Father Ted is a Britcom that is best described as an “acquired taste.” I happen to like the show, but I know many others who are put off by the broad acting, absurdist humor, the pokes at Catholicism and Irish culture. The show isn’t subtle, nor does it pretend to be a true character study – instead viewers are treated to often-hilarious bits of satire and (one-dimensional) character study. The plots are often an excuse to put the characters through their comic paces. Still, despite the difficulty in hammering down just exactly what sort of show it is, Father Ted is one of the most revered shows in BBC history.
The stories revolve around the title character (played with wonderful, craven gusto by the late Dermot Morgan), who is banished to a parish in the remote Craggy Island, where it seems that every villager appears to have stepped off The Twilight Zone. Father Ted’s dream is to be reassigned to a big-city parish, but his efforts are forever-stymied by a duplicitous past involving misdirected church funds. Father Ted shares the parish (and a bedroom) with the dim-witted Father Dougal McGuire (Ardal O’Hanlon, My Hero) and the perpetually soused, Father Jack Hackett (Frank Kelly), an alcoholic and demented old man who is prone to fits of obsenities and senseless ranting. Taking care of the priests is housekeeper Mrs Doyle (Pauline McLynn, Jam and Jerusalem), a daffy, mentally unstable woman who spends her time making copious amounts of sandwiches and tea.
And even though their roles approach nothing close to realism, the actors all perform with enthusiasm and each have strong traits that are played loudly for laughs: Father Dougal’s stupidity and naivety, Father Jack’s foul and noxious nature, Mrs Doyle’s hysterical and loony disposition and Father Ted’s creaky sense of morality all drive the plots. Whether it’s Ted’s lust for a beautiful novelist visiting Craggy Island, or Mrs Doyle’s unrequited crush on a ladies-man milkman, Father Ted the (relatively) straight man must contend with all this nonsense and bide his time until he can be moved to a more sophisticated parish.
Because the humor often riffs off stereotypes, there will be those who are offended by the Irish jokes. Some even gave me pause, including the characterization of Jack as nothing more than a slobbery boozehound who erupts in a hailstorm of curses whenever waken from his drunken stupor; or the very arch and jaundice view of the Pope and the Catholic Chruch that the writers seem to have when dealing with Biblical and eucumenical matters. They aren’t gentle, easy pokes, but full-on assaults on political correctness and polite society. The satire is on-point and though the jokes veer from highly sophisticated to little-more than poop/fart jokes, the episodes are consistently funny.
The 1st season jumps right into the storylines, doing little to introduce the characters or the scenario of the show – it’s as if the show’s been on for years, and the audience is just tuning in. That’s the a problem because the show is gag-driven, so there is little in terms of character development or story arcs. The first episode introduces the vain side of Father Ted as he tries to monopolize the spotlight when Craggy Island is featured on a television program. This is a great episode to start with because Father Ted’s more subtle traits could get lost among the noisiness of the rest of the characters, so his ugly, selfish impulses highlighted in this episode set the tone that this sitcom member of clergy is nothing like the saintly Geraldine Granger from The Vicar of Dibley or Peter Clifford from Ballykissangel. Ted’s not a bad man, but a mightily flawed one. Other high points in the first season include an episode about a controversial film (a hilarious spin on The Last Temptation of Christ) that the Bishop and Pope condemn, forcing Ted to protest, even though he couldn’t care less; the aforementioned comely writer who arouses the (supposedly) celibate Father Ted, and the finale, in which Dougal and Ted must spend the night in a crypt to collect an inheritance.
Other shows are better acted and have strong writing, and there is sometimes a frayed, almost-amateurish feel about the show as if part of the charm of the show is its shortcomings. In fact, on the back of the DVD case, there’s a “rave” printed that reads, “best comedy about three priests on an island.” This sort of self-awareness of “this show is crap, but we’re still pushing through” seems to be a tradition in BBC sitcoms: The Young Ones and Girls on Top are great examples of shows that trade on an abstract, almost surreal humor that is informed by loose acting, substandard set designs and frequent lapses into toilet humor.
As funny as the show is, the jokes aren’t for the faint-hearted, and I was put-off by the black face in show’s 4th entry – Ted and company enter a costume contest, all dressed as Elvis, while his rivals from another parish come dressed in drag as Diana Ross and the Supremes, complete with black face makeup. The show is far-removed from American racism, Jim Crow and segregation as well as the ugly history of minstrel and black face, and the writers pride themselves on pushing all forms of propriety, but for some (including me), the image was still disturbing. Aside from this issue, the show is still winning.
Click here to buy Father Ted – Complete Series 1