One of the many pleasures of television is that it allows us to forget our manners: we can treat it with an impolite offhandedness that would not be considered sociable — or sensible — in the run of everyday life. This isn’t a vicarious enjoyment of bad behaviour that we see on screen, but an actual enjoyment in loosening our own collars: when I watch television I can be fickle (a one-night stand with Downton Abbey), greedy (a Simpsons triple-bill), blunt (‘That sweater is repulsive’), or lazy (Nigel Slater’s Dish of the Day instead of the real thing) without guilt or consequence. ‘Relaxing in front of the telly’ means giggling, interrupting, contradicting or complaining as the mood strikes; it means adoring someone who is just plain silly, or going to bed when someone fails to amuse — without the nagging dread of an awkward breakfast.
This week, after having been reminded of the slow but inevitable degradation of the universe (more of which later), I trawled the TV schedules for the welcome distractions of comedy. There is a lot of it about: some new (Me and Mrs Jones, Hebburn), some familiar (Miranda) and some that I have missed (Friday Night Dinner, Fresh Meat, Getting On). During Fresh Meat (Tuesday, Channel 4), at precisely the moment my brain decided that this sort of idiocy was really not at all funny, I was surprised by a rare and curious sound. It was something like the sorrowful call of a lost migrating goose, and I looked up in confusion — before realising that in fact I had laughed out loud.
Now, let’s not get carried away: while every laugh is welcome, not all are born equal. There is the horrified gasp (The Thick of It, Peep Show), the admiring chuckle (Mad Men), the applauding salute (Have I Got News for You), the sympathetic mewl (Rev), and the unexpected honk. The sound that had startled me was neither more nor less than a signal that my stated aim had been achieved: the ultimate fate of the cosmos had slipped from my mind and I was, undeniably, relaxing in front of the telly.
There is nothing relaxing about Getting On (Wednesday, BBC4) because it is comedy of a different type: a funny kind of torture. Set in a geriatric ward (and with two previous series having been praised and awarded) it is written and acted with such distinction and understatement that every moment is unmissable, glorious agony. It is a reminder, too, that laughter is a clumsy judge of comedy: while Nurse Kim (Jo Brand) and Sister Den (Joanna Scanlan) spent three minutes attempting to gain control of an electric bed (and its unconscious occupant) I wasn’t so much laughing as making the scrabbling, squeaking, tormented sounds of a squirrel trapped in a cardboard box — a far greater compliment than plain old laughter.
To call this programme ‘comedy’ seems not to do it justice, but it is too buoyant with humour to be labelled ‘drama’. It is never cruel, but it pierces and pricks with the sharp end of poignancy; it is not sentimental, but it is never less than compassionate. Humour seems to be second nature rather than first priority: Getting On (not unlike Kim herself) simply wishes to do its job in a modest and effective manner (and without the interference of senior management). All this put me in mind of the heavenly Rev, and when Kim was having her fag outside the hospital I could picture the Reverend Adam Smallbone, dressed in his cassock, sitting down next to her and lighting his own. Smoking on television, it seems, has come a long way: where once it proclaimed ‘I am cool’ or ‘I am wicked’ it now signifies ‘I am compassionate: I can forgive weakness because I myself am weak’.
And so at last we come to Order and Disorder (Tuesday, BBC4), which was, to this particular ignoramus, completely gripping. I must be the ideal viewer of a programme about thermodynamics because I cannot remember one single thing that I learned in physics at school. Other viewers might have been shouting, ‘Heard it all before, Prof!’ and switching over to The Paradise but I was lapping it up with the kind of enthusiasm that would once have branded me a swot and a teacher’s pet. Two complaints: spooky, Omen-style music — why? — and overuse of the word ‘unimaginable’. (I will decide for myself if something is ‘unimaginable’, thank you very much.) Another small downside, I suppose, was to be left brooding on the end of time and matter. Although Professor Jim Al-Khalili (our guide to the laws of disorder) did his best to sound positive, he wasn’t fooling me. ‘We’ve developed ever more ingenious ways to harness the concentrated energy from the world around us,’ he told us cheerfully. But then he went on: ‘All we’re doing is trying to preserve this tiny pocket of order in a cosmos that’s falling apart.’ Hmm. Anyone else need distracting from the notion of maximum entropy? I recommend television.