24. "The Beast in the Cage," One Foot in the Grave (1992)
Welcome to the “100 Best Sitcom Episodes of All Time,” a countdown for 2012. Each episode will get a separate blog post, counting backward toward No. 1. A list of the programs revealed so far is here (and on Pinterest), and an introduction to the project is here.
As I've pointed out elsewhere on this list, the sitcom is generally an optimistic art form. It teaches that we can count on our family, that our co-workers can become our family, and that strangers usually turn out to be decent people once we've all sorted out our misunderstandings. But there is a sitcom subset that's all about the frustration we feel when our lives don't seem to be going anywhere. Some episodes, and the occasional entire series, have a "no exit" theme, in which hell means being stuck for eternity with people who bug you.
This theme usually shows up in little-watched American sitcoms (such as Curb Your Enthusiasm) and in very popular British sitcoms (such as One Foot in the Grave). In "The Beast in the Cage," hell is a long-weekend traffic jam that becomes a prison for Victor Meldrew and the two main women in his life.
Victor Meldrew: Mirror image of your life really, isn't it? Car journey on a bank holiday. First fifty-odd miles on the go all the way — a sense of direction — bowling along. Get past sixty, everything slows down to a sudden crawl, and you realize you're not going anywhere any more. All the things you thought you were going to do that never came to anything. And you can't turn the clock back. One-way traffic just gradually grinding to a complete halt.
Victor: (looking into the cup of juice he was just given) There's a wasp in the middle of this ice cube!
Mrs. Warboys: I know. It was the only one left. I didn't think you were all that fussy.
Victor: Didn't think I was all that fussy! I'll have a slice of dead rat in it as well if you've got one, please, and a dog turd on a cocktail stick!
Victor Meldrew — the WASP in the middle of a Honda — may be the protagonist of the story, but the experience is arguably even more hellish for his long-suffering wife.
Victor: I wish I was dead!
Margaret: I wish you were dead. Then we might get some peace.
After threatening to suck on an exhaust pipe, Victor finally decides, in a typically British way, to keep calm and carry on. He settles on some "sucky sweets" to appease his growling stomach and resigns himself to staying in the front seat of his car for as long as fate determines. I almost wish this were the series finale, so we could imagine that he's still there, waiting for Mrs. Warboys to fetch him some smoky bacon crisps from the pub by the highway.
• I have no idea whom Victor is referring to here, but as Monty Python proved, British names can be funny without any context:
Victor: (turns off radio) God, bloody Derek Jameson. Rather listen to the back end of a horse, thank you very much.
Margaret: (doing crossword) What's another name for the dung-beetle?
Victor: Gyles Brandreth. Another one I can't stand for love nor money.
• Mrs. Warboys is one of my favorite sitcom supporting characters. Everything she says is well-meaning, and everything she says makes a situation worse. "At least it's been a day out," she says after she and the Meldrews have been in the car for four hours. "A change from just sitting around inside all day long." (Try saying that the next time you're on a stuck train, or stranded in an airport because of a cancelled flight. Your companions may very well turn to cannibalism.) Mrs. Warboys also irritates Victor with her story about a blind parrot who flies around with the lead of guide dog in its beak.
• Several American sitcoms have done what might be called "no exit" episodes, including: "The Chinese Restaurant" and "The Parking Garage," both from Seinfeld; "Quarantine," from Barney Miller; and "The One Where No One's Ready," from Friends. The American examples all end mostly end with the characters escaping by the final credits.
• The Atlantic Cities' Ashley Fetters writes about the traffic jam as movie trope, where "the polluted air itself hangs heavy with the nightmarish implication that the situation is inescapable - and might stay that way":
Road congestion is ... a handy plot device because it comes with its own built-in dramatic elements. After all, traffic jams are more than just annoyances that makes us late for work; they're also a quantifiable source of psychological and physiological distress for drivers and passengers. They materialize at any given moment and trap us in suspenseful, high-anxiety situations, inhibiting the crucial "flight" half of the fight-or-flight response. Psychologists have identified that distinct, muted panic as a diagnosable condition: Traffic stress syndrome.
• I swear there was a decent version of "The Beast in the Cage" on YouTube when I compiled this list, but the one that's up now is pretty bad in terms of color and sound. (The series is available on DVD, though.) Scroll down to see an alternate version of the cassette-tape scene.