Aidan Smith's TV week: The Chair (Netflix), Gossip Girl (BBC1), Ladybaby (BBC3), Britannia (Sky Atlantic)

Maybe it’s because I never went to university that I love satires of campus life. Loved the novels by Tom Wolfe and David Lodge and of course Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man, book and telly adaptation. Crivvens, I even loved National Lampoon’s Animal House, but I think I’m going to award a 1.1 with distinction to Netflix’s The Chair.
Sandra Oh in the academia satire The ChairSandra Oh in the academia satire The Chair
Sandra Oh in the academia satire The Chair

Sandra Oh you’ll know from Killing Eve, a show that hasn’t just jumped the shark but Evel Knievel-ed it. Here she gets a well-deserved break from diabolically psychopathic assassins to play Professor Ji-Yoon Kim, the first female chair of the English Department at Pembroke University for a comedy which can do cerebral and also silly.

The opening minutes contain a joke about Chaucer and some slapstick involving a motorised buggy. The latter involves lecturer Bill Dobson (Jay Duplass), Kim’s former crush and now her subordinate, a shambolic character who turns up hopelessly late for a tutorial and by mistake shows the students film of a woman, presumably his estranged wife, giving birth. But at least he remembers a gift for Kim’s first day in the job: a nameplate reading: “F****r in charge of you f*****g f*****s.”

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Pembroke is in trouble. Enrolments are down so Kim must make cuts but those most at risk - the oldest and best-paid - won’t go down without a fight. One of them explodes when learning that a younger colleague’s undergrads, while reading Moby Dick, are encouraged to tweet their favourite line - “But I want them to become absorbed in the story!”

Gossip Girl has been rebooted for Gen ZGossip Girl has been rebooted for Gen Z
Gossip Girl has been rebooted for Gen Z

Another is told by a woke HR type dressed in skimpy shorts: “Truth is a very loaded word.” “Is it though?” the crumbly replies. “If something’s true it’s a statement of fact. For example, it would be true for me to say that everyone right now can see your fanny … ”

If The Chair’s lecturers are on the mature side, then the teachers in Gossip Girl (BBC1) seem as young as the kids. This is the way of so much casting now, of course, and in the Gen Z reboot of the teen drama which ran between 2007 and 2012, the staff will be hoping they’re not so out of touch that they can’t get inside the pupils’ heads and mess with them.

The original Gossip Girl was one of the ultra-privileged brats of the Constance Billard School in Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Here the teachers infiltrate Instagram to get back at the shocking disrespect dished out to them by their charges every day. “They can’t be controlled because we’ve ceased to matter,” is the wail from the embattled staffroom. “Who needs an education when you can be famous for putting on your make-up?” In the week when Love Island concluded, never truer words said.

I wasn’t the target audience for Gossip Girl first time around, even less so now, but that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy the snappy dialogue or yearn for these entitled perishers to meet ghastly ends. In the opener, the queen bee’s style is cramped by the arrival of a long-lost half-sister and there’s a not dissimilar set-up in Ladybaby (BBC3), a comedy from Scotland hoping to go from pilot to series. On this evidence it should.

Amy Manson in Ladybaby with Phyllis Logan and Ford Kiernan as mum and dadAmy Manson in Ladybaby with Phyllis Logan and Ford Kiernan as mum and dad
Amy Manson in Ladybaby with Phyllis Logan and Ford Kiernan as mum and dad

Suzie, played by Amy Manson, has a friend who’s just become a mum and can’t think of anything less appealing. “If I ever give birth I won’t have a baby, I’ll have a pickled egg,” she declares.

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But she had a baby back when she was 15, the unintended consequence of a school field-trip to the Lake District where the condoms were used to water-bomb ramblers. Given up for adoption, Kate (Mirren Mack from The Nest) appears out of nowhere. Well, specifically: out of the dry ice in a nightclub after Suzie - her mum - has just enjoyed a knee-trembler with the resident DJ.

“You ticked the box for ‘No contact,’” says Kate. “Well, the law’s changed and I did want contact.” Suzie tries to make up for lost time. “Er,” says Kate, “are you trying to smell my head?”

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The pair seem worlds apart, Suzie asking Kate: “Do you have a career? Do you do a weekly shop? Do you carry tissues in your bag?” Suzie has/does none of these things. In reply Kate says “You seem really young,” suggesting maturity for her mother post-Lake Windermere is still a work-in-progress. There’s great potential in Kirstie Swain’s comedy - especially with Phyllis Logan and Ford Kiernan as Suzie’s parents - though Ladybaby has already given up the money shot with Suzie getting to sniff Kate’s head.

I’m not up to speed with the Roman Britain romp Britannia (Sky Atlantic) so lines like “We’ve helped each other out before - you chopped up that king for me” go over my head. But it’s not hard to get into the third season with David Morrissey having a riot as a general, Mackenzie Crook unrecognisable as a druid with what appears to be one of Ladybaby’s stray condoms pulled over his head and - stealing the show - Julian Rhind-Tutt as a baffled prince who after have runes carved in his skull, is given a new name: “Kwunt - I think that’s how you pronounce it.” There’s lots of carving going on - and gouging and garroting and straight-ahead stabbing. Lots of prog-rock on the soundtrack, too, although so far no ELP, which would be apt, given how Keith Emerson liked to plunge knives into his keyboard.

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