Wherein a tale is woven, and dark truths are revealed.
Original Airdate: 3/18/2004
The Bet is a classic sitcom trope. Be it Barney Miller or be it Seinfeld, there will always be an episode where the action hinges upon a seemingly innocuous bet. It’s a great way to get a story going,even if it is lazy. It can send characters off in different directions doing things that under most circumstances would strain logic. What’s important is what the story gets out of the conceit. While a little light in places, Black Books is able to tease out a dark, awkward and extremely funny plot using this well-worn trope.
In this episode, Bernard and Fran make a bet. Bernard bets Fran will have a miserable time at her friend’s Hen Party, and Fran bets Bernard can’t write a children’s book. Fran and Bernard’s bet, at it’s core, is ultimately about calling each other on their bullshit. Fran sees Bernard’s derisiveness toward children’s book authors and calls him out on it. Bernard calls Fran out on her denial. And through it all Manny is just standing there in a worm suit.
Bernard and Manny’s plot to write the perfect children’s story is the lighter of the two in the episode. Manny and Bernard start the episode barely tolerating the children in the shop. Bernard gets a kid in trouble with his mom, and Manny finishes a story by telling a kid the main character died. Then they turn right around and declare that they can write for children! Bernard and Manny decide the only way to write the story is to write something they would have read as kids. It’s no surprise that they hit a wall early. People tend to write off children’s entertainment, but just like any other industry people fail. If they’re too complex kids won’t get into it, if it’s too simple it’s condescending, Bernard ultimately produces a 1,030 page first draft before settling on a story about an elephant who loses a balloon.
I really liked the way they go back and forth on what makes a story. They put all of their ideas onto a blackboard, throwing out animals and dilemmas at random, crossing out what doesn’t work without any rhyme or reason. What’s funny about these brainstorming scenes is that never once during their writing process do Manny and Bernard have a drink. I would have expected their masterpiece to be produced in a drunken frenzy, but no. No, booze only comes into the picture after they’ve completed their work. What brings down Bernard in the bet is drunken paranoia.
Meanwhile, Fran’s story about reconnecting with old friends ends up turning into a short play worthy of Sartre. Of course, one could say that about any weekend one spends with people you haven’t seen in a decade and change. Ostensibly gathering to celebrate the nuptials of her friend Becky (Lucy Davis!), the weekend starts to fall apart when Fran forces the group into telling truths. Fran, obliviously, starts telling them some sort-of shitty stories about things she did to them while in school. Her friends respond in kind by admitting they always thought she would end up becoming a spinster, not helped by her association with Manny and Bernard. In a beautiful, dark twisted denouement, Fran Cracks and she promptly, gleefully sets the rest of the weekend on fire by revealing one last truth. They all leave the next day in separate cabs.
Black Books has a profoundly cynical core to its being. I think there’s a fair bit of Fran’s usual character work at play here. When reminded of the bet during her drunk dial to Bernard, she pushes. She pushes these relationships far more than she should and she ends up breaking them. I have to wonder if all of this would have happened regardless. Had Fran not called Bernard, would this still have all fallen apart?
What I think is kinda key here is that Fran probably hasn’t seen them all together for quite some time. Her friend Tanya claims that Fran started the truth-telling game to bring them all down to her level, I don’t think this is true. They only mention their success after Tanya says this. And its only then that Fran becomes bitter and resentful. All of them being brought to Fran’s “level” is a consequence,yes, but she forces the game to be played because of the bet she has with Bernard. And that bet is an extension of her refusal to confront her denials about being unhappy.
In any event, as with many sitcoms using “The Bet” trope, neither of them win. Alas, Bernard and Manny’s manuscript “The Elephant and The Balloon” is too pure, too sweet for this world and must be given to the flames. Fran returns having ultimately had a miserable time. Nothing was learned, no one got any more money, and Fran’s out three friends. But hey, at least she doesn’t have a wedding to go to now.
- The guest stars for this episode:
- Olivia Colman! Her Edgar Wright adjacent work includes Hot Fuzz as PC Doris Thatcher. She’s quite well known for Peep Show, That Mitchell and Webb Look and she’s also in basically everything ever from Doctor Who to Thomas The Tank Engine.
- Pandora Colin, who played Claire here also appeared in Run Fatboy Run with Simon Pegg and Dylan Moran, where she also played a character named Claire.
- Lucy Davis! Well known for her work on the UK version of The Office, Lucy also appeared with Dylan Moran and Simon Pegg in Shaun of the Dead.
- Chalkboard gag: No GIGGLIN–
- An excellent way to tell when Fran is all out of fucks to give is when she has a cigarette just barely hanging out of her mouth.
- Among Manny’s other talents, he is also an able illustrator. Manny’s so adept he can draw what Bernard types!
- The original draft of “The Elephant and The Balloon” involves: an academic who survived the Stalinist purges, his daughter whose marriage is collapsing and a journalist who falls madly in love with the academic’s daughter.
- Life Cry. The only alcohol with a bleeding polar bear for a mascot.
Bernard: Who is this mouse? What does it want? What are its hopes and dreams?
Bernard: Let’s just, you know, get some ideas bouncing around. Sort of go crazy, you know, no rules…
Manny: Yeah, yeah, sort of anything goes…
Bernard: No, not anything goes! I said no rules!
Manny: ‘My, what a lovely carrot’ said the hippo. ‘Yes, but is it organic?’ said the rabbit in a squeaky voice.
Tanya: I was just waiting for the right time to tell you.
Fran: What? Like her anniversary or something?
Streaming? How Do?
Black Books is available for online streaming via Hulu, Vudu, Amazon Prime and the Channel 4 website for UK viewers.