Black Books: Series 2, Episode 1 “The Entertainer”

                 Three Blind Mice, See How They Run

Original Air Date: 3/1/2002

Series 2 opens with a deftly handled, beautifully crafted episode that has all three of our main characters in one plot. It’s really kind of amazing how each of the individual characters typical wants feed off each other. Fran’s looking to better herself in some way, Manny’s trying to stick up for himself, and Bernard is trying(and failing) to be a normal part of human society. Fran’s purchase of a piano and Bernard’s giving away of a reserved copy of a book ultimately set up for their downfall by episode’s end.

Fran appears unwilling to accept that she’s a very retiring person and lacks follow-through. Indeed, as Bernard points out Fran loses interest and becomes distracted after just ten minutes of instruction. She is determined to learn the piano but is unable, or unwilling, to get better particularly in the face of her blind instructor, Josef Slavlanski (David Macall). Her reluctance is made worse upon learning of Manny’s skills as a pianist. Seeking to offload her demanding instructor, she pretends to be a virtuoso using Manny’s talents. Bernard, seeking to enchant a bookstore customer, does the same.

Bernard, for all of his faults, understands his friends, albeit in a profoundly cynical way. For one, he knows Fran will fail in every sudden endeavor she invests herself in, and he knows that Manny is a pushover who toils endlessly out of habit. Bernard’s disregard for Manny’s desires is of course a mainstay of the series.  But it’s fascinating when he uses that to try to elevate himself in some way.  He does so first, by giving away a book to impress a customer, Kate (Nina Conti), and then throws Manny under the bus with a surprisingly violent Mr. Williams. He then scores a date with her by using Manny’s (admittedly average) social skills. Finally, he goes overboard by forcing Manny into using his piano skills to woo her.

It’s delicious watching Fran, seeing Bernard’s hypocrisy, neatly turn the heat up by telling Kate about how much of a secret genius he is. And to top it off, while he’s ‘playing’ Fran pours a glass of wine, just out of his reach. None of this turns out well for either, of course. If anything, it exacerbates the situation, when at the end of the episode, it’s Kate that suggest Fran and Bernard perform a duet. As Manny, used and abused as he was, leaves them to their web of lies during a rendition of “The Flight of the 7 Million Bumblebees”. Of course, Manny doesn’t get off easy either. Screwing over his friends so he can go down to the pub leads to another encounter with the violent bibliophile, Mr. Williams.

The irony, as with many sitcom contrivances, lies in the inability of the characters to tell the  truth. Fran can’t tell the truth to Josef partly due to pride, partly due to Bernard’s machinations.  Bernard, because he’s a massively insecure recluse, doesn’t understand that it doesn’t matter to Kate that he’s not good at the piano. He tries too hard and he does it with manipulation and deceit. All he had to do was be try to be a (slightly more genial) version of himself. Manny, for his part, would’ve been better off just sticking to his guns and taking some time off from the shop.

As always, there’s a tinge of sadness to the characters’ foibles. When Bernard says in the pub that Fran will fail, that Manny will toil his life away, and he will die alone it’s only true to an extent. It’s true because as it stands they aren’t willing to make a change. Fran can’t face failure or disappointment, Manny’s far too accommodating, and Bernard’s unwillingness to actually change his anti-social, manipulative nature will always lead him to being alone. But as it stands, Bernard and Fran are far to willing to distract themselves with a glass of wine, and while Manny’s all too aware of his own exploitation, he keeps bending until he breaks.

All in all, this a fantastic start to the second series. Our three mains get to play off each other, with each of their wants and needs directly impacting everyone else. Their wants and needs collide with each other. It’s very funny to see their them all undercut one another and are, to some degree, hoisted by their own petard. The physical comedy is excellent, I’m thinking of the scene where Bernard notices Kate and Manny drops to the floor like a sack of potatoes. Though I’d have to say that the scene where Manny discovers his apparent virtuosity in piano is a joy to behold.

Streaming? How Do?

Black Books is currently available for online streaming via Amazon Prime, Hulu, Vudu, and the Channel 4 website for UK viewers.

Stray Observations

  • Nina Conti, plays Kate here. She’s a bit underused as her roles is basically Love Interest. She’s a funny comedian. I thought she was wonderful in the criminally underrated HBO mockumentary series Family Tree.
  • Seinfeldism (?) The gag of Josef introducing his inexplicably still alive father and grandfather had me saying ‘Mandelbaum! Mandelbaum!’
  • Fran couldn’t get a refund on the piano because it was filled with spoons. Fun line, but it seemed like Manny took them with him every time they were finished. I’d have been fine with Josef just taking it away from her even though she had bought it.
  • Manny grew up in a neighborhood where all of the other children had pianos and he was forced to play football alone.
  • Yessir, that’s Bill Bailey actually playing the piano.
  • Every time he sees Kate, Bernard combs his hair to the side in some ill-fated  attempt to look better. I will never get tired of Bernard’s all-of-a-sudden half-hearted attempts to interact with normal human beings.

Quotable Quotes

  • “This is life. We suffer and slave and expire. That’s it!”
  • “Fran will fail, you’ll toil your life away, and I will die alone upside down on the floor of a pub toilet.”
  • This line here could well be the episode summary: “We all have needs!  Fran’s got a piano, I want some time to myself, and you want to go out with a girl.”
  • “Don’t make me laugh bitterly.”
  • <introducing himself to Kate> “Hello I’m–not that it matters”
  • “I must be musical. I have hundreds of CDs.”