British Sitcom Edges Towards New Nadir

10/02/2015 23:04 GMT | Updated 12/04/2015 10:59 BST

Last July, John Oliver caused a characteristic stir when his HBO show, Last Week Tonight, covered the American prison system. It was the kind of biting satire the likes of Frankie Boyle have claimed is no longer allowed to exist on British television. Within the episode, Oliver addressed the specific issue of prison rape (in his words, 'one of the most horrifying things that can potentially happen' to prisoners) and the way we've become so desensitised to it, convict-on-convict sexual assault has a place at the heart of a popular sitcom trope.

That Oliver is a British expat lends a certain symbolism to Crims - a British production, which concludes its first series on Thursday - flagrantly disregarding such concerns about the comedic value of sex offences. Adam Kay and Dan Swimer's BBC Three sitcom stars Elis James as an uptight Valley boy who's unjustly sentenced to two years in a young offender institution. Putting aside the pilot episode's cold open as the only scene to predate events behind bars, the first joke about rape arrives after less than a second, when a warden assures James's character he's 'not going to get bummed to death'. Before the four-minute mark, there are a further three. One is literally the word 'bumatorium'. The show probably could have got by without them.

In truth, I didn't initially pay much heed to Oliver's outrage. Comedy treats serious topics distastefully, and this did not stand out as anything like the best evidence of that. Nonetheless, now the point has been made, it's difficult not to view these jokes with a more sensitive eye, and equally difficult to believe not a single person involved in the making of Crims was familiar with the piece. Yet instead of proceeding with caution, cast and crew ploughed on at a rate of one cheap gag per minute, presumably under the assumption they would get laughs and that was justification enough.

Crims is by no means the worst offender when it comes to chasing easy giggles. Mrs Brown's Boys - the BBC's highest rated programme over Christmas - is so poorly regarded by the wider comedy community, it was left to Eastender's Adam Woodyatt to present Brendan O'Carroll (Mrs Brown's creator) with his 2014 Writers' Guild Award. Nor is British television completely devoid of worthwhile sitcom, with the last few years providing Rev, Twenty Twelve and Grandma's House on the BBC alone. Indeed, Dan Swimer formed one half of the latter show's writing team, which makes the existence of Crims all the more depressing. Swimer clearly has talent, but is apparently prepared to operate well within its bounds. And unlike Mrs Brown, the result has no shortage of illustriousfans. Have expectations really fallen so low?

It used to be asked why American television was of such superior quality to the British variety. The answer invariably came back: money. For sitcom, this means more writers, but how many writers does it take to write something beyond the laziest rape joke? How many does it take to say "We should do better"? It isn't a matter of quantity or quality; it's a matter of ambition. I guess when you have that though, you move to the US.