Network television seldom breaks with the two or three formulas that have governed the medium since its inception, but when it does, it usually goes all the way. The acts of rebellion tend to be short-lived, and their influence not as wide as might be hoped. (Looking at Twin Peaks now, it seems almost impossible that it aired in prime-time on a major network, much less to a wide audience.) They also tend to be worth revisiting. The product of punk's aftershocks and a healthy alternative-comedy scene, the BBC-produced The Young Ones injected the sitcom format with a heavy dose of surrealism, adding political satire, pop-culture parodies, puppets, vomit, a good deal of violence involving kitchen implements, and musical guests (thanks to the additional funding given to variety shows). Airing for two seasons in 1982 and 1984, the show featured four college roommates drawn from the British subcultures of the day: a destructive punk (Adrian Edmondson), a much-abused hippie (Nigel Planer), a budding Thatcherite prone to commenting on his prowess with women (Christopher Ryan), and an insufferable self-proclaimed revolutionary (Rik Mayall, who scripted the series with Ben Elton and Lise Mayer). The average episode begins with typical roommate difficulties, then spins into anarchy. In "Bomb," for example, Planer complains about always having to make tea for the others, Mayall grapples with Ryan over the bathroom, and for much of the episode, no one notices the nuclear bomb that's landed in their kitchen. Then panic ensues, Dexy's Midnight Runners shows up for an impromptu concert, a group of flies shoots a documentary on what it's really like to be a fly on the wall, and two of the cast members perform an on-target parody of the Rat Pack. The gags can be hit-or-miss, but they come so quickly that it's impossible to keep score. The writers seemed convinced that if the jokes about student unions didn't get a laugh, Mayall and Edmondson could do the trick by beating each other over the head. This new DVD set, as its name suggests, collects all 12 episodes, adding relevant excerpts from two documentaries on British comedy and the first episodes of two later series, the short-lived Filthy Rich & Catflap and the venerable Bottom. Both Filthy and Bottom reunited various cast members to diminished effect, using some of the same techniques but discarding the sense that anything could happen, as if television had sapped the radical fervor out of a good idea. It makes it that much easier to appreciate the original, where a character kicking his own severed head down a train track could qualify as routine on a show that never was.
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