2. "Communication Problems," Fawlty Towers (1979)
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.
If I had simply ranked the sitcom episodes I've laughed the hardest at, this list would include seven or eight Fawlty Towers entries, or most of the 12 episodes that have ever been produced. John Cleese and Connie Booth, who play Basil and Polly, also co-wrote the series, and their timpano-like concoctions of lies, misunderstandings, and pratfalls are architectural wonders.
Hotel owner Basil Fawlty, one of the most anti-heroic characters ever to lead a sitcom, has already appeared at No. 65, in the riotously demented "The Germans." In that post, I tried to get at his perverse appeal:
He's no one's idea of a hero. Still, in his fits of temper he swings in and out of a zone where we can understand his frustrations. Basil has an infantile attachment to order and predictibility, similar to a young child who freaks out if served cereal in the wrong bowl. He has an anti-id: Ashamed of his own pleasure drive, he constantly tries to thwart everyone else's. Unfortunately, he runs a hotel in a resort town, where people go specifically to pursue pleasure and toss aside rules.
In "The Germans," a blow to the head causes Basil to lose his already limited diplomatic skills, and the episode climaxes with him doing a silly-walk Hitler impersonation across the hotel lobby. "Communication Problems," which may be Cleese's most sympathetic turn as Basil, does not rely as much on the bonkers version of the hotel owner. He spends much of the episode simply trying to be heard (and understood) by other people, a situation that often vexes the most well-adjusted of us. Basil, of course, is not well-adjusted, so he gets especially frustrated. He's like a trapped animal, resigned to a loveless marriage and an awful job but hoping to get a bit of happiness from winning a bet on a horse race — despite his wife's prohibition on gambling.
Basil: (putting an arm around Sybil) Sybil, do you remember, when we were first manacled together, we used to laugh quite a lot?
Sybil: (pushes him away and leaves room) Yes, but not at the same time, Basil.
Basil: (to himself) Ah, that's true. That was a warning all right, I guess? Should have spotted that, shouldn't I? Zoom! What was that? That was your life, Mate! Oh, that was quick. Do I get another? Sorry, Mate. That's your lot.
If Fawlty Towers were a "nice'" American sitcom (like The Andy Griffith Show, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and Parks and Recreation), Basil would survive each episode's calamities with a renewed appreciation for the other people in his life, including Sybil, who may spend a lot of time gossiping on the phone but can still handle a crisis, and the endlessly clever and inexplicably loyal chambermaid/waitress Polly. But British sitcoms tend to be more sardonic, so instead of identifying with Basil ("boy, I've got to deal with some crazies at work too!"), we're often encouraged to pity him and feel better that we — well, most of us — don't have such a sour outlook.
"Communication Problems" has some of the series's most succinct expressions of Basil's fatalism, but the episode wouldn't rise to greatness without the exasperating Mrs. Richards (played by veteran British TV star Joan Sanderson, who would play the wife of John Cleese's character in 1981's The Great Muppet Caper). Basil doesn't realize it, but the sharp-tongued, hearing-impaired guest has a lot in common with the misanthropic hotelier; she could even serve as a look at what he is to become. She's short-tempered, bossy, cheap, and pigheaded, and she clearly considers Basil her social inferior, not worth the use of the batteries of her hearing aid. (See clip here.)
Mrs. Richards: (disdainfully looking out the window of her room) When I pay for a view, I expect something more interesting than that.
Basil: (even more impatiently and louder than usual) That is Torquay, madam.
Mrs. Richards: Well, it's not good enough.
Basil: May I ask what you were hoping to see out of a Torquay hotel bedroom window? Sydney Opera House perhaps? The Hanging Gardens of Babylon? Herds of wildebeeste sweeping majestically...
Mrs. Richards: Don't be silly! I expect to see the sea.
Basil: You can see the sea. It's there between the land and the sky!
