Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of Alan Partridge. He is one of the most well-written comic characters in the last twenty years of British television but his latest show This Time… just doesn’t sit right, failing to adapt the character to a modern audience and while once his demeanour was seen to be acceptable, today it falls flat.
Watching the overly inflated ego of a local radio DJ try and navigate the national television world in previous seasons was hilarious, and that aspect of the show still is. It’s great when he messes up on his show, refreshing and in some ways relatable (who hasn’t had the dream where you are live on national TV and completely don’t know what to say) but using Alan to explore #MeToo has been difficult to watch.
Steve Coogan said before the #MeToo episode aired that it’s “very difficult to laugh about things that are problematic but it’s important that we do it in the right way“. He is right about the first point and, in many ways, it is impossible to find it funny when it’s the viewpoint we are trying to eradicate being told through a character who perpetuates the male stereotype women are victimised and harassed by.
In the post #MeToo era, the ways in which the character treats women are far too real. There are moments of humour in watching Alan enter a new era of TV where his behaviour from previous shows is unacceptable and his co-host demands his respect, but his failure to adopt these values and give her that respect turns the character from one you emphasise with for his naivety, to one who simply cannot overcome prejudice. We explicitly know how damaging an impact on women’s careers men like him have had, we know the abuse and the harassment, and we know it isn’t harmless. Is it not too soon and are the wounds not too fresh to satirise men like him?
In Episode 5, Alan discusses #MeToo saying that “20 years ago, arriving on set in a flash car with three scantily clad beauties would have been a perfectly normal way to spruce or spunk up an opening, but not anymore. Nowadays people recognise it for what it is… bad and wrong“. This element is uncomfortable to watch and starkly not funny. This clearly isn’t the intention, and the intention is to mock the way Alan struggles to navigate his professional relationships with women, finding it challenging to know how to act and speak to women without being offensive. This struggle does have some positives though, in that it mocks men who find it difficult to not be inappropriate, but asking us to laugh at this is a problem.
When Simon says ‘love women’ whilst looking embarrassed, and Partridge exclaims we haven’t come far enough in the fight for equality and asks his audience ‘which sexist relics [you’d] like to consign to the dustbin of history’, these men are awkwardly attempt to ensure they aren’t seen to be sexist. The show understands that simply saying ‘love women’ is not enough or the right way for men to help. This is good but it’s not funny. In many ways it feels uncomfortable to be laughing at how men have struggled to deal with #MeToo, when so many women have spent so long fighting to eradicate this behaviour.
The relationship between Jennie (Alan’s co-presenter) and Alan, is an incredibly problematic example of this. At the start of Episode 6, he is so strikingly sexist that she ends up walking off the show, and he goes on without her. Yes he struggles, and yes we’re supposed to find that entertaining and, yes, see how tragically incompetent he is but this element of his character and the lack of social awareness he expresses in treating a female co-presenter in this way, is exactly the damaging behaviour we still haven’t eradicated from the industry he works in. In the same way that it becomes insensitive to satirise other forms of abuse and discrimination, it is definitely too soon for women to watch jokes being made about the exact experience so many of us fear. While the show’s intentions are not to suggest the way he treats Jennie is funny, it’s another example of troublesome satire.
Skip ahead a bit in the episode and Alan is out of his depth attempting to commentate on some dresses. We see his reliance on his co-presenter and how lost he is without her, which makes a great point, but then we are once again being asked to laugh at the way he talks about women. His comments stretch to boundaries of being inappropriate such as ‘‘very curvy stripes like she’s been squeezed out of a giant tube of Colgate lady-paste”. But simply having three men sitting and commenting on women’s clothes and bodies isn’t something we need to watch. While it excellently portrays the flaws of masculinity, is it right to encourage us to laugh at how awkward one of the models looks in his presence?
In many ways, Alan Partridge has become an embodiment of the man that women fear to work with, the man who will tell them they want to sleep with him, who will touch them inappropriately, and who will comment on their bodies as though they are dressing for his approval. But now, in 2019, this has become a tragic mirroring of reality and frightening, not funny.