Wherein Bernard and Manny try to out-Borders Borders, and Fran goes off in search of her roots.
Original air date: March 22, 2002
For all of the early-modern cellphones, standard definition image, and lack of a high-speed wirelessly connected world, Black Books has remained curiously ageless. It might have to do with its main setting being a small, independently-owned book shop. The focus on antics in a select few locations with a central setting revolving around an age-old trade keeps it from feeling too trendy.
This episode calls to mind a very specific, wonderful sort of time that must have been directly affecting small bookstores in the late nineties and early aughts: having to compete with the service-oriented, big chain bookstore-cum-coffee shop. Bernard calls it out at as a fad. He’ll turn out to be right, eventually, though it won’t be for the reasons he imagines (his dislike of sudden and to his mind, needless change). After all, who could’ve foreseen the impact of the low-cost ease of Internet shopping that cuts out customer-employee interaction entirely? Bernard might even enjoy the concept of it, so long as he got a piece of the action. That’s assuming of course he’d have the patience to understand it.
In any case, Manny’s incidental discovery that making people feel comfortable at a bookshop gets customers to spend more money sets Black Books on a trajectory of direct competition with larger bookstores. Bernard, always resistant to change, switches gears almost immediately upon realizing that there’s profit to be had. Bernard, inevitably goes overboard with it, deciding to convert the shop entirely into a restaurant. I could say that greed is the overriding factor, but there is always at the core the possibility of putting Manny through some sort of hellish servitude. So there is that.
I think my favorite part of this is Bernard’s slow descent into drunken lunacy. I mean, I think I could say that about most Black Books storylines, but I digress. This hits Grapes of Wrath levels of crazy. Bernard’s understanding of cooking which, at its’ best, seems to involve just throwing things in that sounds good (Luxury Pie),and only get worse as he starts two-handing bottles of red and white while he “cooks”. His slow descent culminates in what can only be described an oven knob paint stew. *Italian Chef Kiss*
Meanwhile, Fran’s storyline has her connecting with relatives she’s never met. Fran’s never really seen to have family, she mentions at points her mother and grandparents in the city, but for all intents and purposes, she’s on her own. Her existence is anchored almost entirely by friends and acquaintances. Narratively speaking, this makes a lot sense as it condenses the number of characters needed. But in-universe, it really speaks to the disconnection that many people feel living in large cities away from family. Jobless, since her shop was closed, Fran finds herself adrift. With no real help from Bernard in his mad quest to actually turn a profit, Fran gets involved in genealogy. Here, Fran attempts to find connection and meaning through these newly discovered relatives.
Black Books‘ cynicism probably comes through sharpest in Fran’s attempts at connection or self-improvement. Here attempts are usually futile and end up leaving her worse off. Indeed, her new ‘family’ see her only as a resource to be exploited. There’s a lot to be said about her distant immigrant family and how reductive the stereotypes are, I think. The jokes there don’t particularly work for me. It’s like “Haha, Fran’s ‘family’ is sketchy AF immigrants from an Eastern Europe with weird customs that are just using her”. But since it appears as a function of a larger argument about the family you were born to versus the family you choose to be with, I think I’ll give it a pass.
I know a lot of people who find nothing valuable in genealogy. I know plenty of other people that do, however. I think they do it as a hobby because it creates a narrative for them and people find value in just that. “This is where we came from, this is how we got here, therefore this is my story.” Fran does that, but then she goes overboard and tries to subsume herself in that identity with these toxic people she barely knows. It’s a funny parallel, Bernard’s going overboard in his drive for more profit (something he only tangentially cares about) sends Fran spiraling into something she hasn’t expressly cared about.
Ultimately, the story comes full circle in the Black Books “restaurant” where Fran’s hellish storyline doesn’t even end with Bernard’s terrible food. It ends with Fran setting fire to her own car. Fran’s belonging, whether she likes it or not, lies with Manny and Bernard. What’s fair to notice is that while Bernard does get consumed by his latest distraction, he certainly notices Fran’s distress at the top of the episode. They do care about each other. No amount of blood can trump the bond of drinking good wine, having a nice chat, and catching rat creatures in a coffee machine.
Streaming? How Do?
Black Books is available of online streaming via Amazon Prime, Hulu, Vudu and the Channel 4 website for UK Viewers.
- Bernard’s indifference to customer service and ambiance led to an ongoing pest problem. Quite what it is that’s infesting the store is never revealed. I’m inclined to R.O.U.S.’, But what we do know is that Manny got the queen!
- There’s an ongoing competition for most pest kills throughout the episode. Last I saw I believe Bernard was in the lead.
- Ways of killing the creatures: Whip, throwing knife, luring one into a coffee pot with a strip of bacon.
- Fran’s cousin, Gregor, is played by Mark Donovan, who’s well-known for playing hulking characters. Just in terms of Edgar Wright connections, he’s appeared in Shaun of the Dead and The World’s End.
- Manny’s taking to the efficiency and customer service-oriented nature of big chain bookstores sets up his storyline for series 3 rather nicely. If they had kept Saga Books as the name of the store, that’d be some impressive foreshadowing for a show that has loose continuity, at best.
- Luxury Pie, the only thing that looks close to anything resembling food made by Bernard, consists of lobster, caviar, truffles, champagne, and handfuls of saffron in a pie crust. I’m this close to donating to the Binging With Babish youtube channel just to see if he can get anything out of this.
- Manny: Bernard, where’s the thing?
Bernard: It’s on the thing on top of the thing!
- Bernard: Perhaps you’d like me to put the price down.Customer: Well I was thinking two pounds.
Bernard: Because three pounds is just naked profiteering for a book of a mere… [checks the back pages of the book] 912 pages long. What’ll I do with that extra pound? I’ll add another acre to the grounds. I’ll chuck a few more koi carp in my piano shaped pond. No, I know, I’ll build a wing on the National Gallery with my name on it.