Perhaps the closest that The Inbetweeners has come to emotional character development was in its second series finale, “Exam Time,” when Jay losing his first real girlfriend breaks down his cocky façade and reveals something genuine and heartbreaking.
As I’ve been writing about the show in its third series, I have often looked to moments like this one as important to the show’s development, to the point where my negative responses to the last couple of episodes have been taken as a rejection of more basic sitcom storytelling. Admittedly, my proclivities lean towards more complex storytelling that often involves more character development, but I want to be clear that I don’t think this show needs to be revealing character insecurities each and every week.
I understand that this is a sitcom, but I think the show works best when those sitcom storylines are being driven by character, even the stock character traits that the show has given the foursome since the beginning. An episode doesn’t need to ‘advance’ or ‘develop’ a character to be successful, but it should feel as though it connects with what advancement and development — or lack of advancement and development — that character has achieved to this point. The show truly clicks when its stories are drawn from the characters instead of being forced upon them, as it allows the narrative flow of each episode to feel grounded in something realistic even as it inevitably features moments of absurdity.
“Home Alone,” which is probably my favorite episode of the third series thus far, shows how even a fairly basic sitcom setup can be incredibly successful simply by giving each character their own motivation and their own role to play. Will and Jay are given the more prominent roles, each dealing with complications of their parents being away for the weekend: While Jay is just upset that his family dog won’t quit watching him masturbate, Will has more Will-like anxieties about what his mother might be doing on her overnight date with her Facebook friend Fergus. Simon, meanwhile, has an actual commitment (a golf tournament with his father) but can’t help but get involved in Will’s weekend home alone, while Neil just shows up to clog up toilets, fart in the kitchen, and generally cause a ruckus.
None of this would be considered complex character development, but each of the individual stories builds on what we’ve learned about the characters in the past. Will finds himself parenting his friends to keep them out of trouble before giving into their petty floral vandalism and ending up a prisoner in his own house as a result, a traditional arc of initial resistance followed by eventual indulgence leading to immediate regret. Jay tries to act like a badass, running down a squirrel who gives him guff and concocting a story to rid himself of his canine cock blocker, but he melts when he sees the squirrel’s sad eyes and is heartbroken when he learns that his father has put his dog down as a result of Jay’s lie regarding its poor bowel control. Simon stresses his legitimate excitement for the golf tournament, still manages to drink himself into a stupor and oversleep the tournament despite his best efforts, and then freaks out about it. Neil, meanwhile, just clogs up toilets, farts in the kitchen, and generally causes a ruckus.
I write out this summary not because you need it (although some of you might appreciate the reminder, I guess, given you may have watched this nine months ago), but rather because it’s possible to see “Home Alone” through the lens of each individual character. The situation is no more complicated than “Will and Jay’s Parents Go Away,” but the show avoids the stereotypical party scenarios in favor of a small story that relies on the characters instead of the situation. Now, like every sitcom, the degree to which it relies on each character varies: While Will and Jay get dynamic storylines that break down some of their character traits over the course of the episode, Simon’s storyline is mostly unseen and told in shorthand, and Neil is pretty much just there to clog up toilets, fart, and incite vandalism. However, like every good sitcom, we care enough about these characters that “going through the motions” isn’t a problem when those motions are consistent with what we know about them. The characters aren’t transformed by episode’s end, and I doubt we’ll ever hear about these storylines again (especially since the show’s run comes to an end with next week’s finale), but this is nonetheless a character-driven episode in a series that has too often leaned on situations removed from these four friends and their haplessness.
We could talk about how it doesn’t make any sense for Simon to be wearing his golfing clothes or carrying his golf clubs when he comes over to Will’s house the night before his tournament, or how Neil being turned into a fart machine is sort of reductive, but Will and Jay’s storylines relied less on cheap jokes to help balance things out. “Home Alone” is also helped by the fact that even the cheap jokes are cheap jokes between friends, as the focus on the foursome means a return to the group rhythms that have been so smartly executed throughout the show’s run. This episode isn’t interested in breaking any new ground, relying on jokes about Will’s mother, Jay’s sexual urges, and Will’s wet blanketness, but it shows how funny and charming the show can be when it gets back to basics.
I think the third series deserves credit for going for something closer to an arc structure with Tara, and I can sort of understand how Beesley and Morris would get caught in the scatological stuff given its connection to the show’s notoriety. However, “Home Alone” felt like The Inbetweeners at its most genuine if not its most notable, delivering a story about four friends learning a lesson about plans gone awry, the perils of petty vandalism, the non-regenerative nature of flowers, and the value of keeping it simple.
Although I guess it’s the show that learned the last lesson.
- I always enjoy a bit of attention to detail, like Will’s anxiety over his mother dating leading to Neil discussing his own parents’ divorce. Sure, it gets derailed by the typical gay jokes about his father, but the show acknowledged that this would be a conversation they could have.
- Neil’s farting is one-dimensional, don’t get me wrong, but I sort of like the way Blake Harrison sells it and the fact that we don’t hear the fart or see the clogging. We are left to just imagine the smell, which makes it that much more effective.
- As a three-console owner, I wasn’t too offended by the Wii-bashing, but I quite liked the realism of the system being pitched as something Will’s mother only bought because she heard she could play it too. I was less impressed by Simon’s poor wrist-strap etiquette — that wouldn’t fly in my living room.
- I’m always a sucker for circular sitcom storytelling, so discovering that Will’s antics had actually driven the boyfriend away (and thus solved the problem that started the episode) was satisfying.
- The episode sort of went off the rails in its conclusion, with the angry neighbor seeming a bit overdone, but I liked their terrible hiding technique and the utter ridiculousness of Will dropkicking his neighbor away from the door was one of those indulgences that made me shake my head even as I chuckled at the absurdity of it all.