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Reviews: ‘The Inbetweeners’ on BBC America, ‘La La Land’ on Showtime

Television Critic

The British are coming, again, tonight, some by basic cable, some by premium.

“The Inbetweeners,” on BBC America, is a British version of a form of American comedy in which high school boys try to buy liquor and have sex. Narrator Will (Simon Bird), whose father has died, has had to switch from private to what we call public school, where he is immediately marked as an outsider, “a freak,” and many words and phrases I can’t print here. Still, he feels superior to the system, which he nevertheless fails to conquer. Mocking his headmaster to establish himself as cool, he finds the headmaster standing behind him; attempting to persuade a barman to serve him a drink, he busts a pub-full of his classmates as underage.

Still, by the second episode, we find him accepted, through attrition, by three other slightly less socially marginal characters: lovelorn Simon (Joe Thomas), who is closer to the usual sweet, backward hero of American high school comedies; Jay (James Buckley), who thinks about sex even more than do the others; and Neil (Blake Harrison), who is comparatively slow. It helps Will that everyone thinks his mother is hot, or as they say, “Your mom is so fit I reckon she might be a prostitute.”

Written by Damon Beesley and Iain Morris, who have a couple of “Flight of the Conchords” episodes to their credit, it is, like much British comedy, unabashedly vulgar where its American cousins are relatively coy, an attitude that feels alternately trying and refreshingly healthy. You will recall that the Puritans brought their neuroses here.

The kids, or rather the young adults playing the kids, are all very good. Bird is especially funny in scenes where he tries to buy liquor. But did I laugh when a very drunk Simon threw up on the little brother of the girl of his dreams? I must admit I did.

“La La Land,” on Showtime, is an American production built around the British comedian Mark Wootton, whose “High Spirits With Shirley Ghostman” ran on BBC America. A “Borat"-style prank-mockumentary set in Hollywood, it features the star in three guises, gulling unsuspecting citizens into acts of real-world improv: psychic Ghostman (who is “a tad camp”); rough-edged Gary, an East End taxi driver who wants to be a movie star; and Brendan, a disheveled documentary filmmaker who hires an Asian stripper to operate his camera.

The series is handsomely made and manages to create something of a story arc for each character over the course of six episodes. (Wootton’s co-writer, Peter Baynham, also worked with Sasha Baron Cohen on “Borat” and “Brüno” and on Chris Morris’ “Brass Eye,” where this sort of pranking began.) Wootton is a quick-minded, thematically consistent improviser who thoroughly knows his characters, and obviously something of a daredevil: You can get hurt doing this stuff, or arrested.

But as in Baron Cohen’s comedies, the cleverness of the star is too much the point. His unwitting costars are not Hollywood players; the actress Ruta Lee, who agrees to mentor Gary, and Alan Thicke, who gives an interview to Brendan, are as close to the A-list as it gets. “Brass Eye,”“Brass Eye,”Even if Wootton is less interested in making his subjects look foolish -- though some can’t help themselves -- than in acting the fool to test their patience, there is something fundamentally nasty about this sort of comedy. And all it proves in the end is that most people will go out of their way to be nice to an idiot.


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