Mrs. Richards is impossible to satisfy, and I wonder whether Cleese, as a writer and performer, worked out some frustrations with difficult audiences in creating her character. As I noted in the post for the Frasier episode "The Two Mrs. Cranes," sitcom characters often put on performances for other characters, usually out of fear or embarrassment, in a nightmarish version of what the actors do in real life. Cleese, whose job is to please TV viewers, has given himself the role of someone forced to please hotel guests every day of his miserable life. (It's mentioned in a couple of Fawlty Towers episodes that Basil and Sybil almost never spend more than a few hours away from the hotel.) Poor Basil doesn't even get any appreciation for his jokes ("May I suggest you consider moving to a hotel closer to the sea. Or preferably in it."), as his wife tuned him out a long time ago, bellhop Manuel (Andrew Sachs) barely understands English, and Major Gowen (Ballard Berkeley), who seems to be his closest male friend, is senile. Add Mrs. Richards, and you've got the worst audience ever.
The plot of "Communication Problems" ties together several scenes of Basil getting increasingly frustrated in his attempts to convey information to different characters. "I could spend the rest of my life having this conversation," he says during an exchange with Manuel. "Please try to understand before one of us dies."
The episode is a series high point for both Manuel and Major Gowen, both of whom have Marx Brothers-like circular conversations with Basil. One begins like this (see complete scene at the bottom of this post):
Manuel: Your horse, it win, it win!
Basil: (trying not to let Sybil overhear) Shh! Manuel... You know nothing.
Manuel: You always say, Mr. Fawlty, but I learn.
Manuel: I learn, I learn.
Basil: No, no, no, no.
Manuel: I get better.
Basil: No, you don't understand.
Manuel: I do.
Basil: No, you don't.
Manuel: I do understand that.
Basil: Shh... you know nothing about the horse.
Manuel: (repeating) I know nothing about the horse.
Manuel: Ah... (after Basil thinks it's sorted out) Which horse?
This leads to one of the greatest callbacks on a sitcom: When Basil later needs Manuel to confirm that he won the bet, the bellhop repeatedly and proudly announces, "I know nothing!" ("I'm going to sell you to a vivisectionist," Basil responds.)
In a previous scene, after Sybil sees Polly counting the money that Basil won (he's got to pass it around from character to character because his wife goes through his pockets at night), we get another great scene of stymied communication. Polly improvises that she won the money, a suspicious Sybil asks her for the name of the horse, and Basil frantically tries to signal the name to Polly. She guesses "Fishwife" and "Flying Tart" as Basil points to his wife but finally says, with enormous relief, "No, it got off to a flying start, and its name was... Dragonfly."
There's a brief moment after Polly guesses the name in which things seem to have turned out all right for Basil, and it foreshadows a similar moment near the end of the episode. But then he gets worked up about silencing Manuel, and Mrs. Richards re-enters the plot to report that she's had some money stolen from her room — almost the exact amount that Basil won on the horse race.
I won't spoil the rest of the plot, but it leads to Basil's heartbreaking line, "Polly... for the first time in my life, I'm ahead! I'm winning!"
How long do you think that feeling lasts? Zoom!
• Cleese and Booth were married when they wrote the first Fawlty Towers season, which aired in 1975, and amicably divorced before the production of the second season, in 1979. That may be why "Communication Problems," the second-season premiere, has so much grim humor about the Fawltys' airless marriage.
Sybil: (speaking about Mrs. Richards and her missing money) What are we going to do?
Basil: Give it another 15 years?
• This Was Television's Les Chappell has been reviewing each episode of Fawlty Towers and writes of "Communication Problems":"
What makes [it] such an interesting episode—in addition to being ruthlessly funny—is the fact that for once, we’re actually rooting for Basil to eke out some small victory.
Make sure to read Chappell's essay on the first two episodes. It includes this tidbit on how difficult it is to stick to an original comic vision:
During a thirtieth anniversary celebration of Fawlty Towers, John Cleese related an anecdote that after he and Connie Booth had written the first script for the show and presented it to the creative team at the BBC, it was shot down almost immediately. Amongst the criticisms, it was marked down for having what they saw as “clichéd situations and stereotypical characters,” and that none of the story was going to go anywhere unless the characters set foot out of the hotel. Cleese obviously took umbrage at all of these comments, but most of all the last suggestion: as he explained it to the Times, “it’s in the hotel that the whole pressure cooker builds up.”
• There are short clips from "Communication Problems" on YouTube, and entire Fawlty Towers episodes are streaming on Amazon.com. Below is the climactic scene as performed by the Scarborough Wombarra Bowling Club. Almost all of the multi-camera episodes on this Top 100 list should be regularly performed on the stage. It would be fun for all involved, and it be a boost to DVD sales of the originals.