There is something wonderfully sad and ephemeral about comedy. Consider, for example, the situation comedy and film franchise Sex and the City (1998). When Sex and the City arrived on TV screens, it reached out to a wide audience by challenging established attitudes towards sex and gender. Indeed, when Sex and the City first started, women (though sexually liberated) were expected to be less interested in sex than men. However, by the time Sex and the City graduated to cinema screens, cultural attitudes had moved on and it was now accepted that women could be just as crass and emotionally stunted as men. Thus, what began life as a critique of traditional values ended its life as a chest-thumping celebration of the status quo. The history of comedy is littered with examples of films and series that simply ran out of cultural currency as the attitudes they critiqued or embodied came to seem either more or less oppressive.
An excellent example of a series left culturally isolated by changing social attitudes is Andrew Davies and Bernadette Davis’s Game On.
Like most sitcoms of its day, Game On was shot in a studio and broadcast with an accompanying laugh track. The presence of this laugh track is useful as it allows us to detect what audiences and producers at the time considered to be funny. Watching the first series of Game On is an interesting experience as the opening episode is littered with moments where the ‘audience’ hoot with laughter at jokes that are really not particularly funny. Indeed, most of the first episode’s big laughs come from repeated uses the word ‘shag’ or moments when someone is referred to as being either a ‘sad bastard’ or a ‘demented cow’. Listening to these disembodied laughs is a puzzling experience as changes to social values have deprived these jokes of the context that allowed them to be humorous. Did people really find the word ‘shag’ to be hilarious in 1994? Chances are that they did because sitcoms at the time tended to steer clear of both foul language and explicit sexual references meaning that, as with both Stephen Moffat’s Coupling (2000) and the original Sex and the City, people laughed not at the jokes themselves but at the willing transgression of social norms, social norms that no longer exist.
To characterise Game On as a sitcom that pushed at doors that are now wide open explains why much of the series no longer seems all that funny but it also fails to account for many of the subtle differences between the social norms that informed the writing of the series in the early 1990s and the social norms that inform how the series is received in 2012. While Game On may seem dated because of its somewhat adolescent attitude towards sex, its misogyny, homophobia and outright racism date it even more. However, what makes Game On a series worth revisiting is the way that Davis and Davies distance themselves from these attitudes by attaching them to a group of characters that are ambiguous to say the least. Far from being simply ‘of its time’, Game On is an exploration of a set of values that were falling out of favour even as they appeared on the screen.
Set in a flat in Battersea, Game On chronicles the life of Matthew Malone (Ben Chaplin) and his two twenty-something tenants Martin Henson (Matthew Cottle) and Mandy Wilkins (Samantha Janus). Though Game On initially presents itself as the story of three horny youngsters sharing a flat, the real driving force behind the series’ narratives are the shifting power dynamics within the group. For example, while all three characters grew up together in Herne Bay, Mandy is actually the best friend of Martin’s big sister meaning that she is ever so slightly older and more experienced than her male flatmates. This age difference as well as Mandy’s obvious intellectual superiority over the boys lends her a degree of power that is in constant tension with the fact that she is an attractive woman living in a household dominated by a pair of priapic and emotionally stunted men who struggle to see past the boundaries of their Madonna/Whore complexes. Similarly problematic is the fact that Martin is the only one of the three housemates to have a decent job with a decent salary and reasonable career prospects. However, the social status and emotional stability that Martin gains from this socially enviable position is counterbalanced by both Mandy’s tendency to treat him like a child and Matt’s tendency to bully and exploit him. With both Martin and Mandy struggling to find themselves, it would be natural to assume that Matt (as landlord) would take on the position of community leader. Indeed, Matt spends most of his time bullying and insulting his fellow housemates while repeatedly reminding them that they are living in his home. Matt’s sexual bullying of Mandy is particularly egregious as is his raving misogyny and tendency to express horror at the idea that either Mandy or Martin might date someone who isn’t white. In the first episode Matt responds to Mandy’s announcement that she is dating a boxer by shrieking “But he’s black!” while Martin’s attempt to confide in Matt about his desire for a co-worker results in Matt interpreting Martin’s attraction to her swarthy complexion as evidence that she is a “darkie” and a “gorilla”. Similarly, when one of Mandy’s gay friends expresses his attraction to Matt, Matt responds with groans of abject disgust.
