Greg Davies’ new series is a messy exploration of what happens after the body is found.
At this point, Greg Davies is British comedy personified. His wickedly sardonic performance as Headmaster Gilbert saw him become the breakout star of coming-of-age classic The Inbetweeners. In fact, Davies doesn’t even need to be acting to be gut-bustingly hilarious: just watch his duties as the tyrannical host of Taskmaster, or even recounting some of his most awkward memories in front of Ryan Gosling.
The blending of his persona, both on- and off-screen, makes his position as writer and star of the new BBC series The Cleaner particularly interesting. Loosely adapted from the acclaimed German series Der Tatortreiniger, the series follows Paul ‘Wicky’ Wickstead, as he occasionally abandons the blood and gore he is tasked to clean as he becomes distracted by his clients. Much of Wicky’s DNA in Bjarne Mädel’s original interpretation of ‘Schotty’ remains the same: their base instincts revolve around girls, food, and beer. However, whereas Mädel is akin to a German reincarnation of SNL’s Chad, Wicky is essentially Greg Davies 2.0.
Comedy That Isn’t Quite To-Die-For
Therein lies one of the chief problems of The Cleaner – Wicky is too earnestly melodramatic for me to absorb much of the material. This is perhaps most striking in the episode ‘The Writer’, where it seems every emotional cue is shoved into your face. The hilariously irate David Mitchell plays Terence Redford, who’s case of writer’s block is solved after writing about his recently passed grandmother. In the original, Schotty’s approach to his clients is much more passive; one sweet shot comprises of Schotty as he silently polishes a globe, with the author perched closely next to him holding the polish, musing about the meaning of life. Davies’ makes the relationship between the author and cleaner much more volatile; Redford bemused by Wicky’s simplicity, and Wicky offended at Redford’s condescending personality. Although it is funny to watch, this sort of relationship makes it difficult to be invested in and believe the narrative.
This approach to characterisation becomes painfully unfunny, however, when goofy caricature is situated against a demand for sentiment from the audience. ‘The Neighbour’, for instance, pits the ignorant Wicky against a wheelchair user, who also happens to be vegan. Unfortunately, the argument for a less judgemental attitude towards those with disabilities is undermined by the lazy reliance on the militant vegan stereotype. The relationship between Wicky and actress Ruth Madeley becomes so full of animosity that Madeley tearfully reminiscing about her ex can’t be taken as seriously as the show might expect.
The tonal whiplash is even worse in ‘The Influencer’, where Leyton Williams’ 80’s-obsessed influencer, Hosea, is too stereotypical to even be funny. Granted, as part of Generation Z, I probably have a more cohesive idea of influencer culture than the older audience I reckon would watch this show. Regardless, the unrealistic immaturity of Hosea spoils the payoff of the climax, where Wicky encourages him to be more spontaneous by… jumping into a pond. It’s less inspiring and more eye-rolling than Davies probably would have liked.
A Match Made In Heaven
It’s not all doom and gloom for the series – there are some gutbusting moments in opening episode ‘The Widow’, featuring a hilarious Helena Bonham Carter. A widow who stabbed her husband to death 36 times, she conveniently stumbles upon Wicky, who just wants to get home in time for his naans. For an episode with such high stakes, Carter brings the perfect level of groundedness to make the comedy work alongside Davies, whose petty irascibility plays off fantastically. However, the episode is marred by a small plot change, whereupon the nosy next-door neighbour demands an apology letter from Wicky for accidentally destroying her cake. It feels like an unnecessary way to further heighten the tension, even if it does showcase some entertaining work from Paul Chowdhry.
The failure of much of the narrative amendments Davies makes points to a general inability to write a compelling plot. The series is at its best when it sticks closely to the original, such as ‘The Widow’ or ‘The Aristocrat’. ‘The One’, on the other hand, is the series’ lowest point, having no analogous plot in Der Tatortreiniger. There’s not much to write home about – Wicky reconnects with and seduces his ex, who sees how little Wicky has changed and leaves him. Whilst flashbacks of Davies high with a long shaggy haircut is giggle-inducing, it doesn’t feature any huge laugh out loud moments, nor any subtle gasps. Although Zita Sattar does her best to breathe air into her character, it’s also undeniable that she’s given a much tamer personality and arc compared to the rest of the cast.
Ultimately, the show treats Wicky less as its own independent character and more as a vessel for more of Davies’ comedy. For those who haven’t seen the original, The Cleaner will probably make for some entertaining viewing, especially for those who are fans of Davies’ brand of deliciously acerbic humour. Whilst this might suit a semi-autobiographical comedy such as Man Down, The Cleaner simply can’t compare to Der Tatortreiniger and its ability to create big laughs out of the most subtle of observations.
Words by Alex Rigotti
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