"You're right, Victor. If it's sunny in the morning, you don't want to know it's going to rain in the afternoon."
"Trouble with the world nowadays...nobody does anything about anything."
Death comes to Victor Meldrew...and not a moment too soon. BBC Video has released One Foot in the Grave - Season 6, the final six episodes of the tragic/hilarious British sitcom that seems to be known all over the world...except here in the States. I previously reviewed Season 5, and found those shows to be some of the funniest, most rewarding sitcom episodes I've ever seen. I can't say that particularly high level of quality is reached here in these final moments, but the series is still funny as hell...but also depressing as hell, too.
Nothing much as has changed for retired pensioner Victor Meldrew (Richard Wilson) and his long-suffering wife, Margaret (Annette Crosbie). He's still prattling about their comfortable suburban home, whinging on about the constant stream of humiliations and degradations that are visited upon him with almost cosmic fury, while she barely keeps her sanity as he goes on and on and on about the horribleness of life. Even though nemesis Patrick Trench (Angus Deayton) and his long-suffering wife, Pippa (Janine Duvitski), no longer live next door to Victor, they're still on the receiving end of his incredible string of bad luck. No such acknowledgement of bad karma will ever come from eternally optimistic neighbor Nick Swainey (Owen Brenman), though, as he hopscotches over into the Trench's old house, while of course, Margaret's friend, poor Mrs. Warboys (Doreen Mantle) is oblivious to her own tactlessness and irritating manner.
Almost immediately, when watching the first episode in this final season of One Foot in the Grave, one could sense that something was just...off with not only the writing of the script, but also the timing and direction of the episode. Looking up some background info on this particular season, I noticed that a five-year interval separated it from the previous fifth season - not an unheard of time lapse in British TV, where "seasons" are really more like complete "series" in our TV lingo, and where shows can take time off for a year or two or more, and come back to the airwaves as if nothing happened. Could that time off have dulled creator and writer David Renwick's facility with his meticulously laid-out subplots involving multiple humiliations for Victor, as well as slowing the pitch-perfect timing of Wilson's and Crosbie's chemistry? Certainly every TV series, regardless of overall quality, reaches a "peak of performance" time where the major elements of the show - directors, writers (in this case, as with most British TV series, one writer and his or her vision), and performers - come together at their optimal levels. With my recent viewing of Season Five of One Foot in the Grave, I can't see how earlier seasons could have been funnier (and if they are, I can't wait to see them), but taking a five year break after knocking out five seasons in a row might have taken the edge of Renwick's and Wilson's knives.
It's not that this sixth season doesn't have hilariously sick, funny moments, alternating with Renwick's jump-cut shifts to black, tragic drama. It does - and quite a few of them. More, in fact, than missteps. But there's a languid, subdued tone to the proceedings, even in the comedy moments, that seems more contemplative than farcical. Individual bits are still quite funny, but the intricacies of multiple subplots of the earlier episodes have been replaced with some rather forced, stiff work. A good example is the killing off of one-half of Margaret's and Victor's dreaded couple friends, Mildred (Barbara Ashcroft), of Ronnie (Gordon Peters) and Mildred. With absolute no set-up at all, Mildred is bumped off in an admittedly funny, sick way (Ronnie tells the startled Victor and Margaret that during a card game of Happy Families, she went upstairs and hung herself out their bedroom window). But the reason the visual gag of seeing Margaret's feet hanging outside the window falls flat, is precisely because the bit isn't integrated into the episode's plot. It's just brought out, and left there to die, so to speak. Other potentially funny bits are introduced, only to prove to be dead ends or trailing-off non-starters: Margaret unwittingly acting as a prostitute and being secretly videotaped in The Executioner's Song is lifted almost wholecloth from an episode in Season Five; Mrs. Warboys' speech-impaired cousin who invariably types silly double-entendres ("May I have a bra of soup?" is the best Renwick could come up with? I'm surprised he didn't think of working in "brassiere/brazier").
And if some of the comedy bits seem unconnected to the plots or warmed over from better episodes, others come across as jarringly too broad and exaggerated; in other words: trying too hard. The "secret underground Chinese brothel" in the opening episode is probably the best example of this element of Season Six. It's certainly well mounted (sorry about that), with some clever special effects to pull off Victor unwittingly stamping his foot in a toilet stall and descending to an elaborate underground whorehouse. But the very smoothness of the sequence, coupled with its over-the-top concept, combine to create a scene that we laugh at, but that we don't respect because it seems well outside the "norm" of the series. Patrick falling over the staircase, smashing his "modern art" painting given to him by Victor (which is in actuality, the plywood floor of a birdhouse, complete with droppings), is telegraphed way before it happens, and it's executed poorly, to boot. In another episode, Victor and Margaret find themselves literally bricked into their bedroom (Victor had complained about a paving company not finishing their patio) - a silly moment that strays too far from reality (and that's saying something for this show). One Foot in the Grave's surreal gags that really work are those that make us feel like they just might happen, but too many times, gags in this season feel "outsized," and outside the intricate frameworks Renwick previously constructed.