It is difficult to watch Game On without being struck by the relentless unpleasantness of Matt Malone as a character. A bully, a sex pest, a misogynist, a homophobe, a racist and a vainglorious fantasist, Matt Malone comes across as a truly despicable individual. However, to see Matt merely as an unpleasant character is to completely overlook Game On’s deeply satirical undertones.
Despite being physically attractive and occasionally sympathetic for reasons that will soon become clear, Matt is best understood as a comic grotesque in the tradition of Alf Garnett and Ali G. However, while Alf Garnett existed as a vehicle for satirising working-class fascism and Ali G existed as a vehicle for mocking both the white establishment’s desire to be seen as being ‘down with’ young non-white people, Matt is a vehicle for satirising the so-called lad culture of the 1990s.
Lad culture was presented as a reaction to the softening of masculine identity that took place in the mid-to-late 1990s. Buttressed by a caste of university-educated journalists writing for magazines like Front and Loaded, lad culture championed traditional masculine pursuits such as alcoholism and misogyny but rendered them social acceptable by co-opting the language of postmodernity. Thanks to lad culture, young men were finally free to get hideously drunk and wave their genitalia at women on the understanding that such behaviour was conducted in an appropriately ironic manner.
Matt is presented as a quintessential new lad. Aside from being articulate and physically attractive, Malone is always stylishly dressed and immaculately groomed. His lifestyle is also littered with such lad culture staples as a hatred of students, a fondness for extreme sports, an unquenchable sexual desire and an obsession with such celebrity figures as Steve McQueen, Robert De Niro and 1980s British TV pin-up Michaela Strachan. Davis and Davies use of Malone as a satirical vehicle is initially quite subtle as they routinely stray across the (actually non-existent) line between flirtatious banter and sexual bullying. Indeed, unlike the characters in more traditional sitcoms such as Robin’s Nest or its American remake Three’s Company, Matt does not just tease Mandy about the possibility of sleeping with him, he begins by pestering but then moves on to emotional manipulation and threats of eviction. This willingness to allow the character of Matt to stray over the line from culturally acceptable sexism into sexual bullying illustrates the decidedly modern view that there is no real difference between ‘flirtatious banter’ and ‘sexual harassment’. Similarly, Matt’s occasional forays into racism and homophobia remind us that despite all of the hair-gel, affected vulnerability and purported irony, Matt is really nothing more than a traditional male chauvinist struggling to come to terms with a world that is evolving out of his comprehension.
The second front in Game On’s assault on the character of Matt only becomes evident a few episodes into the first series. Right from the start, we never see Matt leave the flat but as the series progresses it becomes clear that this is not some televisual conceit on the level of characters in The West Wing never going home, it is a fact about the character. In truth, Matt has not set foot outside of his flat for all of six months and the isolation and boredom are starting to drive him insane.
Matt’s insanity is most evident in his relationship with the other characters. Matt presents himself as an entirely self-contained loner who lives by his own rules and most of his interactions with Martin and Mandy take place under the conceit that Matt is doing them both a favour by talking to them let alone providing them with a place to stay. Whenever Matt’s position in the social pecking order is questioned, he returns to his identity as a lone wolf and threatens to evict his tenants. However, every time Matt is confronted by the possibility of losing Martin and Mandy, his veneer of aloof coolness crumbles and he winds up practically begging them to stay. The fact that Matt is completely dependent upon Martin and Mandy not only softens the character by introducing a certain amount of pathos into the proceedings, it also allows the writers to make a broader point about the nature of Matt’s macho façade.
