Twelve months into the Covid pandemic, the world has changed. But how, precisely? The so-called “new normal” is now a staple of standup sets, from Jen Brister on home schooling, Hal Cruttenden on entertainers retraining for unlikely jobs, or Aisling Bea on facemask etiquette. You want it from an absurdist angle? Here’s Tim Key with a whole suite of skewwhiff poems on the subject. You want the fightback? Here’s Russell Kane, rejecting the new normal outright, rallying hopes that the old one will soon return.
But I’d yet to see the new normal anatomised in mockumentary style – which is just what Stuart Laws’ online series Grave New World seemed to promise. A cod current affairs show taking a Panorama-ish purview of life emerging from Covid, it features Laws as anchorman and a host of comics in supporting roles. I watched its four episodes waiting for the series to show its satirical hand. What does it have to say about this new reality – or, alternatively, how this new reality is represented in the media? I left none the wiser. It’s not without its charms, but Grave New World stays oddly – unsatisfyingly – oblique.
Perhaps it’s best experienced as a surrealist sketch show, with “post-pandemic world” as a loose-fitting frame. Or perhaps it’s about one man’s collapsing grip on reality? There’s a suggestion across the four episodes that something fishy is going on. The show’s fizzy drink sponsor seems to play a sinister role; so too a theme park that practises mind control. It all gets further off-kilter: the camera shifts focus, the edits come at odd moments, and Laws’ professional carapace dissolves before our eyes.
That plot strand brings to mind Sarah Cooper’s Netflix special Everything’s Fine, another media spoof whose anchor sank under the sheer volume of bad – or mad – news. But the point of Cooper’s show – to distil something of the tumultuous experience of the US in 2020 – was clear, as was its Brass Eye-like satire on the inanities of infotainment. Here, it’s harder to gauge what Laws is getting at, and why.
We’re thrown back, then, on the quality of individual scenes, which is variable. Each 15-minute episode considers another aspect of post-pandemic life: taxis, currency, the cinema. In episodes one and two, Sunil Patel and Annie McGrath remind viewers how to fill a car with petrol, and Sadia Azmat plays a sex-starved relationship expert. A graphic gag about an ejaculating pump attendant, and Laws and Azmat’s anal sex banter, are among the series’ most witless moments, at just the point when you’re looking for signs of interesting comedy life.
They arrive in due course. James Acaster brings his usual barbed energy to proceedings as an expert interviewee deadpanning outrageous claims about the virtues of soft drinks. It’s an amusing piece of nonsense, if you park the fact that the item has little to do with the series’ wider conceit. Likewise a section on the “5k to couch” running programme – drolly done, but could have been lifted from any sketch show.
You end up looking for a binding agent in Laws’ linking material, more fraught and glitchy as the show proceeds. Sometimes, that suggests a presenter who’s just awkward at his job, in which capacity Laws is often amusing – when flirting with Heidi Regan’s Covid conspiracy theorist, say. Sometimes, it’s just a function of surreal things happening for no reason, as when Evelyn Mok’s expert contributes her segment entirely in Swedish. Only occasionally does Laws’ televised breakdown suggest anything about post-pandemic reality – that it’s haunted by anxieties, say, about contagion, curtailed freedom and, indeed, bioengineering conspiracies.
Maybe that’s what Grave New World is getting at? Or maybe I’m looking for more of a commentary on our new normal than the show is prepared to offer? It’s a pleasure to see so many comedy talents at play – but I’m not sure this particular take on our grave new world quite adds up.