The basic premise (and bear in mind all sitcom comedies sound lame when you get to the basics of settings and characters) involves the trio of anti-social, wine gulping, cig smoking, book shop owner Bernard Ludwig Black (Dylan Moran), his employee/flatmate, the ditzy but sweet, hippie-haired Manny (Bill Bailey), and nick-nack shop owner, the lovelorn Fran (Tamsin Greig).
Black Books is a damn funny show. US Britcom converts will want to note that Black Books, while edgy and wacky, falls more into the vein of a commercial sitcom like Absolutely Fabulous rather than something more stylized like The Office or The League of Gentleman. In other words, Black Books has a laugh track and finds most of its locations settled into tv studio sets. Bernard is a great character who lives under a gray cloud of pessimism and the general anti-social behavior of a man turned off by the normal social rules of politeness and cheery people in general. He thinks nothing of forcing customers to leave his store, smashing their cell phones, or attempting to pay for a meal by offering his belt in trade. In the series most telling Bernard moment, rather than get up from his chair and stop reading his book, he simply wheels the chair into the bathroom and, in full view of his customers, whizzes in the toilet while never getting up or glancing away from his book. Manny, likewise, is a good oddball companion, full of funny mannerisms and delightfully half-witted behavior. Fran, though usually relegated to subplots and support, is still a great, grounded character, just as messed up as Bernard and Manny, and essentially the glue that holds the three together.
We begin with "Cooking the Books." Manny is a bedraggled accountant office drone who relies on "The Little Book of Calm", a near stamp sized tome of relaxation phrases, to keep his blood-pressure down. Unfortunately, he drops the book into his cup of soup, eats it, and it lodges itself into his intestines where it could kill him. Bernard Black, meanwhile, doesn't want to do his accounting, and he tries everything to avoid doing them, pairing his socks and piling them, inviting Jehovah Witness inside (much to their surprise, "We've never thought this far ahead.") proceeding to get them drunk, making a suit jacket out of the various scraps of paper he scribbles his financial records on, and finally tries to get himself hobbled or beaten to pulp so he can take advantage of the severe injury clause. By the end of the episode, Manny has absorbed the "Little Book of Calm" via osmosis, briefly becoming a saintlike figure, and comes to Bernard's aide after he insults some skinheads.
"Manny's First Day." Your basic getting to know you episode. The night before Bernard had drunkenly hired Manny but doesn't remember doing so. Bernard's first two questions after waking up with a hangover are, "Am I dead?" and "Have I joined a cult?" We discover that Manny, due to years of cell phone use, has developed a nervous, painful twitch every time his phone goes off, something that Bernard delights in taking advantage of. We find out Bernard once thought he might be gay until he found out about gay cultures "prohibitive standards of hygiene and all that dancing." Bernard is actually peeved when he leaves Manny alone only to return and find that Manny sold all of the books. To Bernard this means just more work ordering books. After Bernard fires Manny, Fran has to bully Bernard into doing the right thing and keep Manny employed. Manny also moves into Bernard's back room.
"Grapes of Wrath." Manny is stressed over Bernard's filthy living conditions so he calls a cleaning service, imploring to them, "Right now I'm eating scrambled eggs with a comb from a shoe." They take up an offer to house sit for a friend while the apartment is being cleaned. Unfortunately, they also drink the wrong wine from the wine cellar and guzzle an obscure, expensive vintage. This leads to Bernard and Manny desperately trying to Frankenstein a wine out of the cheaper stuff, vanilla ice cream, nutmeg, and some twigs from the yard. Fran, meanwhile, is out on a date, which proves to be a disastrous when she suspects that the perfect guy is gay but hasnt relized it.
"The Blackout." Manny is all hopped up because he stayed up all night drinking espresso and watching COPS marathon. After seeing him hanging out with another woman, Fran suspects her current boyfriend is cheating on her. After being blanked (ignored, cold shoulder-ed), Bernard suspects he did something bad a dinner party but was too drunk at it to remember. By the end of the episode, Manny finds himself accidently mistaken for a detective and locked in a interrogation room with a thug, while Fran and Bernard are each in casts and share stories of how they got injured.
"The Big Lock-out." The book shop gets new security door, a gargantuan steel monstrosity fit for a bank. Manny zones out when the security instructions are given, which results in his being locked-in and Bernard being locked-out. Bernard doesn't like anything that doesn't involve drinking, smoking, and reading. Stuck out on the street, Bernard finds himself sitting in an empty movie theater, biding time in a porno video store, and taking a job at Mamba Burger just so he wont be out in the cold rain. Fran spends a night at home listening to the weather report because she is captivated and turned on by the voice of the announcer, an aquiantence who is a total prick but has a seductive tenor.
"He's Leaving Home." Bernard's abusive nature has him acting like a drunk paranoid husband to Manny. Manny runs away, enter the ode to Midnight Cowboy, and Manny is taken in by a scuzzy photographer who grooms him into his new face. Unknowingly to innocent Manny, the photos are being sold to a Japanese magazine called "Big & Beardy." Fran is depressed without Manny around and Bernard tries to turn himself into a fun guy to cheer her up, but in the end it is only Manny's return that will smooth things over. Taking into account the show had two more series (the second being the best), you guess if Manny comes back.
The DVD: BBC/Warner
Picture: Hey, its tv. I'd like to leave it at that, but that wouldn't be earning my keep would it? As I said before, it is a standard sitcom series shot around pretty basic sets, mainly the musty, small bookstore, with the occasional foray out into the streets. But, it isn't really visually dynamic in any way. So with what there is to work with, this transfer does quite a good job and appears competent in all the major areas, sharpness, color, and contrast, with no glaring technical flaws.
Sound: Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo. Optional English subtitles. Again, a very solid job. Standard sitcom stuff, good dialogue, a sometimes overbearing laugh track, and nice use of music, including the shows theme which sounds like it was lifted from a Swordfishtrombones era Tom Waits session.
Extras: The usual gaggle of BBC show trailers.— Photo Gallery.— Out-takes (10:04). Some decent flubs and tomfoolery, made slightly less amusing because they have a laugh track.— Episode Commentary by actors Dylan Moran, Bill Bailey, and Tamsin Greig. Fans of Moran's standup will note that he isn't that far off from Bernard Black. He approaches audio commentary with dry reservation, though he is forced to do it, he spurns the very concept (he does the same on the Shaun of the Dead DVD commentary). The three do have a good rapport, each is quite witty and easygoing, and as result the commentary is a good bit of fun.
Conclusion: A solid bit of British comedy. Every episode of Black Books has great wit and surreal asides delivered by a trio of good performers whose characters were obviously perfectly molded around them. It is the kind of show whose quirkiness assures giggles from the oddest punchlines, be it, "I ate all your bees... I'm a prostitute robot from the future... I thought you had a disease... Amazing effects, you really believed that monkeys could have meetings." Trust me, if you are a fan of screwy humor, check it out.