Wherein Bernard bets the house, and Manny and Fran become rivals.
Original Airdate: 4/1/2004
This was interesting. This is the first episode upon watching that I genuinely had no recollection of. Not to say it’s bad or uninteresting, just an episode that didn’t seem to stick to my frankly absurd memory for pop cultural ephemera. But that’s okay, it felt as if it were completely new to me! This episode is a bit more ambitious in its use of settings and minor characters than other ones and it’s always fun to see characters outside of their comfort zones or in new dynamics.
Manny, for reasons unknown, has become involved in gambling and gets Bernard involved too. There’s nothing that disproves it, so I think given a line or two he says later hints that Manny spent some time in jail for gambling. If that’s the case, it certainly would explain how Manny (a hairy man-child to everyone from Bernard and Fran to Moo-Ma and Moo-Pa) befriended shadowy figures such as Gus from way back in ‘The Fixer”. This is my headcanon as of now, I suppose.
But I digress. Point is, Bernard’s addictive personality immediately turns him into a gambling fiend. And this gets into one of the rarer, but always enjoyable, plots for Bernard: interacting with the outside world. In the world of Black Books, Bernard is world-weary, wry, and witheringly sarcastic. He can boss around some loud American tourists, he can set Manny and Fran against each other, he’s, for the most part, in control. However, whenever he must go into the outside world, he’s a naïf to the workings of everyday life. My favorite part is when Bernard goes to the track with a pleasant, hand-written note explaining how much he’d like his horse to win. He has no idea how to bet, and god forbid anyone tell him. And since he shuns normal interactions with people he can be easily bamboozled. This is how he ends up at a poker game with some unsavory characters whom swindle him out of his money, and potentially, his shop.
Manny and Fran’s plot, for the most part, is rather light. Fran’s looking for part-time work before she goes in for a job interview (I don’t think Fran’s had steady work since “The Fixer”, come to think of it) and lands one with Bernard based on a bet. Now, the episode hinges that on Bernard’s newfound addiction to gambling, but what I noticed is that this is yet another Fran-Bernard bet. Bernard betting Fran will have a horrible time with her friends in “Elephants and Balloons”, Fran betting that they’ll have a good time in “Moo-Ma and Moo-Pa”. I mean, I’d be shocked if it was intentional? But it’s kind of an interesting trend. Almost feels natural outside of Bernard addictive personality and need for distraction.
Manny and Fran immediately discover that they can’t relate to each other as co-workers. It’s always been implied that their relationship is sweeter than either relationship they have with Bernard, liking to dish about celebrities and gossip over tea and cake as it were. So I like that the writer decided to explore what their friendship might mean were they forced to work together. I’m not entirely sure if we got the whole view of it, but I liked it nonetheless. Manny seems to have a compulsiveness in how things are done, which matches up nicely with his tightly wound nature, but he ends up being very condescending to Fran, whom had run her own shop for years. How it is that Manny was an accountant at one point and doesn’t currently employ a running total for the shop is beyond me (and Fran, for that matter). This sets up a nice personality clash that turns vicious when Bernard returns penniless, announcing that he can only keep one person on with any money they make going to feeding his gambling habit. I like how these scenes cut from Bernard being completely out of his depth at the poker game to back to the shop where he’s completely in control (as exemplified by his use of the “speaking pencil”).
The Poker Scene at the shop is great for any one of a number of reasons. It’s hard to say which is best: the insistence that a poker game must involve jazz and whiskey, the appearance of whiskey and a sax player out of nowhere, that Bernard just grabs a customer just to have a fourth for the game, or the elaborately constructed drinking straws everyone has for the said bottle of whiskey. Maybe it’s when Manny wakes up the next morning to Fran having blown the interview and the realization that she beat the hell out of him in a whiskey-soaked rage. It’s all great.
There’s a fun subversion in the resolution to the plot. Bernard got into trouble by not understanding anything about gambling or poker. Fran offers to teach him after he comes clean about his debt. The usual way this trope would work is Bernard would learn from Fran either how to play poker or how to cheat at poker. But Bernard does precisely neither. He fails completely. It’s only through Fran and Manny working together, using their terrible American accents, that they swindle the swindler and get back the money to pay off Bernard’s gambling debt.
I liked this episode quite a bit. Maybe not so much as “Moo-ma and Moo-Pa”, but it brought in some new dynamics for characters, some different locations, the cast interacted more with the outside world. I always like it when Bernard’s out of his depth. It’s different than him being a bitter hurler of invective, a complete madman or an incandescent ball of rage. He’s just so trusting around Martin the Tout, it’s almost adorable. I like that Manny and Fran can’t get along in every situation. Being friends and being co-workers are two very different things and it doesn’t always work. There’s something Seinfeldian there, when Fran and Manny try to chit-chat and realize they can’t. Reminds me of how George and Elaine couldn’t really talk to each other or really be friends without Jerry.
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: No Anecdotals
- Since when did Bernard ever have a TV? Let alone to armchairs in the kitchen? I’m gonna assume this episode and just this episode.
- The Loud American Military Enthusiast is played by Mac MacDonald an American actor who has had a long career and perhaps best known to me as Captain Hollister in Red Dwarf.
- Justin Edwards from The Thick Of It appears as the customer dragooned into poker by Bernard.
- This episode gives us another brief glimpse into Fran’s family life. Her grandmother was a card shark who got shot in Reno. Between this and the cousins she met in “Blood”, they’re quite the group, the Katzenjammers.
- As I noted above, Manny’s digression into the horrors of gambling speak to a life he knows well. Almost too well….
- Gags I enjoyed: Bernard hiding behind a betting paper and Fran poking her finger through it. Also, the Speaking Pencil gag that allows Bernard to effectively control all discourse in the shop.
- Fran and Manny have some of the worst American accents I’ve ever heard. Not that I should be calling anyone on bad accents, I’m sure my impression of a British accent is pretty lousy.
Manny: There’s only one system: bet, lose, borrow, steal, lose, take the drugs, lose, prison… death.
Bernard: Don’t get pious; you started me off.
Manny: That was a just a flutter; this is Satan’s bingo.
Loud American Tourist: I don’t want your little history grotto. I want modern warfare, infrared, fallout, killzones.
Bernard: Military history is on your right. If you have any questions just fire a couple of rounds into the ceiling!
Bernard: Nobody would employ you because you’re unemployable. I’d like to help you but I can’t, because you’re so totally useless.