Status Symbols

A preview disc of the first two episodes of the upcoming third season of The Librarians has fallen into our possession, and while a full-length review isn’t yet good to go – short version: it’s funny, you should watch it – we can talk about the first three scenes and what, taken together, they do extremely well: establish Fran’s status.

Status isn’t the kind of thing you usually notice in a comedy, but it’s vitally important. What’s funnier: seeing a rich snob make fun of homeless people, or seeing battlers take the upper class down a peg or two. The first gave us Bumfights, the second gave us Caddyshack and if you still prefer the former, well, get fucked.

[Or to put it a nicer way, Shaun Micallef says on one of the commentary tracks for the P(r)ogram(me) that he made sure he was given all the low status roles in the sketches to balance out him playing the high-status host in the interview segments. And if he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, no-one does.]

Meanwhile, back at the point: one of the reasons why the first series of The Librarians didn’t sit well with everyone was that head librarian Fran (Robyn Butler) was an annoying bossy prig. This isn’t usually a problem in sitcoms – think Basil Fawlty – but Basil gets laughs because for (roughly) every couple of scenes where he’s being an utter shit there’s a scene where he’s groveling to someone. It’s mixing the two (and a lot of excellent jokes, and great performances, and… well, you get the idea) that gives Basil depth, makes him relatable, and generally helps makes the whole thing work.

But in its early days The Librarians seemed to be labouring under the “advance” in comedy coughed up by The Office: you can get laughs just by having your lead be an annoying bossy prig. None of that weak toadying to superiors (though on the rare occasions when it did happen David Brent did suddenly seem a lot funnier), unearned self-confidence was where the laughs were at. Or not, depending on your taste.

So while in series one Fran did have her weaknesses (and a politician to suck up to as Book Week drew near), they were mostly internal, as symbolized by her breathing into a paper bag in the opening credits. Which is fine, but not really the easiest thing to get cheap laughs from – even her dealings with former BFF Christine (Roz Hammond) were as much about her own feelings and issues as anything external. Series two did bring in a wider range of external forces to play though, and by series three… well, there’s this:

The first episode (directed by Wayne Hope – the Tony Martin ones are still to come) opens with Francis and a group of other librarians in a politicians office. The two things to note are a): the politician soon turns out to be a nutter, and b): he’s played by Angus Sampson. So it’s a hilarious opening, but it also establishes Fran as someone who bows down before authority. She’s not a cool dude who gives the finger to the Man: she likes it when the powers that be pay attention to her… until they turn out to be germ-a-phobes who’re constantly smelling chicken.

The next scene has Fran back at the library, re-introduces most of the characters, sets up a few plotlines, and so on. Here Fran is “in charge” but no-one really respects her authority. Everyone is doing their own thing and only reluctantly paying attention to her. She’s the same character, making the same tasteless racist / sexist / un-PC comments she did in the first scene, but her status has shifted: she’s more confident in her position, and also more frustrated at their lack of respect for same.

Scene three has her at home discovering her husband (Wayne Hope) in her closet with no pants on making a phone call. Why? Watch and find out. The point to make here is that she’s clearly the boss, all confidence, contempt and action, while her husband is a pantsless sniveling tool. And in the first 10 minutes of the episode, Fran’s status – and how it affects her character – is established. She’s an annoying bossy prig who plays by (mostly) the rules, sucks up to authority, lords it over whoever she can, is stuck with a lot of co-workers who don’t think that much of her, and has a marriage that doesn’t seem to be working – yet clearly isn’t over either.

How this plays out across the series is yet to be seen. But from the series’ opening, it looks like they’ve staked out promising territory for Fran. And with Bob Franklin yet to be sighted outside of these promo clips… well, things can only get better from this already rock-solid start.

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