Rowan Atkinson’s latest comedy bristles with life lessons. You cannot hope to trap a bee in a grand piano. Bees, as we know, are already endangered, so don’t microwave them.
Should you find yourself in a mercy dash to the vet with a comatose dog, don’t get distracted and remove your shoe to swat a bee inside the car. If you have managed to destroy a Mondrian while trying to hammer a bee, repainting the red patch with tomato sauce won’t fool anyone; same goes for using old CDs and triangles you’ve cut from roller blinds to restore a Kandinsky mobile you hit with a tennis racket.
Man vs Bee (Netflix) replaces Nicolas Cage’s The Wicker Man retool as my favourite bee comedy. You remember what happened at the end of that movie? Nic, allergic to bees, has his head shoved into a portable beehive. “No, not the bees!” he screams. “Not the bees! Aaaaghhh!” I was still laughing about that days later. Atkinson, by contrast, is intentionally funny in all nine episodes of this sitcom.
Atkinson and his writer/director Will Davies realise that comedy is not tragedy plus time, but stuff plus idiot. Man vs Bee could just as readily have been called Man vs Himself or Man vs House. Atkinson plays Trevor, a man fired from Asda after an altercation with a trolley and from an office after winding up on the losing side of a battle with a shredder. His wife has divorced him and his daughter yearns, perhaps futilely, for daddy-daughter bonding on a camping trip to the Isle of Wight (proving that strangeness runs in the family).
Trevor is not the go-to guy to look after a house with voice-activated security systems and a manual so thick that, rather than a tennis racket, it should have been the weapon chosen for a protracted bee smackdown.
Julian Rhind-Tutt and Jing Lusi literally phone in their heroically grotesque performances as appalling holidaying homeowners who chillax poolside in monogrammed espadrilles, calling the man they’ve stupidly entrusted their pad to in order to find out if their assets – an E-type Jag, priceless artworks, Cupcake the dog – are still intact. Meanwhile, their pristine house ends up destroyed in a rage spree with flamethrowers. Bee, naturally, isn’t so much as singed.
I’ve always felt, I now realise wrongly, that Atkinson’s best comedy was verbal and that Mr Bean and Johnny English were chiefly of interest to the lucrative dimwit demographic. What I should have appreciated is the continuity of Atkinson’s oeuvre. Blackadder’s violent nihilism (“Baldrick, believe me, eternity in the company of Beelzebub and all his hellish instruments of death will be a picnic compared to five minutes with me – and THIS pencil”) is replicated here. So is the man-out-of-time vibe of Atkinson’s Inspector Fowler from A Thin Blue Line (“Appearances, as we shall see, are like bus timetables: often highly misleading”). That said, there is one vital change: here, Atkinson has become Baldrick.
When he gets bitten while stuck in a dog flap in the middle of a bee chase while wearing a magnetic collar for reasons that make no sense, he looks surprised – as if his cunning plan has unravelled. But, really, what did he think would happen?
I’d have given this series five stars but for two things. First, the bee is woefully undercharacterised. What is its motivation? Are we to take seriously the implicit claim that male bees, ousted from their hives, are homeless and friendless and so this one is just seeking shelter and company? If so, why does it torment Trevor?
The only explanation that makes sense is that it is furious about the continuing lack of bee representation in entertainment. Think about it. Jerry Seinfeld played the titular insect in Bee Movie; the Simpsons’ Bumblebee Man was a human mutant who set bee liberation back decades. You can’t be what you can’t see, especially if you’re a bee.
Second, product placement is unremitting. For instance, all the preposterous house’s state-of-the art gizmos are supplied by that German electronics company whose name sounds like the French word for honey. I’d like to believe that’s some cute bee-related gag – but it seems unlikely.