In This Time with Alan Partridge, Steve Coogan’s comedy icon is as awkward, embarrassing and delusional as ever – and just as funny for it.
It has been twenty-odd years since Alan Partridge – the everlasting comic creation of Steve Coogan and Armando Iannucci – was blacklisted by the BBC for demanding that a higher-up smell his cheese. But it feels like scarcely a moment has passed; what was always funny about the excruciating local radio host is doubly so in 2019, as ultra-uptight modern sensibilities have permeated mainstream media like a virus and new, increasingly perplexing trends continue to be burned for fuel by asinine talk shows very much like This Time with Alan Partridge.
In an energetic satirization of The One Show co-written and directed by twin brothers Neil and Rob Gibbons, Alan is standing in for an ill co-presenter, enjoyably unchanged but still, somehow, different. There’s an even more prominent undercurrent of desperation, and a bit less of his famously self-aggrandizing insistence that he’s broadcasting royalty. But it’s still there, especially when things start to go well; never in television history has there been a better self-saboteur that Alan.
The core appeal of the character hasn’t been lost. His childlike neediness is still what you latch onto, why you want him to succeed, but his unearned arrogance is what brings the laughs and the squirms. He’s never, ever as good or as clever or as funny as he thinks he is – which means, of course, that Steve Coogan is all of those things, and thus the shtick never really gets old. This Time with Alan Partridge emulates the feel and rhythms of this kind of show so well that it all just seems tailor-made to give Alan enough rope to hang himself again and again. Each segment is a ticking time-bomb of embarrassment, each exchange a shovelful from whatever hole he’s digging this time; the urge to look away is as ever-present as the need to stop and stare at a clown car pileup.
Rarely is television this perfectly modulated, so able to locate the randomness of real life and the precision of comic invention, and live in that tiny space between the two. It’s never quite clear exactly what This Time with Alan Partridge is attempting to skewer at any given moment – the live-show format, the sensationalism of frivolous current affairs, the reduction of serious topics to quirky soundbites, or Alan himself? The latter’s frosty relationship with his co-host, Jenny (Susannah Fielding), is clearly modelled on Piers Morgan and Susanna Reid’s testy breakfast routine, but it’s really all a send-up of Alan’s desperate, ceaseless desire to be somebody more than a local radio host. He never will be, of course, which makes him as much a tragic figure as a comic one. But blimey, it’s good to see him back on the BBC, however long it takes for him to ruin it.