Sharon Horgan’s BBC3 comeback – the axing of Pulling still grates with fans – has her behind bars as Helen, a fretting loser wrongly convicted of murder. Can she win freedom? Or are she and the viewers in for a cold, frustrating stretch at a jail full of cartoon inmates and mad staff?
Write what you know, runs the ancient maxim. It served Horgan and co-writer Dennis Kelly well on Pulling, where she played one of a gang of emotionally inept singletons, doomed by their lack of willpower, dignity or common sense to remain unloved. Pulling was broad, but Horgan’s harsh take on her own experience and neuroses gave it weight.
In Dead Boss she’s more or less the same person, full of bravado that evaporates when challenged. But Helen is in an unreal situation – a prison, decorated with every cliché of prison comedies – and is also burdened with being something that’s become a trope in modern sitcom: she’s the only vaguely sane person in the room.
Helen’s cellmate is absurdly childish and sensitive. Her defence lawyer is absurdly incompetent and cowardly. Her sister is absurdly slatternly and selfish. The male prison officers are absurdly crass. The governor is absurdly capricious. Helen looks at them quizzically a lot and, often, resorts to explaining why the crazy thing they just said doesn’t make sense.
Popular as it now is, this “everyone except the main character is a loon” approach feels like a way to con us out of the 3D creations that are hard to write but keep us coming back. Dead Boss also has an ongoing story arc – again this is in vogue at the expense of giving each episode a tight, resolved plot. You wonder whether this is really because it works better or because writers have lost the knack of setting two or three stories running and then reining them in again 28 minutes later.
The story of who really killed Helen’s boss is too silly to be believable, but not silly enough for that to stop mattering. Nothing in Dead Boss feels like it actually exists. If a joke falls flat, it’s hard to ignore because there’s nothing else there.
Of course it’s possible to do comedy that doesn’t have any truth or soul if the jokes are outlandishly good but, despite a superb cast, Dead Boss struggles to reinvent incompetent lawyers, meat-headed screws and disgusting prison food.
Horgan and new writing partner Holly Walsh’s gags don’t have their own fresh voice: episode two had a creaking crack at wordplay involving the phrase “plan B” and the words “you” and “see”; a scene where Helen’s absurdly creepy stalker had been masturbating in his office led exactly where you thought it might.
Pulling had heart and guts. Dead Boss feels hollow.