Being out of it for two nights in a row isn’t good for much, but it is good for catching up on an entire series on 4oD, which is what I did with Fresh Meat.

All I’d heard was that it was studenty and that Peep Show writers Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong were involved, which was good enough for me. By the end of the first episode I was hooked, and by the end of the last I didn’t want to leave the company of the characters they and their team of writers had developed so well. The show was less of a sitcom than I’d expected, instead targeting the more difficult zone of comedy-drama; but it’s one of the better examples of those.

Which isn’t to say that it wasn’t funny. Each of the main characters, who seemed at risk of falling into stereotypes at first, went off in unexpected directions, none more than posh boy JP. I enjoy Jack Whitehall’s stand-up and panel-show appearances, although I overdosed on his over-long “My Funniest Year” episode, but this was a much more nuanced and satisfying persona. JP’s line about Oregon’s “grunge horse” may have been my favourite of the series; like so much of the show, its impact comes from the characters and the context. (Runner-up: Josie’s “Happy gingivitis to you!”)

But picking a favourite character is hard, because all six were very well drawn. At first I thought it would be the Kingsley and Josie story plus supporting cast, but everyone got their turn in the limelight, and those two had no smooth ride.

Joe Thomas’s Kingsley was possibly the hardest character to nail (don’t worry, I can keep these double entendres up all night). After watching the series I looked up some reviews online, and was annoyed to see one critic describe him as “by a yard the least convincing character”, which strikes me as utterly wrong and disturbingly telling (of the critic’s experience and/or mine). Another slated Thomas as an actor, when I had been impressed that he made Kingsley not just “Simon from The Inbetweeners at university”.

(The Inbetweeners: another great show which benefited from being watched in a few greedy gulps on 4oD, all three series’ worth. If I’d listened to some of the critics I might never have bothered, but when I learned that Robert Popper of Look Around You was its script editor I got straight onto it. It was worth every minute, as was Popper’s Friday Night Dinner. Watched the movie on DVD the other night, and that wasn’t bad either.)

Possibly the least convincing aspect of Fresh Meat was the student-professor affair; not how it was depicted, which was always entertaining, but that it existed this side of 1978. As someone who went to a university once known for a notorious example of one such affair, it always seemed unfathomable to me that anyone would still risk it. But to judge by most academic fiction, universities are still a hotbed of hotness in bed. Channel 4’s last foray into campus comedy, Campus (the “comedy” was silent), seemed to suggest the same, if I remember correctly; which I might not, because I only watched the pilot.

Campus makes a good contrast with Fresh Meat, in that it was focussed on the wrong side of the equation. Like many depictions of academic life on-screen, it seemed to be extrapolated from observation of academics rather than experience of being one; and observation of academics’ student-facing side, at that, which is only part of academic life. This makes sense, I suppose, when you consider that not many people who have stuck with academia long enough to get a decent feel for it, and who might finally have some sort of job security, are likely to chuck it in for a chance to write a sitcom about it; unless it’s marking time. But it doesn’t make for accurate depictions of the academic working life.

But every academic was once a university student; and so were many other everymen and everywomen. Experience of fresherdom is far more widespread than experience of lecturing and tutoring. Which is why Fresh Meat is on the right track: everyone knew a shared flat like that, even if they didn’t live in one themselves. (The one I knew was here.) And everyone knows that it isn’t all sitting around and cracking one-liners; life in a student shared flat is comedy-drama, not a sitcom. Which is why Fresh Meat got it so right so often. Here’s hoping there’s a fresh series for every semester.

24 March 2012 · Television