Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Cafe

"I tried to fall in it again
My friends took bets and disappeared
They mime their sighing violins
I think I'll wait another year."

Amanda Palmer - Another Year

I wonder if PBS bought this show more because they appreciated its poignant jabs at modern pop-culture, interpersonal relationships and economy or because the Brits were tossing it aside cheaply at some yard sale. At least for once the cancellation of a good series isn't preceded by the FOX logo.

Where to begin? Of Britain's stunning clutter of sixty million inhabitants, almost a quarter live in the London area. Maybe this can help explain the slight discrepancy in televised setting. American television feeds its provincial "middle America" a constant stream of assurance that everything happens in New York, except on the rare occasions when it happens in Los Angeles. For all its talk of urbanization, the U.S. consists to a surprising extent of an undifferentiated rash of tiny suburban factory towns which can only be described as "urban" by dint of a relative lack of cowpies. This homogenous, culture-less wasteland demands constant means by which to identify itself with more relevant, urbane, socially aware, purposeful personalities. In contrast, London's millennial, overbearing cultural fiat seems to make the English public slightly more open to fantasies concerning quaint provincialism, to harmlessly bucolic, domestically exotic settings.

Thus we arrive at Weston-super-Mare. You've never heard of it. Here, a twenty-something unpublished writer retires with her mother and grandmother to stew in her failings and recuperate from her failures. Hilarity ensues - well, maybe not hilarity but a certain melancholic, homey, sympathetic social comedy. Following a protagonist whose life is on hold in a setting without much to hold on to yields a bittersweet and self-critical sort of comedy. That second part is probably what killed it. None of us want to be made aware of how ridiculous we are. As The Cafe's humor largely revolved around its minor characters' bungling attempts at cleverness and small-towners' general awkwardness in grasping at cultural trends, the show was never going to last much longer after it ran out of such gimmickry. However, if I had to bet I would've given it five good seasons, not the meager thirteen episodes it amounted to. Something rubbed its audience the wrong way.

The Cafe poked fun at provincial attempts at trendiness, at the woefully circumscribed, slavish thought patterns which develop in the looming shadow of much greater cultural centers. Yet this sort of Stockholm syndrome describes not only the behavior of inhabitants of sleepy seaside resorts but of the majority of the population. The writing in The Cafe did such a good job of ridiculing the awkwardness of aping social trends that it brought the concept home to its audience. Instead of simply holding up those characters as ineptly copying the done thing (don't say "oh my gee") the lines of dialogue snap together with such zest that they leave no room for the audience to comfortably distance their own adoption of such idiotic fads and slang from the well-deserved ridicule on screen. What's worse, the characters, though thoroughly ridiculous, are yet allowed their due measure of individual dignity, divorced from their social competence.

Wonderful if you're like me and despise human social behavior per totum. Not so wonderful if you're the average schlub defining himself by his capacity for imbibing zeitgeist. In its overwrought, modernly folksy self-awareness, The Cafe was simply too damn real. It left room for neither hero worship nor a comfortable feeling of superiority.

"Yes, love."
"Can you have it all?"
"Darling girl, that is the least you are entitled to... but maybe not all at once."

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