Monday, January 30, 2012

Fawlty Towers

Fawlty Towers is a sitcom co-written by and starring John Cleese as Basil Fawlty, the eccentric and put-upon owner of a small hotel in England. Coming not long after Monty Python's Flying Circus wrapped up, it's kind of surprising how standard a show it is, but it manages to be very funny regardless, and with him playing so many small parts while working as a member of Monty Python, it's hard not to say Fawlty is the best character Cleese ever played. The show takes place almost entirely inside the hotel, and the plots revolve around the mishaps and misunderstandings that seem to occur on a daily basis, as Fawlty butts heads with his wife, his dimwitted Spanish waiter, and the various guests who rent rooms. Other recurring characters include a couple older longterm renters with a few running jokes and Polly, a part-time assissant played by Cleese's writing partner and then-wife Connie Booth, but who doesn't do much besides occasionally help Fawlty with his elaborate attempts to conceal problems from his guests and his wife.

The show is a little hit and miss, because while it's almost always funny, some of the episodes revolved around plot ideas that are fundamentally frustrating for a viewer. I realize that it's sitcom convention for small lies to balloon into big ones very quickly, but when the small lie that starts things off seems unnecessary in the first place, it can lead to a whole storyline being irritating to watch even while the individual gags can still be quite funny. The best parts of the show are when Fawlty is matched up against a guest who happens to be a huge pain in the ass to begin with, and the comedy comes from both his befuddlement and abrasive rudeness in response. Things usually escalate in a remarkably madcap fashion, often ending in complete chaos at the end of the episode. The best one was probably the finale of the first season, which begins with Basil running the place by himself while his wife is in the hospital and ends with him trying to do the same while heavily concussed and failing to avoid upsetting a group of German guests. I don't think anyone will ever call Fawlty Towers much of an innovative show, but that doesn't prevent it from still being wonderfully entertaining and laugh-out-loud funny over 30 years later.

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