At the black heart of Nighty Night, the six-episode British comedy series written by and starring Julia Davis, lurks a blonde sociopath called Jill Tyrell. In a different context, she’d make a first-class dictator or tyrant’s moll like Idi Amin or Imelda Marcos. But in the sleepy English town where she runs a beauty salon, Jill’s capacity for evil is limited to only the most banal objectives: bullying and misleading her customers, humiliating her staff, eroding the morale of her husband (who’s in the hospital with a mild case of cancer), and scheming to get her neighbor’s husband into bed. The comedy of Nighty Night springs from the incongruity between Jill’s ruthlessness and the minor-league modesty of her aims.
Davis was last seen on American screens in the series Human Remains, shown on BBC America; in each episode, she and co-star Rob Brydon played different couples whose dull lives concealed grotesque secrets. Now big stars in the world of British TV comedy, Davis and Brydon are protégés of Steve Coogan (best known here for 24 Hour Party People), whose company Baby Cow produced both Human Remains and Nighty Night. Like Coogan with his smarmy Alan Partridge character, Davis is a virtuoso at making your skin crawl. Watching Nighty Night is an exercise in disbelief: Did she really just do that? Visiting her sad-sack hubby, Terry (Kevin Eldon), in the hospital, she gives him a pair of tiny pajamas. When he points out that they’d only fit a child, she somberly explains, “Doctor says you will be very small toward the end.” In the salon, a customer complains about her hairstyle, so Jill gives her an even more unflattering cut. When the client protests that her brow now looks enormous, Jill insists with a straight face that “divorce has brought your eyebrows down and that has largened up your forehead.” She pencils in ridiculous fake eyebrows to “correct” the problem.
But it’s Jill’s dogged campaign to drive a wedge between the couple next door that produces the most impressive feats of nastiness. Don (Angus Deayton), a bearded and boringly dressed doctor, is the unlikely object of Jill’s desire; in order to seduce him, she must eliminate his mousy wife, Cathy (Rebecca Front), who suffers from multiple sclerosis. With her endless supply of craven facial gestures, Cathy is the perfect victim. In one scene almost too ugly to watch, Jill forces Cathy to undergo “past-life regression,” convincing her that her illness is punishment for previous misdeeds as a lecherous, masturbating midget in the 18th century. “Say, ‘I deserve it!’ ” Jill screams over and over, until Cathy dissolves in tears. Later, she pressures Cathy into a self-help program that requires total celibacy—hoping that Don will become so horny he’ll stray. Don’s resolute disinterest in the stunning Jill (despite ploys like parading outside his house in sexy lingerie) adds an extra layer of comic absurdity.
Nighty Night‘s twee theme tune—played on what sounds like a child’s recorder—recalls all those bittersweet ’70s Brit-coms that run late at night on WLIW. The sickly melody is used to trigger these associations of gently poignant comedy, only to brutally subvert them. Take the time when Jill slips into Terry’s hospital room while he’s blissfully asleep. Tender music sets us up for a heartwarming moment, but instead Jill violently shakes Terry awake so that she can berate him.
Davis has cited the black comedy Festen (the Dogma movie released here as The Celebration) as one of her main inspirations. But Nighty Night seems rooted more in Mike Leigh—not his later movies but the borderline-harrowing early TV plays like Abigail’s Party. As with Leigh’s ensemble casts, the acting on Nighty Night is uniformly brilliant, meticulously capturing minute nuances of social embarrassment, as well as subtle shades of regional English accents that may be lost on American viewers.
Of course Davis will probably be compared to Ricky Gervais, that other modern master of uncomfortable entertainment. Except that The Office‘s David Brent, for all his delusions and selfishness, was never so sadistic or conniving. Nighty Night nudges the comedy of cringe a step or two further into the pain zone. Unlike the mockumentary realism of The Office, Nighty Night risks implausibility, as Jill’s brazen aggression and deceit meet with almost no resistance. And there’s no sympathetic character like Tim or Dawn to root for, just cripplingly polite English people who are too well brought up to object when Jill tells them ridiculous lies or pushes them around.
It’s pretty amazing that Oxygen, a women’s network almost as timid as Cathy, has scooped up Nighty Night for U.S. consumption. Oxygen also airs reruns of Roseanne, one of the few American TV precedents for an obnoxious female comic character—only Roseanne loved her family and hid a heart of gold underneath the foulmouthed exterior. The unsettling thing about Jill Tyrell is how completely loveless she is. Moving through her placid English town like a shark who’s snuck into the public pool, she is mesmerizing and watchable: this season’s great comic creation.