On the far side of the Atlantic Ocean is a parallel universe called Great Britain. It looks something like our own. There are cars and trains and buildings. The people speak more or less the same language we do. And they have television, with dramas and sitcoms and talk shows that seem at once familiar and alien, which is, for some, the essence of their charm.
We have been getting these bulletins from another world for many years now -- public broadcasting has long made them a selling point -- and increasingly so as cable networks turn eastward for programming they can resell as their own, and the BBC brings it west, to its very own outpost, where it runs around the clock.
Tonight, BBC America premieres an enjoyable new-to-us situation comedy, "Not Going Out," a traditional, three-camera, low-concept sitcom whose very old-fashionedness made it something of a departure when it came on the air in 2006. (A third season is slated for later this year, which means that after three years, they will have produced about as many episodes as constitutes a single season of an American network TV show.)
To confuse things a little, one of the stars is an actual American, Megan Dodds ("MI-5"), who is Kate, a California blond only partly reduced to a stereotype: She cooks "natural foods" such as tofu-and-mung-bean loaf and crescent falafel muffins, badly. Kate shares her spacious Docklands flat with slacker roommate Lee, played by comedian Lee Mack (who also co-writes the series) and is the ex-girlfriend of Lee's best friend, Tim, played by comedian Tim Vine. (Mack and Vine worked together in "The Sketch Show," and some may remember Mack from Fox's 2005 American-brand "Kelsey Grammer Presents: The Sketch Show," which ran for about as long as it took you to finish this sentence.) They are all hovering around 40, which seems refreshing.
Such premise as there is, is this: Lee likes Kate, but doesn't tell her because Tim is his best friend and wants Kate back. Kate is a little harder to read, but all the romantic tension, such as it is, exists between her and Lee. Lee is a grasshopper and Tim an ant, figuratively speaking, which gives them an opportunity to mock each other. There is nothing cutting edge, or edgy, or cutting about the material -- qualities associated with new British comedies. Some of it is Sitcom 101, as when Lee agrees to pretend to be Tim to fool an old friend of Kate who thinks they're still together but has never seen Tim. I don't imagine that American production companies are lining up to franchise this one.
Although everyone gets his or her own punch lines, Lee responds to almost everything with a joke -- we're meant to see it as a half-charming character defect -- and so there's one every few lines when he's around. That relentlessness is eventually funny in itself -- it's the Henny Youngman Effect, it wears you down. The pace is rapid and the tone is dry, and the rhythms and melodies of the jokes are particularly English and at times seem to jump back 50 years to the days of Tony Hancock and Kenneth Horne.
Puns and wordplay dominate. Some of the jokes need a little special knowledge ("As me old dad used to say, 'Just because Thora Hird can't climb stairs doesn't mean she's a Dalek,' " which references a British character actress, now deceased, and an enemy of Doctor Who), but much of the humor is of this sort: "I'm going to donate my body to science, keep my dad happy -- he always wanted me to go to medical school."
And: "You know what they say, no man is an island."
"What about the Isle of Man?"
And: "I thought she was going to live till she was 100" (says Tim of his recently deceased grandmother).
"Were you close?" asks Lee.
"Well, 94. I was only six years out."
That alone should tell you whether this will be your cup of tea. (I like it fine.)
'Not Going Out'
Where: BBC America
When: 8:40 p.m. ET/PT today
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)