(BBC Worldwide, approx. 71 minutes)
If a child were to really be raised and educated on the faux
educational videos of Look Around You,
how would he or she turn out? Good Lord, perish the thought.
The BBC import’s first season (aired in 2002, and now
available as BBC Worldwide DVD Look
Around You: Season One) is a goldmine for the cracked-out late-night TV
set. Not shockingly, the show had a syndicated run on Adult Swim in early 2009,
which would be about par-for-course for Cartoon Network’s increasingly surreal,
iconoclastic programming block. This adopted home on American television (the
show also played on BBC-America) couldn’t be any more appropriate – since its
inception, Adult Swim has fostered anti-narrative and experimental, to great
success, and yes, detriment as well.
Co-creators and co-starrers Robert Popper and Peter
Serafinowicz (both f familiar faces for Edgar Wright enthusiasts) completely
run amuck within the frame work of a 1970s or early ’80s-style science program
for the classroom. It’s this incredible discipline and dedication to concept
that really separates Look Around from the rest of Adult Swim’s offerings, or most TV shows of any sort.
OK, and it’s also pretty damn hilarious.
There’s a grand farce of the Emperor’s New Clothes kind to Look Around You, as if the players
openly defy the audience and insists that it is everything it jokingly purports
to be. No winking or elbow jabs needed. At a passing glance, the show could
easily have been from a period artifact that slipped through the cracks.
As South Park co-creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone observe on a guest commentary track, it
is this authenticity that proves to be the show’s best (and funniest) weapon.
There are plenty of enjoyable Nonsequiturs and just plain silly asides packed
into each episode (they call them “modules”), but Popper and Sefinowicz get so
much more mileage out of production design and structure.
The shoestring budget (which both creators attest to in the
commentary) never causes the seams to unravel, as Look Around You perfectly replicates that which its parodies. With
the exception of “Ghosts”, and the zanier moments of the wonderful finale, “The
Brain”, you could blink at a few key moments and still believe little British children
scribbled down the nonsensical lessons in a copybook some 30 years ago.
Narrator Nigel Lambert is the perfect guide throughout, and
he carries the brunt of the performance remarkably. His soothing, trustworthy
instruction is key to some of the best bits – the made up terms, which Lambert
passes off without a second thought. Examples: An egg “metripulates” in boiling
water, or a piece of lab equipment referred to as the “Jane Grey.”
Popper and Serafinowicz thrive in the details of Look Around You: the alluded to next
lessons, which of course, we never see; barely visible beaker labels;
wonderfully faked stock footage. If there’s any real failure in the show, it’s
that occasionally, you end up admiring it more than outright enjoying it.
At around nine-minutes a-piece (barely), the episodes,
excuse me, modules can feel glacial, which becomes an explicit time-element gag
at one point in “Water”. And yet, somehow Look
Around You never lapses into the “joke is on the audience” sort of humor Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!” favors (Tim Heidecker and
Eric Wareheim are vocal fans of the show, and appear on the guest commentary).
Look Around You gradually expands and grows more comfortable in its skin, allowing for more
daring, and bizarre, experiments, though few top the pilot’s Q&A with
Intelligent Calcium, the self-aware element. Spaced and Shaun of the Dead alums Wright (who is basically a series regular), Simon Pegg and Nick Frost all
make unobtrusive appearances, only slightly breaking the illusion of Look Around You.
It’s exactly the sort of show you would want to stumble on
at 3 a.m. in, well, the right state of mind needed to properly digest something
this bug-nuts crazy. In the spirit of the best Adult Swim offerings, Look Around You is a fine fuck-you to
conventional television. Endlessly quotable, even if nothing you could quote
from it would make a lick of sense.
Now write that down in your copybook.
For a little one-disc season, you can’t really argue with
the production value. The visuals are intentionally grainy and pale, with
intentional hairlines. Thankfully, for relative sanity, the effects aren’t
overdone and the soundtrack meets 21st century standards.
The DVD menu
screen is itself, a little work of art, very much period appropriate in its
graphic design. Of the bonus materials,
the pilot module, “Calcium”, clearly takes the cake, though you can see why the
rest of the modules were kept under 10-minutes.
tracks sort of vary in quality. Look
Around You doesn’t exactly beg to be explained and there isn’t a whole lot
of that anyway. Most of the time, everyone is just bullshitting around, for
better or worse. Wright joins in with Popper and Sefinowicz for one of the
better tracks, but it’s Pegg and Frost who are really worth your time. Michael
Cera and Jonah Hill wear the “why are we even here?” joke awful thin. Heidecker
and Wareheim – either you love ‘em or you can’t stand ‘em, and Parker and Stone
actually offer the most insight into the show.
Considering South Park‘s best years and its humble cardboard
beginnings, that makes a lot of sense. Both shows benefit from strong writing,
but neither South Park or Look Around You would work without their respective visual approaches.