Lead Balloon

Thursday, November 22, 2007 by

History does repeat itself. It’s not that long ago I was going around raving to people about the US version of The Office. I remember reiterating that, if they could just forget about the UK version and avoid spending the whole time imagining Gervais and co delivering the lines, then they’d soon come to see what a great show it is.

At about the same time, a friend of mine was badgering me constantly to watch Curb Your Enthusiasm. “Nah”, I thought, “doesn’t look like my cup of tea at all”. Eventually, I relented and – just to be able to say I’d given it a chance – sat myself down to an episode. Half an hour later, I found myself grudgingly using the words, “You were right”, and berating myself for resisting Larry David’s charms for so long.

Lead Balloon has come to occupy a position that bridges those two stories. Just as I had to cajole people into watching The US Office, so I struggled to enjoy Lead Balloon without subconsciously dubbing Larry David’s voice over the show. Throughout the first series, I struggled in vain to accept Jack Dee’s ongoing claims Lead Balloon was not influenced by Curb. Oh heavens forbid, no! And, to continue The Office parallel, watching Lead Balloon brought to mind Stromberg, the German workplace-based comedy, which the producers insisted was not remotely influenced by Gervais’ efforts. They relented when BBC lawyers came a-knocking.

With this second series, Lead Balloon has hit its stride. Either that or I’ve simply kicked the habit of mentally humming Curb‘s incidental music every time a new scene begins. Not that Dee has made it easy for me to abolish the comparisons – the sight of Rick Spleen stealing flowers from a memorial was astonishing for being exactly what Larry David does in the latest series, recently screened in the US. Plus I must admit in this latest episode, I flinched when the builder character introduced “My wife, Cheryl”. If Dee truly believes Lead Balloon is not remotely influenced by Curb, then writing partner Pete Sinclair must be doing one hell of a job pulling the wool over his eyes.

The thing that finally drew me into Lead Balloon was the realisation Rick Spleen is actually a great character in his own right. Not as loud or as boorish as Larry David, he reacts in a much more understated and, well, British middle-class sort of way. True, he shares many of Larry’s traits, his neuroses, his inability to conceal unhappiness or disappointment, his penchant for taking petty revenge on those who upset him. Spleen’s actions and reactions – not those of people around him – do not stray into the realms of cartoon-ish excess.

Sadly, I have little praise for the supporting cast. The character of Marty, Spleen’s American comedy writing partner, is near-irrelevant. His only function appears to be the one who goes “tut” at Spleen’s whinging, while his one-liners feel hopelessly out of place, conveying a sense someone insisted on occasional gags to ensure people realise it’s a comedy. Likewise, the regular inserts of Spleen writing jokes on a pad seem a pointless diversion from what the show does best. If Marty is meant to be Lead Balloon‘s answer to Richard Lewis, then there is a huge amount of work to do.

Magda, plus Spleen’s daughter and her boyfriend similarly serve little purpose. The East European daily help does little to assist the show, and, like Alan’s girlfriend in series two of I’m Alan Partridge, seems to exist only to allow a string of fairly cheap Borat-style gags about “backward” customs. The daughter and boyfriend, meanwhile, do little at all, other than to make Rick a bit more grumpy … which seems a shame.

This latest episode is triggered by Spleen saving a man from suicide, which leads him to try and milk the story of his heroism – a scenario which nicely shows the vanity of the character. In a rather odd move, the end of the episode reveals the saved man to have been a convicted paedophile, but squanders the opportunity for a backlash against Spleen’s for saving someone so vilified. The ending is doubly strange as it yet again recalls an episode of Curb, in which Larry befriends a man who turns out to be a sex offender, and feels obliged to invite him to a dinner party.

However, the strongest scene in the episode comes when Speen is told the man he has invited to dinner is not the head of drama at ITV – as he thought – but a builder. How he could have made such an error is glossed over, but it does allow a superb sequence showing Spleen’s pretensions, as he tries to hide anything he considers too good for a workman. When capable of attaining such heights, I am able to forgive Lead Balloon its flaws, and this for me was the moment when the show stepped out of the shadows and emerged as a truly enjoyable comedy in its own right.

Shorn of the excesses of Curb (am I the only one who finds that show’s references to Seinfeld hideously clunky?), Lead Balloon reveals traces of true brilliance. Perhaps it would be more palatable to many if they actually did admit the link instead of constantly denying the obvious. After all, it’s infinitely easier to accept Rick Spleen as a British Larry David than to accept Michael Scott as an American David Brent.


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