21. "Sunday Lunch," The Royle Family (1999)
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.
The idea that the sitcom is a reflection of our own lives is never taken as literally as in the opening credits to The Royle Family, which introduces its characters, in a bluish hue, from the point of view of their living-room TV set. The opposite expectation of television, that it should offer an escape from our own lives, is alluded to in the theme song, "Half the World Away," by Oasis ("I would like to leave this city/This old town don't smell too pretty and/I can feel the warning signs running around my mind"). But the characters on this show don't get much escape other than the off-screen corner pub. This raises the question: Would the Royle Family watch The Royle Family?
Don't worry, the opening credits is the only meta thing about The Royle Family. Its comedy comes instead from the rituals and routinized conversations that allow us to spend time with each other — assuming that we're lucky enough, or unlucky enough, to spend long stretches of time with our loved ones. If you've ever felt a mild sense of dread upon entering a room and having an elderly relative say, "Oh! I didn't tell you...," you can identify with the triviality-based humor here.
Norma ("Nana"): (after calling her daughter into the living room) I was just telling Denise, there was a woman on "Richard and Judy" from Droylsden! She was having a make-over.
Barbara: Well, what about it?
Norma: Well, it's only 10 minutes from me!
Denise: You'll all have to come round to mine and Dave's one time for Sunday dinner.
Jim: Oh, nice one.
Denise: Mam can cook there. Be a nice change for her.
The Royle Family lives in the English city of Manchester, and they don't seem to know many people outside of their neighborhood. The patriarch, Jim (Ricky Tomlinson), has no steady job and spends most of his time making wisecracks from his armchair. Daughter Denise (Caroline Aherne) is a spoiled chain-smoker who delights in her pregnancy because she has an excuse to beg off the slightest bit of work. She's married to the low-ambition Dave (Craig Cash), and they hang out at her parents' as much as possible. (Ironically, couch potato portrayers Aherne and Cash created the series and co-wrote, with others, all of the episodes.)
On the other side, Jim's wife, Barbara (Sue Johnston), is unsophisticated but hard-working and compassionate. Younger child Antony (Ralf Little) is a typical sullen teen who nevertheless shows signs of adopting his mother's charitable nature. Frequent houseguests include Barbara's mother, Norma (Liz Smith), who drops heavy hints about wanting to move in; whenever she's offered alcohol, she gives a standard response ("I never drink, me. Just a sherry at Christmas, whiskey at new year") before imbibing in whatever's at hand.
"Sunday Lunch" is a showcase for Johnston, who spends much of the episode scurrying around the kitchen and dining room to put a meal on the table. She's as dragged-out-looking as anyone I've ever seen on a sitcom (no actress would ever look like this in America, where there's only attractive and clownish). Denise looks at her tired, sweaty mother and suggests that Barbara is going through menopause. But for all we know, Barbara has looked like this on every Sabbath for years, and Denise brings up menopause every week (always eliciting a look of chagrin from Jim). Barbara's "I'm just hot!" could be another part of the Sunday liturgy, just like Jim hogging the "squirty cream" at dessert.
There is one extra guest this Sunday: family friend Twiggy (Geoffrey Hughes, who died last month), a small-time wheeler-dealer who flirts with Norma and generously offers to take any food she can't finish from her plate (presumably another rite that happens whenever he stays for dinner). Twiggy is responsible for the only thing close to a story resolution in the episode, when he offers to buy Dave's disassembled moped, which has been sitting in Dave and Denise's flat for months and giving them something to argue about. ("It's bad feng shoo-ee to have a bike in bits in your box room!" protests Denise.)
But the episode is mostly about everyone playing their parts in the weekly pageant of lowbrow humor. Denise teases Antony about his girlfriend, Emma, and Jim takes his turn needling Norma.
Norma: Who's this Emma?
Jim: I'm sure you know her, Norma. Emma Royd?
Norma: Who is Emma Royd?
Jim: She lives up your back passage.
Norma gives as good as she gets near the end of "Sunday Lunch," at least until Jim barks at her for breaking joke protocol.
Jim: (to Twiggy) Ta, pal! (right after Twiggy slams door on the way out) One greedy, scrounging git, that fella is, innit he?
Barbara: You know Jim, you have more faces than the town hall clock!
Nana: And every one of them is miserable. (everyone laughs and applauds)
Jim: I'll tell you what, I'll give you that one, Norma.
Nana: Every one of them is miserable!
Jim: All right, don't bloody milk it!
We're left with the question: Will Norma remind everyone of her joke the following Sunday, or every Sunday for the rest of her life?
Part One of "Sunday Lunch" is below. Part Two is on YouTube here.