It seems like, every few years, a new amazing British comedy comes out of the woodwork to make its brilliant humorous presence known. Either as part of BBC America or the timeline treasure trove known as home video, previously secret series arrive and reveal their abject genius to one and all. In the past, we've had some earnest examples as The Goodies, No, Honestly, Fry and Laurie, Mr. Bean, Blackadder, Red Dwarf, and The Young Ones. Now, we can add the amazing Snuff Box to the list. While it follows a familiar design - the sketch comedy show set within a specific, identifiable dynamic - it achieves its aims in a way so wild and wooly that it threatens to peel the skin off the back of your head and befuddle your brain via a direct link to your funny bone. The results rewrite every rule you thought was inherent in the format, as well as establishing a few that you'll not find except here.
It's hard to describe the basic concept behind Snuff Box. Needless to say, the show revolves around highly fictionalized versions of stars Matt Berry (UK) and Richard Fulcher (US). The former is a qualified hangman. The latter is his oddball assistant. They spend their time at a local gentleman's club where other hangmen...hang out. While there, they discuss various aspects of their life as well as their concerns and cares, leading to free association asides more or less based on their issues. There is usually a main theme or narrative thread supporting the entire episode, even if the plots rarely resolve 100% in a single installment. Here are the titles and main storylines offered during the six episodes on this disc:
(1) Rich's Mother - Matt wants to understand where his buddy gets his money.
(2) Matt's Diary - Rich spends time reading his friend's private thoughts aloud.
(3) Punchline - Matt cannot stand the fact that Rich constantly finished his jokes.
(4) Oh Brothers - Matt and Rich are livid when their siblings arrive unexpectedly.
(5) Love Triangle - A gorgeous woman causes a rift between our pals.
(6) The Wedding - Rich wants to get married, and Matt is not happy about it.
Let's get this out of the way right up front. Snuff Box is a bloody work of art. It's genius. It's hilarious. It's unlike anything you've ever seen in either a British or American comedy. About the best way one can describe it is as follows - take David Lynch's surrealist sensation On the Air, throw in a bit of Monty Python, a smidgen of Bottom, and the collective consciousness from a couple dozen insane asylums...and you've barely scratched the surface of what makes this six part series so great. While it strives for singular storylines and accompanying, complementary sketches, the end result is like watching the creation of a perplexing parallel universe. So many amazing ideas clash and cram into each other, the result being yet another flawlessly executed blackout guaranteed to make your sides split and your brain twist. This is smart, sophisticated stuff (all F-bombs and C-spanks aside), insular in its self-referencing and yet open to anyone willing to give it a try. Over the course of 168 spellbinding minutes, the duo of Berry and Fulcher create a complete cosmos, almost science fiction like in its eccentric rules and unrecognizable regulations. We get bits and pieces of possible fact - both men work as executioners and a members of an old boy network club for same. After that, all normal bets are completely off.
There are so many amazing aspects to this show that to single out a few seems foolish. Still, the trips back to 1888 are always memorable, as are Mr. Berry's sojourns to a ritzy shop to pick up an order for silver cowboy boots. Musical numbers can break in at any moment, riffs on everything from music hall to The Mamas and the Papas of particular interest. Since all of these are running gags, it is up to Berry and Fulcher to find a way to make them new each time - and they succeed. Even a joke as obvious as the "girl on the street kiss-off" is funny every time it happens. The same can be said for the hangman's conversations (complete with a cocky, cockney priest) and occasionally clueless criminals. Yes, there are non-sequitors in abundance as well - like the dapperly dressed man who screams "F*CK" to random people in the park - and Fulcher rarely breaks from his strange square surfer dude delivery. Still, these are minor blips in a production so sensational, so overloaded with ideas and asides that it takes at least a pair of viewings to get through the various layers - and there are still things that come up later on, once you've let your guard down.
It makes sense then that Snuff Box only ran for the one series. It would be near impossible to repeat the flawless pleasures of these six installments and what we have here is so stunning it would be like trying to reproduce a Picasso. Granted, this is dark, mean stuff - certainly not for everyone. In fact, those who love British comedy might bristle at the abundance of swearing and abuse. When an angry clerk take a cricket bat to Berry, he doesn't let up until our star is bloody and twitching on the floor. Similarly, Mr. Fulcher can find himself in situations as unusual as a friendly game of Russian Roulette or under the bed during a decidedly harsh bit of lovemaking. While the humor may be blackened a bit, it is still undeniably clever and witty. It's a shock satisfaction like one feels after experiencing a particularly pointed episode of South Park, or It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Fulcher and Berry have come up with that elusive lightning in the bottle, and they dared not brave it another time. So we are stuck with only six unbelievably brilliant episodes. No matter the length, however, Snuff Box is no one off piffle. Instead, it puts other examples of the TV type to shame with its sense of humor and lack of boundaries.
Offered in a clean and often crisp 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen image that really helps sell the more sinister qualities of the series. There is a basic muddiness to some of the exterior scenes, but the interiors are bright and crisp. When required, the show can turn up the clarity and provide an eye-popping picture (as in the Mama Cass material). Otherwise, it all looks very good.
While the Dolby Digital Stereo is very basic - this is a TV show after all, with limited desire to use aural scope or spacing to create atmosphere - it's still pretty terrific. The dialogue is easy to hear and the occasional musical moments come across in solid two channel clarity. Overall, the mix is nicely modulated and professional.
Following in the familiar footsteps and feel of the series itself, Severin introduces extras that stand right along the show itself. First off, the package comes with a bonus CD of the series' sensational score and songs. It's a whole lot of fun. On the disc itself, we get three terrific commentaries featuring our stars and equally important director Michael Cumming. Next up, there's a featurette revolving around the making of the show's music, a look Behind the Scenes, a selection of testimonials from famous faces, and an interview documentary offering even more celebrated praise. Add in some outtakes and you've got a terrific presentation that supplements the series expertly.
Revelations like Snuff Box are what make the job of a critic tolerable. After slogging through sludge 90% of the time, seeing something like this renews your faith in your once celebrated career choice. Of course, like all entertainment gluttons, we want more, More, MORE!!! - but sadly, this will have to do. Walking a very fine line when it comes to a rating, yours truly will give in and award the coveted DVD Talk Collector's Series tag to this presentation. Everything, from the content to the manner in which it is offered is well worth the price of admission. Of course, this also means that sometime in the near future, another forgotten gem from some country's concept of comedy will come along and boggle one's belief all over again. As long as it's as terrific as Snuff Box, the wait will be intolerable...but well worth it.