren't enough to redeem the poor programming of the season at this point.

In fact, the only way one ought to end up with this is by purchasing the complete series set (reviewed here!) and assuming that the savings one gets there is roughly equivalent to buying the other seasons of the show and getting this one free. It is still, most likely, the one that will get the greatest amount of dust on your video library shelf.

For a better idea of what this season comprises, please check out my reviews of the episodes in it at:
"The Golden Age Of Ballooning" and "Michael Ellis"
"The Light Entertainment War" and "Hamlet"
"Mr. Neutron" and "Party Political Broadcast"


For other television reviews, please check out my Television Review Index Page for an organized listing!

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