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Lemons and lunacy

Lab Rats on BBC3

Stephen Curry 27 July 2008

Bonkers: the cast of Lab Rats

The show’s creators can certainly take credit for having the nerve to base a sitcom in the unfamiliar world of a science lab

When I read that Armando Iannucci was behind Lab Rats, a new BBC sitcom set in a university science lab, I couldn’t believe my luck. That the creator of The Thick of It, an excoriatingly funny political comedy, had turned his forensic attention to science was good news indeed. But despite Iannucci’s executive producer credit, the comedy in Lab Rats is a very different beast. There is no hard, satirical edge here – the humour is pitched deliberately towards the silly end of the comedy spectrum.

The script, by Carl Cooper and Chris Addison, who have collaborated before on comedy-science radio shows (winning a prestigious Sony award for the Radio 4 series The Ape that Got Lucky), gathers together a motley crew of scientists in a biology lab in the fictional St Dunstan’s University. On the basis of the three episodes that have aired so far, the show is definitely silly and shows some real sparks of inspiration. Whether it can be consistently funny is a hypothesis that will require some further data.

The show’s creators can certainly take credit for having the nerve to base a sitcom in the unfamiliar world of a science lab, where it may take time for most of the audience to get their bearings. But perhaps not too long, since there is nothing terribly sophisticated about the science at St Dunstans’s and nor do the lab members seem to do very much work.

The action revolves mostly around scientist Dr Alex Beeneyman (nicely played by Addison) even though he is junior to Professor Mycroft, a has-been, work-shy chocoholic Nobel laureate. Both make regular appeals to the kooky Dutch Dean, Mieke Miedema, on whom they depend variously for administrative support, and chocolate. The other staff in the lab include Brian, a dullard research assistant who is secretly but unrequitedly in love with the Dean (she can’t even remember his name), and a dinky Brummie technician, Cara, whose flimsy grasp of reality is rigidly encased in an impenetrable rationality. Rounding off the regulars is Minty, a suspicious northerner, evidently a close relative of Big Glenda, the mordantly morose delivery-woman from Victoria Wood’s Dinner Ladies.

In the first episode, the lab pledges itself to help out their distinguished Russian visitor, Dr Kyrtistyges, who had succeeded in repeatedly cloning his granny only to find that each new Baboushka gets smaller and smaller. There followed some frantic experimentation on Beeneyman’s least favourite creature – snails – and, as part of a cost-cutting sub-plot, some bizarre discussions on the use of lemons as a power source. The comedy was gently whimsical for the most part, with a distinctly surreal flavour, relying more on dialogue than on slapstick. There were some zany, laugh-out-loud exchanges, particularly involving Cara. At one point, having become exasperated with her ineffable mental processes, Beeneyman demanded to know how she had got through life without a piano falling on her. “I haven’t,” came Cara’s deadpan reply.

It was Cara who then remembered that there was some old growth serum knocking about the lab which, when applied to the lemons, snails and Beeneyman’s left leg, produced a fantastically bizarre denouement that left Cara pinned to the wall by a super-charged, lemon-powered fan while Beeneyman, immobilised by his massive leg, was very slowly run over by an enormous snail. It was stupid, funny – and very slimy.

Alas, the zaniness went off the rails the following week, as the surrealness escaped completely from the bounds of logic. The premature thaw of a cryogenically and illegally frozen university donor, the supremely enervating Sir Andrew Chother – a man who could babble for Britain – coincided with the surprise arrival of a suspicious but seriously unhinged lab inspector to create plenty of mayhem but not much in the way of humour. The plot simply fell apart. The inspector looked like a character in search of a Monty Python sketch. But while Python sketches can zing along without an anchor in reality, a sitcom – however surreal – must have some internal logic, some reference points: even Father Dougal knows that. The bizarre subplot, in which Prof Mycroft coerces Brian into re-routing the university’s television feed so he can watch “The 100 Best Nobel Prize Winners” on German TV, generated a couple of fairly lame Nobel laureate cracks, but it also suffered from a lack of coherence – there was simply no reason to suppose he would have any hold over Brian. It was left to Cara to show how rationally applied illogicality can generate laughs.

Happily the series recovered in episode 3, in which the lab comes under assault from egg-flinging animal rights protesters. This allowed Brian to reveal a psychotic side that finally started to give his character some not-so-hidden depths. The Dean also got to flex her kooky muscles and her cooking skills, having decided that selling Dutch cakes to the protesters might generate some valuable revenue, while Beeneyman’s exchanges with Cara and Minty provided a steady supply of gags.

The ensemble now seems to be gelling together better, though the Prof is still struggling to fit in. He’s the least well-written character and Geoff McGivern’s performance suffers because he’s not getting many of the funny lines. But nor does he seem comfortable with the physical elements of the comedy. Let’s hope he gets to shine in later episodes.

Interviewed about Lab Rats on BBC2’s The Culture Show, Addison claimed they wanted to write something ‘big and funny’ rather than ‘wry and clever’ and paid tribute to Graham Linehan, writer of brilliantly surreal comedies such as Father Ted and The IT Crowd. Lab Rats occupies very much the same thematic territory as The IT Crowd – strange interactions between dysfunctional geeks – but it hasn’t hit the ground with such an assured stride. Nevertheless the results of the Phase I trial are at least encouraging. For me the delightfully loopy Cara, played by Jo Enright, is the real highlight of the show; hers is a truly fantastic performance, somehow more credibly nutty than Ricky Gervais’s hapless friend Maggie in Extras. And – episode 2 aside – the quality of the writing shows enough promise to warrant further experimentation. I, for one, am looking forward to the results.