What a difference an ocean makes. You could safely say that the brand of humor featured in the British series "The League of Gentlemen," which debuted on Comedy Central a little more than a month ago, isn't likely to resurface on any American program any time soon. But if the macabre proceedings unfold overseas, fine; American networks have no problem ponying up the syndication dough to unleash the scandalous import on the masses.
The humor in "The League of Gentlemen" isn't groundbreaking. But writer Jeremy Dyson and performers Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith have resurrected the kind of jibes that have become unfashionable in a cultural climate hellbent on ensuring that nobody is ever offended (and caving in when someone is). Actually, "League" has its finger in everybody's pie: Its premise -- the nefarious goings-on bubbling beneath the surface in a small town -- is straight out of "Peyton Place," or the David Lynch oeuvre, or dozens of horror movies. It's a cliché.
But it's what "League" does with the cliché that makes all the difference. Gatiss, Pemberton and Shearsmith play most of the show's 60 characters -- male and female, young and old -- inhabiting the fictional Northern England backwater Royston Vasey. The trio pulls off this conceit rather seamlessly, not just because the performances rock, but because there's always a hint that the wacko townies have been dipping into their shared gene pool a little too often. The actors' penchant for zany surrealism and for donning hideous drag invites comparisons to "Monty Python's Flying Circus," but their adherence to continuing, albeit faint, story lines is more evocative of another classic sketch-comedy show, "SCTV."
League invites viewers to snicker at the residents of Royston Vasey: the incompetent hayseed veterinarian who can't tell a cow's birth canal from, um, other openings in that vicinity; the obsessive-compulsive marrieds who color-code their towels for use on specific body parts; the socially conscious, whimsical acting troupe Legz Akimbo, which puts on a play about homosexuality for an audience of school kids. ("Who's got a secret?" the lead actor nudgingly asks the befuddled crowd.)
Two standouts in R.V. are Edward and Tubbs, a porcine, homicidally xenophobic couple who run a dodgy store on the outskirts of town -- a place vaguely reminiscent of those dank bodegas found in any major city, the kind with bulletproof glass and near-empty shelves. Customers, a.k.a. "strangers," are pariahs. "He covets the precious things of the shop!" Tubbs accuses one patron. Sure, Tubbs and Edward are serial killers, but what really makes them certifiable, the show implies, is that they're isolationists who reject capitalism in this go-go millennial economy. One of the show's narrative threads concerns Edward and Tubbs' attempts to foil plans to build a major highway near their property. ("New road planned; strangers expected," blares a local newspaper headline.) Naturally, a bloodbath ensues, which suggests that the main reason Tubbs and Edward are driven to kill isn't so much sheer blood lust as their zealous, Ted Kaczynski-like opposition to progress.
You can sympathize with this line of reasoning or despise it, but frankly it's not a premise commonly bandied about on American TV. In fact, with its hints of elitism, its fascination with road kill and animal abuse, and its unflattering take on gender relations and sexuality, there's quite a bit you could take "The League of Gentlemen" to task for. Sure, it may be one of the most unsettling comedies to make its way across the pond. But better it rock the boat even just a little bit than merely tread water.
"The League of Gentlemen" airs 10:30 p.m. Mondays and 1 a.m. late-night Fridays on Comedy Central.