Again, don't mistake these criticisms for saying One Foot in the Grave - Season 6 isn't funny. It is (the sight of Patrick gingerly walking around with a cork up his arse, prompting a wary Victor to assume he's Patrick's gay twin, is about as good as it gets). It just isn't up to the almost transcendent levels of Season Five. Unfortunately, that rather sanguine tone that permeates these episodes also brings about some heavy dramatics, as well, and it will be up to each individual's taste as to whether or not these moments are successful...or heavy handed. Certainly the death of Victor at the end of the series is atypical for almost all sitcoms in America (it's been done, such as Edith in All in the Family or Henry Blake in M*A*S*H, but it's rare), but what I found most striking about it was the all-out deadly seriousness of it here, as Renwick writes it. Yes, there are a few moments of macabre English black humor about the tragedy, but Renwick seems to be playing for keeps with this meditation on death and revenge (yes, revenge), as Margaret comes to terms with her grief by vowing vengeance on Victor's killer...and perhaps succeeding in her goal to kill the murderer with her own bare hands. Renwick isn't fooling around when he has Margaret viciously tell-off the priest who councils forgiveness for Victor's hit-and-run murderer (Crosbie is particularly good here), nor does he allow room for a single laugh as he leaves it open as to whether or not Margaret poisons (yes, poisons) the woman she has befriended - the woman she discovers to her cold fury is the driver that mowed down Victor outside a pub on a rainy night. None of this is played for laughs, and there are many other times during the season where Renwick stops the show for some deadly serious business (such as Margaret's discussion of the memory of her dying father). Do those moments fit in, overall, with the comedic nature of the series? Well, yes; they did in Season Five, and some work in Season Six. But I'm still debating whether or not the final episode works (Victor's death is well managed, but Margaret's revenge seems...alternately showy and all too conventional, rather like a poor-man's Midsomer Murders without the yoks or the intricate plotting). The final montage of Victor's humiliations seems to want to strike an elegiac tone, but they, too, seem strangely muted (due no doubt to the oddly-placed Margaret murder angle, as well). It's certainly a memorable end to a series, but I'm not sure a successful one to a series so deserving of a truly unique (and far funnier) finale.
Here are the six episodes included in the two-disc set One Foot in the Grave - Season 6, as described on the back of the hardshell case:
The Executioner's Song
Victor's window cleaning performance is reviewed (poorly) in the parish magazine, but he does manage to find the perfect holiday present for modern art lover Patrick.
Tales of Terror
Victor's got the lead role in the amateur dramatic production of Nosferatu the Vampire - but real life is scarier....
The Futility of the Fly
A deep-fried finger in his chips, an unsolicited giant plastic fly and inadvertently getting his wife's best friend tattooed...who would believe it?
A power cut on the hottest day of the year is a trial for Victor - as if coping with feet that have been featured in "The Lancet" and teenagers having sex on the back seat of his car isn't bad enough.
The Dawn of Man
Nick's identical "twin," Patrick's gay brother and video shop popcorn...all contrive to create maximum havoc.
Things Aren't Simple Anymore
Nothing out of the ordinary in Victor's last days on earth: their home becomes a sacred shrine; Victor syringes a car mooner's behind , and he's the only one to turn up to a work reunion.
Five years did make a difference, apparently, with the broadcast presentation of One Foot in the Grave - Season 6: it's now here in an anamorphically enhanced, 1.78:1 widescreen transfer that's a big improvement over Season Five. Pretty much all visual elements are improved, with color and clarity increased dramatically. Compression issues are nil.
The Dolby Digital English 2.0 stereo track is entirely suitable for this dialogue-driven comedy; all words are cleanly delineated, while English subtitles help out if the accents get in the way.
There's another funny commentary track featuring star Richard Wilson and series creator and writer, David Renwick, for The Executioner's Song (in fact, I found their commentary almost as amusing as that particular episode). In addition, we have "I Don't Believe It" - The One Foot in the Grave Story, a 44-minute documentary that aired prior the final episode's broadcast in 2000. Hosted by Angus Deayton, and featuring interviews with the cast, it's an intriguing look back at the entire series, with some hilarious clips from past seasons.
It doesn't reach the surreal heights of Season Five, but One Foot in the Grave - Season 6 still has a lot to offer fans of British sitcoms. The heavy dramatics sometimes feel heavy-handed, and you'll wonder if the finale is all wrong with its central accident/murder/revenge plot, but there's no denying that writer David Renwick, stars Richard Wilson and Annette Crosbie, and the rest of the cast, have created a memorable send-off for whinging sod, Victor Meldrew. I highly recommend One Foot in the Grave - Season 6.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.