Look. Comedies (or dramedies) about high school students who just want to get drunk and/or laid are a dime a dozen here in the States. While most TV shows try to tack on some sort of lesson to those supposedly empty pursuits (or go way, way over the top in terms of debauchery), there are more than enough films about teenage guys looking to have the BEST NIGHT EVER or celebrate the LAST DAY OF SENIOR YEAR or what have you to fill a million "Buy 5 for $20" bins at one million Blockbuster Videos wishing they'd rethought their business plan five years ago. So while BBC America's latest import, The Inbetweeners, arrived with some nice buzz, I wasn't sure if it would grab me. Its premise - four guys go to high school and try to get drunk and laid - struck me as far too generic to be as winning as advertised.
The show didn't really put its best foot forward, either. One of the earliest jokes in the series' pilot is an extended variation on the old, "He's standing right behind me, isn't he?" routine that stopped being funny years and years ago. It also didn't help that the entire series began with an extended flash forward to what we can look forward to in the episodes to come that recalled nothing less than those disjointed clips packages they used to open '80s cop dramas with. Suffice it to say that after a few minutes of The Inbetweeners, I was sad that I wouldn't be able to get on board.
But then a funny thing happened. The Inbetweeners got really, really funny. It's doing variations on a lot of time-worn story types, but it's doing them well enough and with well-drawn enough characters that the whole thing doesn't come off as a bald-faced copy but, rather, as a riff on things that have gone before. I mean, stop me if you've heard this one: Some kids want to go and get drunk in a bar, but they can't get any alcohol unless they have an adult supervising them. So they pay a homeless guy and/or a drunk to be their "guardian," provided that they buy all of said drunk's drinks for him. This is the plotline The Inbetweeners builds much of its first episode around, and if you think it sounds dire, well, I can understand that.
But the way The Inbetweeners works is it takes these story beats that are pretty much cliche at this point and invigorates them with a liberal dosage of character. That's the strongest thing The Inbetweeners has going for it, and the thing that pushes it past cliche and into a genuinely funny show. All four of the guys at the center of this show are well-drawn people, the kinds of kids you might have gone to high school with yourself (if you went to a British public school, I guess). Refreshingly, none of them seems to belong to an outright clique or social group. All of them are just floating through the cracks, hoping to get by. (Hence the title.) By committing to telling stories about these four specific guys and the other people in their lives, The Inbetweeners pushes past any groaning about stories you've seen before to remind you that things become cliches because, well, they happen a lot in real life too.
Let's return to that plotline and see what makes it work. The best thing The Inbetweeners has going for it outside of its crack ensemble is its central character, Will (played by the marvelously droll Simon Bird). Will's been kicked out of private school after his dad left his mum (somehow, it seems appropriate to use this spelling), and his first few moments in public school have been hellish. He has to wear a big, green button, he makes enemies of many of the school's faculty, and he can't find a new friend he considers worthy of his friendship to save his life. All of that changes when, while locked in the stall in the loo (OK, now I'm pushing too far), Simon overhears three other kids talking and realizes they're just the kinds of friends he should be approaching. Cool enough that he won't besmirch himself as an outsider straight off but not so cool that they'll reflexively reject him. So heading into the scene where Will needs to get the guys alcohol, we know that almost all of his hopes at making it in his new school rest on this night going well.
Now, one of the guys has already gotten alcohol (using an obviously fake ID and a ridiculous attempt at an Australian accent), increasing the pressure for everything to go right for Will. Will's a guy who's had the best life has to offer up until this point, a guy who expects things to mostly go his way. He believes that if he walks up to the bartender and presents himself as "confident," he'll be able to get his friends drinks. But the bartender keeps throwing obstacles in his path. He makes a heartfelt plea, and the bartender doesn't care. He shifts to legal machinations, and the bartender outplays him there too. Finally, he turns to the one other guy sitting at the bar and ends up bringing him back to his table to sit with the other guys, drinks in tow. This payoff is the one you've seen a million times before, but by showing all of the steps toward Will finally having to, reluctantly, go along with this plan, the series makes the final gag that much more hilarious. (It also helps that the series seems to have a somewhat lackadaisical attitude toward teenage drinking, perhaps based on cultural differences. There's another scene in the second episode where Will's attempts to buy alcohol at a store obviously trip the shopkeeper's radar, but he ultimately just doesn't care, sort of enjoying Will's elaborate discussions of the "adult" party he's having almost in spite of himself.)
I don't think The Inbetweeners will solve your teen comedy problem if, indeed, you're looking for the next great teen comedy, but I'm pleased with how well-observed and well-done it is, the way that every moment in its builds comically and logically on the last, until the whole thing becomes a rolling ball of hilarity. But as funny as the show is (and it's very funny), the best thing about it is the fact that it has at its center four guys who are just feeling their ways toward adulthood, even if they don't yet quite grasp what that will mean. They're as awkward around the opposite sex as you probably were at that age, as desperate to have a good time that lets them forget their humdrum lives as you probably were at that age and as much in love with a good laugh with friends as you probably were at that age. The Inbetweeners doesn't have a fresh, exciting new premise, but it does all of the little things right, and that level of craftsmanship is well worth tuning in for.
- OK, I may have just missed this, but I'm going to chalk it up to genuine cultural difference. Why, exactly, was that one guy from the school everywhere the guys went? Is this like a Ferris Bueller thing?