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British TV Reviews: "Psychoville," "Masterchef Professionals," and "The Trip"

By Caspar Salmon | TV | November 4, 2010 | Comments ()

By Caspar Salmon | TV | November 4, 2010 |


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Masterchef: The Professionals

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The concept of "Masterchef" is as follows: the only people left in the country who don't want to achieve fame via Simon Cowell-approved "talent" contests, attempt to achieve fame and glory by becoming Britain's "masterchef." The amateurs audition by cooking some sort of dumb dish out of a selection of ingredients (usually scallops on a bed of pea puree) for the judges, then cooking in a professional restaurant and then making more dishes for panels of experts etcetera etcetera etcetera until there are only a few people left in the competition and finally one of them makes a monk-fish tartare with pancetta tuiles and salsifi quenelles on a bed of chilli-infused bouillabaisse that is so divine that he or she wins it. It's one of the best programmes on television. Suck it, "Mad Men."

What makes "Masterchef" so hilariously addictive are the judges: John Torode, a kind of surly, slightly dispiriting chef, and (especially) Gregg Wallace, an 'ingredients expert' (i.e. a grocer). The men were evidently taken on to try and gonadify what is at heart a fairly feminine concept. They spend every episode shouting things like "Mate, I never want to see a julienne like that again!" and "I LOVE the way your TANGY lime MELTS into the SWEET coconut with a REAL kick of booze leading into the DEEP white chocolate!" Gregg, who looks like a streetfighting Humpty-Dumpty in his retirement years, especially enjoys his desserts -- and you can often see a very alarming look of naked desire come over him as he shovels a spoon of chocolate fondant into his enormous and worrying mouth. "Aw," he drawls, "I LOVE my puddings, and yer know what? This one tastes like a great big kiss." He's completely repellent, of course, but short of setting up a remote TV circuit and watching him American Pie his way through a batch of creme caramels at home, you won't get a funnier experience of seeing someone have a love affair with food.

Anyway, "Masterchef: The Professionals" (instead of amateurs trying to become quite good chefs, quite good chefs try to become very good chefs) has just been on our screens and last night they crowned Claire Lara a winner following her unquestionable mastery of sea-bass, and it was as golden and heart-stoppingly tense as usual. This year, a particular innovation has been the use of music to frame the cooking and make it look really exciting and muscular. The music goes: boom-boom-boom-boom-boom CHOP, boom-boom-boom-boom-boom GRATE, boom-boom-boom-boom-boom SPRINKLE LIGHTLY -- and it's as good as anything by Bjork in Dancer In The Dark. Not really. I'm just on a high from the excitement of it all. "Masterchef: The Professionals" also has better eye-candy than the non-professionals version: the commanding and dykey Monica Galetti tests the candidates in the first round, and she is seriously terrifying and hot, like a sexy headmistress who has easy access to knives; later rounds see the candidates try and impress Michel Roux Jr, he of two Michelin stars and a beautiful, gaunt, big-eyed, silver-fox-ish, nobly semitic face, like a kind of junkie Jon Stewart. It's been classic, and I cannot wait for the US to get their own version, which is bound to be even more shameless and addictive.

The Trip

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As we wave goodbye to the loud and terrible gastronomes of Masterchef, please welcome the arrival of Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon in the first episode of "The Trip," playing slightly fictionalised versions of themselves as food critics. In this new show, directed by the very fickle Michael Winterbottom, Coogan's girlfriend has just left him on the eve of him taking her on a tour of restaurants in the north of England. Since he has to write up the experience for the Observer newspaper and doesn't want to go on his own, he shanghais his friend, the comedian Rob Brydon, into accompanying him. It's a pretty ropey concept, but one that gives the two men plenty of liberty to dick around for half an hour, and the first episode was a constant joy.

The premise is that the two comedians (Coogan produced Brydon's promising debuts on British television about ten years ago or so, since when he has become something of a ubiquitous annoyance on our screens) gently rub each other up the wrong way and are constantly trying to one-up each other. Meanwhile, Steve Coogan is reflecting on his career and what sort of a life he is leading as a fame-chasing actor in Hollywood, and is increasingly jaded about life and comedy and himself. Part of the joy of the series is that Coogan isn't at all funny in it, or rather he's pompous and dry and cynical, and his only intentional humour comes when he tries to put Brydon in his place by proving how much better a comedian he is. There's a priceless bit where he says, dourly, "I love humour. I love levity! I..." Brydon (interrupting): "Where do you stand on gravity?" Coogan: "Firm."

Coogan is an interesting character, because he is at a difficult crossroads between stardom in Britain and -- well -- a vague famousness to a few other people in the world. Brydon here functions as a more mainstream, less tormented version of Coogan, who is happy to play to his own comedic strengths; Coogan is always bucking against things, looking for more -- his comedy feeds on his unhappiness. There's a great bit where he's on the phone to his agent, telling him he doesn't want to do British TV; yet here he is, and he's better at this than in the cinema.

The first episode contained a lot of hilarity in a dinner scene where the two men traded impressions of stars, and Coogan suggested that Brydon was deeply tragic for still doing impressions at his age -- but then couldn't resist joining in to show him how to do it; but there was also some very subtle acting and some beautiful scenery, and it ended on a rather melancholy note, which I found quite original. This clip shows a tiny glimpse of how good the two men are when sparring:


I can't wait to watch the rest of this very interesting series -- a travelogue, a meditation on comedy and rivalry and middle age.

Psychoville

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Finally, we conclude on a slight disappointment with the "Psychoville" Halloween special, by Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton, two of the original creators of cult comedy series "The League of Gentlemen." If you haven't seen "The League of Gentlemen," rent the DVD of that and don't even bother with "Psychoville"; you won't regret it. "League" was a comedy set in a disturbing village in the north of England: the three creators played all the characters, and it mixed the hilarious and the grotesque beautifully, like Todd Solondz filming Miss Marple by way of John Waters.

"Psychoville" aired its first series last year, which was pretty good, and was conspicuously more to do with horror than "The League of Gentlemen." It mixed old school hammer-horror with a kind of camp and black humour, as it told the story of six damaged individuals -- a clown, a dwarf with psychic powers, an old blind man who collects toys, a nurse who is convinced she is the mother of a baby doll, and an incestuous mother and son who are serial killers -- who are all in some way connected to a murder and have horrible secrets in their past. It was really quite funny, too, and there were two stand-out episodes: an episode in one take that was a tribute to Alfred Hitchcock's Rope, and a series finale set in a terrifying lunatic asylum.

This "Psychoville" one-off, and a kind of teaser for the second series, aired on Halloween. I watched it today, in broad daylight, and I was petrified and screamed twice. Mind you, I'm nervy as all hell and anyone who knows me can get a very easy laugh from standing behind a door and shouting boo as I walk past. But the Halloween special did work in terms of horror, I think, because it took a step away from the realism of the series and imagined stories connected to the characters, so it was able to get away with ghosts and spells and so on. But it also was exceedingly disgusting - at one point a man is tied in an electric chair tied to a door that sends him a shock when a little boy has to go through - to prove that true horror and fear are psychological in their reach. It's just that this episode wasn't consistently funny, and felt a bit stitched together. Still, there were some great, tasteless lines. A prostitute who specialises in people with disabilities says that she prefers working with them because they "do most of my work for me - especially the epileptics" and that she has a client who "gets me to come over once a fortnight and wee on him. I don't think he gets off on it, it just helps with his psoriasis." If the next series concentrates a little more on the humour again, and learns to mix that with the shocks and psychological grimness, it'll be back on fine form.



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