Matt’s inability to step foot outside of his front door manifests deep feelings of alienation towards the world outside the flat. One potential explanation for these feelings of alienation is that, while the outside world refuses to acknowledge the legitimacy of Matt’s painstakingly constructed macho façade, the people who live inside the flat are happy to play along. For example, outside the flat Mandy Wilkins is an intelligent, educated, ambitious and sexually liberated young woman. However, once inside the flat, Mandy finds herself having to play along with Matt’s fantasies because she cannot afford to pay the rent. Similarly, outside the flat Martin is a moderately successful bank employee who is frequently chatted up by an array of attractive women. However, once inside the flat, Martin’s desire to see Matt happy means that he struggles to intervene in Matt’s increasingly demented beliefs and actions. In other words, Matt needs Martin and Mandy because they enable him to inhabit the role of a misogynistic, homophobic and racist ‘lad’. When faced with the choice between going outside and preserving the integrity of his affected macho persona, Matt chooses to stay in-doors.
By forcing the misogynistic and demented Matt to rely upon the support of Martin and Mandy in order to function, Andrew Davies and Bernadette Davis are reminding us that racism, homophobia and misogyny only have a place in society because people choose to look the other way rather than confront it. The first season of Game On ends with Matt being dragged out of his flat in order to play a gig at a local pub. Forced on stage despite being in the throws of a full-blown panic attack, Matt collapses onto the ground and begins howling his rage and discomfort while his band-mates continue to play their instruments. This bawling gibbering wreck is Matt Malone’s true face, the face of a racist exposed, the face of a deluded fool who realises that his absurd beliefs no longer have a place in civilised society.
While the piece approaches Game On as a historical curiosity, it is important to note that much of the series’ satirical content retains its power. The suggestion that laddish culture deployed irony purely as an affectation designed to mask sincerely held racist, homophobic and misogynistic sentiments remains a powerful critique of postmodernism as a set of cultural values. One way of characterising postmodernism as a cultural force is to look upon it as a reaction to the death of such deep cultural narratives and values as those provided by religion, nationalism and various flavours of political ideology. One of the ways in which postmodernism explored the death of all values was by drawing our attention to the arbitrary nature of these values using an array of literary techniques including pastiche, parody, inter-textual referencing and irony. The idea was that by taking traditional symbols, stripping them of their original meaning and using them in a different and more ‘ironic’ fashion, people would realise quite how nonsensical and arbitrary those values and symbols really were. For example, an image of Queen Elizabeth with swastikas for eyes reminds us that there is nothing particularly British about the Queen as her symbolic power is purely a matter of social convention.
Sadly, though the techniques of postmodernism were originally developed in order to liberate us from traditional values, they are now used by defenders of the status quo to assert the legitimacy of those archaic and oppressive values. This re-tooling of postmodernism — though evident in Game On’s exploration of Matt’s fractured and ironic sanity — is beautifully demonstrated in a London Review of Books article by Peter Pomerantsev on Putin’s ideological advisor Vadislav Surkov. According to Pomerantsev, Surkov uses postmodernism as a means of keeping his political opponents off-balance:
One blogger has noted that ‘the number of references to Derrida in political discourse is growing beyond all reasonable bounds. At a recent conference the Duma deputy Ivanov quoted Derrida three times and Lacan twice.’ In an echo of socialism’s fate in the early 20th century, Russia has adopted a fashionable, supposedly liberational Western intellectual movement and transformed it into an instrument of oppression.
By continuously shifting his political masters between the rhetorics of right-wing nationalism and those of traditional socialism and western-style liberal capitalism, Surkov ensures that his political opponents never gain a firm enough footing to successfully critique the government. Indeed, if Putin presents himself as being a right-wing nationalist and people critique him as such, Surkov promptly stage-manages a move towards liberal capitalism that results in those critiques seeming utterly absurd. The oppressive power of postmodern deconstructivism lies in its power to confuse intentions, obscure meanings and remove all accountability from words and actions. Game On’s Matt is as much of a racist, a homophobe and a misogynist as Alf Garnett but his ability to hide his bigotry behind a mask of ironic detachment makes both his words and his actions seem strangely acceptable.