Steve Coogan is a fool in the old-school sense. The British actor and writer tends to center his act on self-aware buffoonery, adroit riddling, and, as if wielding a slingshot, launching acid jokes from within the fortress of round characters. Most famously, he has smarmed across radio and television in the guise of Alan Partridge, a chat-show host made of cooking oil. Like Martin Short’s caricature Jiminy Glick, Alan Partridge should be laughed at as a contemptible extrusion of celebrity culture.
But while Alan, with his empty smiles and his clueless banter, is an unquestionable clown, he’s also a scrambling lad in over his hair-sprayed head, and that’s endearing. Similarly, playing a small role as an ambassador in Marie Antoinette, Coogan manages to be funny in a couple of ways at once: You admire the silky simpering of his courtier while also watching the character entertain feelings about his own performance at the farcical court. Plus, Coogan wears wigs with real talent, using them as tool of haughtiness.
On the hilarious BBC comedy Saxondale (BBC America, Fridays, at 11 p.m. ET), Coogan’s hairstyle suggests the do of a 1970s rock god who, now on the far side of 50, remains prideful of his thick mane. The series begins with a scene in the children’s room of a pleasant public library. It’s a group-therapy session; anger management is the topic, and the moderator is plodding on sincerely with thoughts about the inevitable linkage of love and hate. The camera moves around a circle of frowning men to rest on a bored dude with a big gut who’s concentrating on the buttons of his beeping wristwatch. (And the dude will prove to be quite Dude-like, a shaggy, righteous, lives-by-his-own-code goofball like the Coen Brothers’ Jeff Lebowski.) He’s got a tidy Dylan beard, a flowing Clapton coif, some handsome wrinkles, and one not-entirely-untasteful earring. His T-shirt advertises the USA track team and dates to 1983. This is Tommy Saxondale, an ex-roadie who now runs, in a shambling but largely responsible fashion, a small extermination company. (“Simply the pest!” is its motto.) The moderator asks, “Tommy, d’you have any feedback?”
“Yeah, sure.” Tommy finishes his business with his watch and, sometimes stroking his beard, sometimes fiddling with the finger where his wedding band used to be, starts in on a brilliant monologue. Throughout the show—which is really a kind of extended monologue where the other characters orbit around this odd philosopher—Tommy’s speech is a patient rumble that’s rhythmically dotted with punchy pauses and dramatic lulls; you can catch Tommy’s attitude in his cadence, even when his accent (or, for that matter, his slur) is too thick to decipher:
The, uh, the notion that anger per se is a bad thing I will say, respectfully, is horse—shit. Ihh, if General MacArthur’s reaction to uh Pearl Harbor had been to go and find a quiet place and do some deep breathing—you’d be goose-stepping into this meeting. Today. There’d be a great big eagle on the wall.
Near the end of that line, Tommy begins narrowing his eyes, making a face that self-congratulates the brain behind it for its acute skills of perception. But he can only hold the expression for a moment. First, he crashes into a hazy lip-smacking squint. Then he holds forth—eloquent, bitter, tart, only mildly deranged—about what inspires him in life, about what he detests, and about his need to leave before he physically attacks the counselor. Tommy makes a fart joke and is gone. He speeds away from what he sees as a disaster in modern masculinity in a banana-yellow, vintage Mustang. “Flight 93,” reads its bumper sticker, “Let’s roll.”
Could it be that Tommy—in addition to working perfectly as a fully developed sitcom protagonist, a shaggy comic hero wrestling with everyday problems and ethical riddles alike—somehow doubles as a symbol of American power? Of a Blair-generation U.K. aligned with the American empire? I dunno, but I am sure that Saxondale’s banter with both his girlfriend, Magz (a zaftig rock chick with magenta hair), and with his new assistant, Raymond (a boy-waif scooped up in a weirdly sweet show of paternal fondness), slides from goofy to touching in a blink. Consider a moment in which Tommy and Magz exchange words of love:
“You rock my world.”
“You rock my world, too.”
He’s a corny geezer, and she’s wearing enough lip liner to sketch a portrait, and their language is from a teenager’s back seat, but the heart still swelled a size when the couple shared a trembling stare after sharing that affirmation. NBC—which, happily for critics, less so for GE shareholders, is lately desperate enough to try anything—just made a deal to bring an Americanized version of Saxondale to the air, a la The Office. And if the show’s warmth—its glee in combining the silly and the sympathetic—survives the trip across the Atlantic, that would rock my world, too.