Monday, June 11, 2007

Creature featurettes

Some people fire up their grills in summer, I fire up my DVD player for primetime viewing. I'll dispatch the final episode of the first season of The Tudors, the first Showtime series to capture my fancy, tonight. And there will be space on the DVR to pick up the fourth season of HBO's Entourage, which makes for agreeable seasonal viewing, and CBS' US version of the Brit hit Creature Comforts, which very quietly slipped onto the off-season schedule. With one episode aired thus far, and a second scheduled for 8pm EST tonight, it's worth calling attention to.

Its producer, Nick Park's esteemed Aardman Animations, has been having a tough time in the Yank market. Its first claymation-technique feature, Chicken Run, was a hit in 2000. But the first, clever film to spotlight its popular Wallace and Gromit, 2005's Curse of the Were-rabbit, was a boxoffice disappointment here, and last year's Flushed Away an aptly titled write-off that led to the early dissolution of its distribution pact with DreamWorks. And its studios burned in a recent fire. With much bad karma, it's unsurprising that CBS has chosen it to lead off an evening of sitcom repeats.

Unsurprising, but wrong-headed. Creature Comforts delivers the comic goods, and should be better attended, and not just as a download to be peered at on a 2" screen. Aardman won an Oscar for its first, short-film incarnation in 1989, then revived the concept in England for series in 2003 and 2005. The animation has been fancied up just a bit for this US version, but the show remains the same. Interviewers fanned out across the country to ask ordinary folks about their lives, jobs, relationships, and aspirations. The answers were then wedded to Aardman's inimitable, personable animal animations.

Amusement frequently ensues: A pretentious conversation about wine now unfolds as two male dogs sniffing around a female poodle's rear ("It has the hint of Cassis"). A little boy, transposed into a frog, tells doctor jokes badly, to an audience of crickets--when one fails to respond, he gets slurped up. Later in the episode, when the boy threatens to tell waiter jokes, all the remaining crickets applaud wearily.

The humor in the British series, which are available on DVD, is the reticence of the human subjects. Shyness is not a problem on this side of the pond, as the interviewees kvetch and kvell and expostulate. Their comments are brilliantly matched to the animals, and the 30 minutes of tightly edited sketches fly by. Now that you know where to find it, look it up.

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