Black Books: Series 2 Review
Black Books is one of those shows that seems to have crept into the public consciousness from very humble beginnings. Despite the fact that Graham Linehan of Father Ted fame worked on the first series of this sitcom, the show took a while to pick up a steady fan following – something it certainly has today! The show is set in a bookshop in London, owned and run by Bernard Black (Dylan Moran), the Basil Fawlty of the bookselling world. He's honestly one of the worst people you could ever imagine running a shop, and much of the show's comedy comes directly from this unlikely juxtaposition. Assisting him is the hirsute-and-innocent Manny (Bill Bailey), who takes a lot of flak in his attempts to make the bookshop a viable concern. The final main character is Fran (Tamsin Greig), Bernard's oldest friend and one of the few people who can match him when it comes to his fave vices, drinking and smoking.
The leads play off each other brilliantly, Black Books being a show that succeeds in bringing together three genuinely funny people, each able to bring their comedic talents into an acting environment. Although Linehan has left the equation for the second series, Dylan Moran continues to write the scripts along with various co-writers. This series was recorded in 2001 and aired in the the spring of 2002 – it's certainly taken a while for this DVD to be released, and its release comes shortly after the start of series three on Channel 4 (the final series, allegedly!).
There are some that say the second series just doesn't match the first for either surrealism or comedy, but I didn't find myself laughing much less than I had for the previous series. I think it's just one of those sitcom things – you know the principal roles better so they have to work a bit harder to find situations that are both appealing and still funny while possibly still providing some character development as the series progresses. In any case, the set-up for this season is that Manny and Bernard are still living together behind the shop, while Fran's knick-knack shop has closed, leaving her with more time to pursue other activities (or to just hang out with the boys!).
The episodes certainly have more highs and lows than those of the previous series – but fantastic sequences like Manny hidden away inside a grand piano, playing classical music piano upside-down with a pair of spoons, or Bernard and Manny attempting to prepare a gourmet dinner for their new restaurant venture – well, they're just as hilarious as anything that's come before and certainly rate points for sheer brilliance. This series boasts some superb guest stars as well: Jonny Vegas (Sex Lives of the Potato Men) as Fran's slimy landlord, Rob Brydon (Marion and Geoff, Director's Commentary) as Fran's new boss, and Jessica Stephenson (Spaced, Bob & Rose) as Fran's health-obsessed friend. Hrrm, they all have connections to Fran, go figure!
Bernard falls in love! No, really. Manny demands some time off but of course his plans for relaxation don't go according to plan. He does discover a talent for playing the piano though... and just as Fran's started taking piano lessons from a blind and sadistic teacher.
The weather's grown hot outside, and with the mercury rising Manny worries about his 'Dave's Syndrome' (which will strike with terrible consequences if the temperature hits 88 degrees) – naturally, this just gives Bernard an incentive to attempt to push Manny into the thermal danger zone to see what will happen. Meanwhile, Fran is warring with her landlord over 'the incredible shrinking flat' and Bernard falls in love again.
Manny uses his underground connections to get Fran a job, and she foolishly takes it even though she has no clue what she's supposed to be doing. Meanwhile, East End gangster Danny Spludge is booked to do a reading of his autobiography at the shop – that is, if Bernard and Manny can teach him to read by Friday!
Inspired by a large book chain, Manny adds a coffee bar, sofa and information point to the shop – and our lads start making some serious money. Unfortunately Bernard gets a little carried away by the idea and decides to open a full-fledged restaurant, so he heads into the kitchen to prepare dinner! (Be scared... be very scared.) Fran goes to look up some distant relations she's discovered live nearby and gets conned into serving as their personal chauffeur.
Fran tries out yoga and healthy living at the behest of her friend, Eva. Manny and Bernard are arguing even more than usual until Bernard picks up a set of Freud and sets out to psychoanalyse Manny. This, rather predictably, proves to be a huge mistake.
A Nice Change
Fran's ex-shop is the site of some awful round-the-clock building, so our three heroes decide to set off on holiday together. However, by going with the cheapest flights known to man, they end up squandering the majority of their break attempting to make the necessary connections in far-flung corners of the globe. When they get back, frazzled and annoyed at one another, the construction work is over... but lo and behold, the new next-door shop is 'Goliath Books'!
Picture & Sound
Well, it's a fairly recent TV show and the transfer really does it credit. The series receives a 16:9 anamorphic transfer on one dual-layered disc and there are really no quibbles with picture quality, bar the very occasional and minor bit of noticeable grain. The colours are distinctive and don't bleed into one another and overall it's really very solid picture quality.
Sound is stereo only, but the show doesn't require anything more than that really. Voices are very clear throughout both the episodes themselves and the various special features segments – undeniably critical in a comedy series whose success hinges predominantly upon clever banter. Nor are there any problems with music or sound effects (the former confined to the catchy theme tune and there being very few examples of the latter) overpowering the show's dialogue. It's a fairly basic soundtrack, but it works!
As with the first series of Black Books, we are presented with a nice batch of special features that really do enhance the DVD offering. First and foremost are the full-length audio commentaries by the main cast. They obviously get on well and these recorded segments are really yet another way for them to demonstrate their comic genius, though there are the usual snippets of actual information and filming anecdotes snuck in along the way. In other words, the commentary tracks are fun to listen to and not tiresome, even though they may lack the levels of technical detail that some people may be interested in.
There's also a stills gallery, which is animated, the slideshow effect synchronised to music. This works pretty well as a quick view-through of a large number of great photos of the cast in action... but not quite as well if your preference is to sit and stare at the finer details in the stills. It's a nice set of snaps though and includes some of the crew interacting with the cast, as well as just straight pictures from the episodes. All in all it lasts around a minute and a half. The out-takes are quite a lot longer and the meatiest of the extras bar the commentaries (at just over 11 minutes). While many of them are simply fluffed lines, with this cast they often move beyond 'bloopers' and into genuinely funny moments and are certainly a welcome addition.
The segment called Black Dolls is reminiscent of an Adam and Joe Show sketch. For anyone who doesn't know what this means, it's basically Black Books acted out by plush toys made to look like the main cast – with the cast providing the voices for the five-minute sequence. Somewhat disappointingly, it's not actually all that funny, but hey – it's nice to have on the DVD as a novelty extra. Finally, of the listed features, there's a trailer for series 3 of the sitcom, which has recently started to air on Channel 4.
In the way of undocumented special features, there are two easter eggs I've managed to find on this disc. The first you can get to by going right from the 'trailer' option on the extras menu. This brings up a coffee cup icon, which leads into an extended version of the breakfast sequence between Manny and Bernard. The second can be reached by going left from the 'out-takes' option on the same screen. This time a wine bottle icon appears and leads into another extended scene demonstrating the preparation of one of Bernard's revolting drinks. Both of these scenes last around a minute each.
NOTE: All of the commentaries and features can be viewed with optional English subtitles, which are also available for show itself.
I really enjoyed the second series of Black Books. It's still funny (assuming you like this kind of humour, as I obviously do), the characters still work well together, and there's still that keen sense of surrealism which helped make the first series really stand out. It may not be quite as consistently hilarious as that first batch of episodes, but the laughs still come thick and fast. This is definitely a disc to watch if you were amused by the previous season... or even the subsequent one (albeit if series 3 is your first exposure to this sitcom I'd highly advise checking out the first two seasons as quickly as you can). This DVD does the show proud also; the picture and sound are great and the extras really round it off to provide an excellent package.