Little Britain USA and The Life & Times of Tim reviewed.

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Sept. 26 2008 5:45 PM

Chavs and Slackers

Little Britain USA and The Life & Times of Tim.

Little Britain USA: with David Walliams as Lou and Matt Lucas as Andy. Click image to expand.
Little Britain USA, featuring David Walliams and Matt Lucas

The success or failure of Little Britain USA (HBO, Sundays at 10:30 p.m. ET) will depend on the prevalence of a particular strain of Anglophilia—and not the type that's ensured the commercial success of Merchant-Ivory tea parties or Princess Diana memorial flatware. Created by Matt Lucas and David Walliams first as a radio program and then as a BBC sketch show, it concerns the eccentricities of the lower classes. The recurring characters are chavs and slags, grimy boys in London and oily girls from Bristol, and the Little Britain teams delight in their atrocious accents like boys playing in muck. The sketches are about vulgarity—as a subject of satire, yes, but mostly as a found object to be celebrated, like a urinal at an art show. Or, to look at its gallery of caricature sculptures in another way, Little Britain has earned a small cult on these shores among those tickled by Great Britain's common gargoyles.

Watching a greatest-hits package of Little Britain sketches might give you the idea that the group belongs to the grand Monty Python tradition of silly slyness and rambunctious cross-dressing. There's a nice philosophical circularity, for instance, in the ongoing adventures of Daffyd Thomas, played by Lucas, who lives in an undistinguished town in Wales overrun with alcoholic miners. Daffyd is forever hotly fussing that he's "the only gay in the village" while wearing some ridiculous outfit, some see-through, club-kid, fetish-wear getup. But actually there's a vast gay community in the area—half a village of Village People scrambling to get in the door of the pub he's hired out for a gay night and inhabited by his lonesome self. Is Daffyd just a fey poser romanticizing his solitude like a Smiths fan? Is he just shy? The character is an inquiry into inventing an identity in a class structure very eager to invent one for you.

But mostly Daffyd is a fat joke, as very many Little Britain sketches are. Perhaps the most popular character is Lucas' Vicky Pollard, an overweight teen girl in a pink tracksuit—bubbledheaded and slatternly, a grotesque portrait. Because Lucas himself is heavy and because the makeup and costume teams have been instructed to act with malice, it feels as if there is both outward anger and inward loathing in the character. Elsewhere, he plays an obese old tart in a feather boa. Elsewhere yet, he plays a sadistic weight-loss coach. Little Britain USA sets those characters loose on these shores, where they engage with our own native coarseness and interact with our celebrities. "She's big," the weight-loss lady says of Rosie O'Donnell to her face. "She's a big lesbian lazy." If you hear a joke there, it's in the tone—the chiming hypocrisy of the merrily snooty. Little Britain goofs on common folk and reserves its lashes for snobs.

Whereas that show goes for a ribaldry approximate to that of the Farrelly Brothers, HBO's new animated series The Life & Times of Tim (Sundays at 11 p.m. ET) aspires to a filth reminiscent of Judd Apatow's average-dudes-will-be-boys riffing and the socio-scatology of South Park. In mood, at least, that's what it's after. In fact, it has less to say than Sarah Silverman, which is in fact saying something. You needn't be a fuddy-duddy to admire the concise analysis of the reviews-for-parents Web site Common Sense Media: "Even the moments that are mildly funny are overshadowed by content like gratuitous swearing, strong sexual innuendo, racial stereotyping, and subtle references to pedophilia and violence against women." Just one quibble there: In the segment where Tim, pretending to be Mexican for corporate diversity reasons, addresses a meeting of the Newly Appointed Minority Business Leaders of America, none of the references, to pedophilia or anything, count as subtle.

Tim is animated—no, not exactly—Tim is complacently sketched in a stab at slacker minimalism. The characters' faces come alive, just barely, as doodles with scratches of sideburn and rolling, squiggly pupils and circular nostrils. Flapping open the line of his mouth, Tim dithers and blathers as if he's patterned his personality after a Michael Cera character. Tim is timid, see. But Tim also has a robust id, and creator Steve Dildarian tries to work that tension. In a segment titled "Angry Unpaid Hooker," the protagonist meekly confronts the matter of his girlfriend and her parents catching him with a cheap whore whom he cannot even afford to pay. And the jokes are along the lines of Tim's inviting the hooker to stay for dinner: "How about free dinner? Free meatloaf?"

Tim meekly bumbles through these situations in a New York City mostly coursing with mere hostility. ("Angry Unpaid Hooker" begins with a cabdriver cursing at a double-parked UPS van that's blocked him in—"What can brown do for me? Move your fucking truck!"—which feels like an overheard line that seemed funny at the time.) His reputation for spinelessness is a legend among the other guys toiling in the cubicles of "Omnicorp" (a parody of a company name so obvious that it's actually a popular corporate name). Another segment concerns a rumor going around the office that Tim was sexually assaulted by a bum at a bachelor party. "It fits you," he's told. "I can see some homeless drunk taking advantage of you." Must we? The show gets under the skin, somehow, with its loose Web-clip vibe and looser philosophy of life. In its vision of an awkward man-boy hero in Gotham, it feels like a mysteriously toxic version of the funny Flight of the Conchords, or even ironic Seinfeld, like a show about nothing but humiliating the hero.

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.

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