Pardon me boy, is this the Chattanooga Choo-Choo?
Original air date: 3/25/2004
Ah, The Adult Child-Parent relationship. It’s perhaps the most awkward of relationships. This is particularly true if the child doesn’t feel like they’re quite done “baking” yet. Such is the case of one Manny Bianco. Manny is clearly enjoying the life he’s leading. He has lots of friends, a home, a job he tolerates? I dunno. I suspect that as high-strung as he is, he thrives under the stress Bernard’s eccentricities put him under. Yet there is that underlying need to prove to his parents that not only is he enjoying his life, he’s also meeting his parents’ expectations of him: upward mobility in his chosen field and a stable love life. But he’s just a bloke in a book shop that spends his evenings eating cereal. He can’t help but feel the pressure to be more than this for his Moo-ma and Moo-Pa.
What’s been a part of Manny’s character from the beginning is that his particular brand of crazy comes from his inability to remain cool under pressure. It leads him down some zany paths. He’ll devolve into an Igor trying to fix a mess because he messed up on simple instructions, he’ll rampage across London if it gets too hot, point is Manny’s got a pressure cooker under his bushy beard and it’s always been there. His stress immediately comes to the fore when he learns his parents are coming to visit. Manny loves his parents and is desperate to prove to them he’s doing great, even if he has to lie. And man, who hasn’t been there?
I really appreciate that the episode first casts Bernard as the villain being his usual bastardly self. He deletes messages from all of Manny’s other friends, aggressively vying for all of Manny’s attention by over-scheduling him for work and then Fran calls him out on it. She shames Bernard only for the episode to turn right around and have Manny be the true architect of the trio’s misfortunes in this episode. His lies in his letters home to placate his parents force Bernard and Fran into an elaborate charade that they only go through the motions of. Why, it’s not unlike throwing an Indian throw shawl over a messy book table.
Bernard, for his part, is barely tolerating any of this. After being dragooned into it by Fran, it only gets more awkward for him as more of Manny’s lies come to light. Bernard’s withering and sarcastic throughout and Manny’s parents are completely oblivious to it. As miserable as he is, Bernard’s at least able to still put the screws to Manny. Doubling down on Manny’s lies, he calls for the most expensive bottles of wine at dinner and forces Manny into footing the whole bill. It’s really only when Manny’s parents begin changing and fixing things in the shop does Bernard put his foot down. I mean, Moo-Ma washed his clothing and shaved him while he was passed out, who does that?*
I can’t help but feel sorry for Fran here. She lost out on a weekend Reggae Barbecue just to help out Manny, and all she gets in return is an awkward weekend with his Moo-ma. Yes, Fran has been cast as Manny’s long-term girlfriend in this scenario for his parents. More is the pity, since Fran clearly appreciates Manny as a friend and has an almost maternal instinct in protecting him from Bernard. But Manny’s lies press that relationship to the breaking point. Manny’s letters home are clearly an elaborate fiction. Moo-Ma and Moo-Pa are expecting wedding bells and grandchildren sooner rather than later. And it’s made all of the more stressful with Moo-Pa being of a much more patriarchal mindset, having Bernard and Manny leave Fran to discuss her and Manny’s ‘relationship’ with Moo-ma all evening.
All of the underlying tension is really played out well here in the episode’s gags. Bernard and Fran make another sort of bet, where Fran writes and signs a letter promising this will all be fun. Bernard gleefully point to this letters as thing’s get increasingly awkward. Moo-ma’s cleaning efforts result in Bernard’s suit actually having been white at one point. Another one I really enjoyed was Bernard being so furious with Manny’s fib about becoming a partner and changing the name of the shop he bites through his tea cup. Fran and Bernard choke-slamming Manny into a wall had me giggling like a mad man. Or Fran, having to get increasingly frank with Manny’s Moo-Ma about their relationship to keep selling the lie. Though perhaps the best gag, and maybe one of the most surreal in the series, is when Bernard and Fran “drop their forks” at dinner and order drinks from the bar that exists under the table. Is it a TARDIS?
I really enjoyed this episode, probably more than I’d anticipated. I was surprised how many honest to good honest belly laughs I still got on the second watch. I’m not usually a fan of the Big Lie conceit, but it works great here largely because of how Black Books characters work. Neither of them is tolerant of it once the plot gets going, and neither Fran nor Bernard feel sympathy for Manny the further along it goes. Indeed. Manny’s emotional catharsis in telling his parents the truth does not reward him. Instead, in order to relate to his parents as he truly is, he must now spend a week and change on holiday with them in the country. But at the very least there is some kind of reward for Fran and Bernard in all of this; the schadenfreude of knowing that Manny must deal with his parents on his own. For what it’s worth though, Manny undersells his lifestyle. He might be just toiling away in a bookshop, but he does have a life. He’s got a good life in London, we just don’t see it. I mean, he’s not Bernard.
*overly-involved mothers do.
Streaming? How do?
Black Books is available for online streaming via Hulu, Vudu, and Amazon Prime. It is available through the Channel 4 website for UK viewers.
- Chalkboard gag: “Don’t Do That.” Probably could double as the moral to the episode, actually.
- Manny calling his parents something so absurd and childish as Moo-Ma and Moo-Pa is completely in character and speaks to the uncomfortable emotional closeness he has with his parents. He must lie to the parents he loves so much. Is it any wonder why he’s so stressed?
- There is apparently a deleted scene that explains that Manny’s parents are named George and Mary. I have decided to only call them Moo-ma and Moo-Pa because it is so delightfully weird.
- Tamsin Greig’s Jamaican impression is Ja-makin’ me crazy.
- Manny and Fran’s friend Paul is actually an uncredited Nick Frost! I really do love the conceit that Manny and Fran are ever-so-slightly better adjusted than Bernard and have a a real social life outside the shop. I suspect we see less of this to keep the cast small and the chemistry on-screen constant, but it would help to set things up that we’ll see in the series finale.
- Manny’s parents are played by Annette Crosby and Sam Kelly. I’m afraid I am unfamiliar with their body of work, but they bring life to their characters and there is a sense that these are people Manny loves so much that he would desperately want to impress them by any means necessary.
- So we’ve had an episode dealing Manny’s family and one dealing with Fran’s family, sort-of, but nothing with Bernard. There’s a part of me that wishes there was an episode that dealt with that. Who knows what madness birthed him. Alas.
Moo-Pa: So, Bernard, the shop’s still called “Black Books”, is it?
Bernard: Yeah. I was going to call it “World of Tights”, but you know how stupid people are, you have to spell everything out!
Manny: Aww, noone ever rings me these days.
Bernard: Yes, it’s a mystery isn’t it. What with you owning your own sandals and having an egg in your beard.
Bernard: Would you kindly explain this all before I make you a Moo-CORPSE!
Bernard: It’s not my problem. It is my house though, and I’m not having it infected with the kind of specimens capable of producing you.