by Joe Sanders
Available on DVD from Acorn Media on January 3
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Donna Sinclair (Joanna Lumley; Absolutely Fabulous) is the star of the popular British medical soap opera “Dr. Willougby.” Sinclair, a vindictive and overly selfish individual uses the show and her costars to further her own public image in this sitcom from the late 90s. The rest of the cast includes Sinclair’s co-star, Ralph Whatman (Brian Protheroe), the show’s frustrated producer, Emma (Isobel Middleton), and the soap opera’s two eccentric writers, Geraldine and Gill (Tanya Moodie and Ursula Holden Gill). The series is a witty and fun little comedy, with a certain uncomfortable quality, which was later perfected in shows like The Office and Peep Show.
It’s really surprising that this show didn’t find an audience to sustain it for longer than this one season. It’s far from perfect, but certainly worthy of a second season. One would think that Joanna Lumley’s involvement alone would get viewer’s attention. Personally, I’ve never seen Absolutely Fabulous but am more than aware of its insane popularity. Given her performance here, I can see why her other series would be so popular. The Donna Sinclair character goes far beyond the typical selfish, greedy, rude actress character. She is much more clever than any bland archetype could be. Demonstrating again and again that she is a true student of the human condition; able to infect her target with any idea she wishes, to take any action she wants. She’s pretty much Lex Luthor, if he was the star of a day time medical soap opera. Sinclair’s ability to manipulate those around her over the most petty and low-stakes things creates a hilariously satirical dynamic within the show.
As good as Ms. Lumley is here, the real asset of the show is the ensemble cast that has been assembled around her. Sinclair’s co-star, Ralph Whatman, is arguably the best part of the series. Each episode brings a new paranoia or neurosis from Ralph, which always feels tangential to the overall story of the episode, but it’s interesting to see how his individualized story line overlaps the rest of the episode. It’s easy to think of Ralph as an early version of Jerry from Parks and Recreation; he is consistently looked down on and ignored even though he remains crucial to the soap opera’s success. So, it’s interesting to see the structure of each episode work to separate Ralph from the rest of the cast in this overtly condescending way.
Other noteworthy characters include Geraldine and Gill, the soap opera’s only two writers. Now, stories about writers are never as interesting as writers think they are. It’s inherently low stakes to center a storyline on a writer’s inability to write, or meet a deadline, and it’s usually very uninteresting. But since Dr. Willoughby thrives so well on making fun of low-stakes storytelling, having these two querky writers makes enormous sense. To top it off, these two characters are extremely funny. It’s hard to tell if they take their jobs too seriously or not seriously enough, but whichever way you want to watch it, it works. In one episode, the duo decide that the show could use some levity, and decide to write in some comedy to the soap opera. It’s not a bad philosophy; combining comedy and drama. Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, Sports Night) has made a whole career out of this type of writing. But when Geraldine and Gill try to write comedy into “Dr. Willoughby,” it basically gets reduced to cheap Pratt falls tagged onto the end of a scene about cancer. It’s painfully unfunny within the reality of the show, but amazing to us watching at home.
The DVD contains all 6 episodes of the series in widescreen, but has no special features.
Joe Sanders is a playwright and college instructor in Kalamazoo, Michigan. He has a Master’s degree in playwriting and a Bachelor’s degree in creative writing from Western Michigan University, where he currently teaches Thought and Writing.
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