Opinion: Karl Puschmann: Why David Schwimmer’s new sitcom Intelligence isn’t that smart

Ever since their recent reunion everybody has once again been talking about the old 90s sitcom Friends. So it was smart of Neon to piggyback off that renewed hype and start showing Intelligence, a new Brit-com that has Friends star David Schwimmer in the lead.

It’s Schwimmer’s first committed return to small screen comedy since that star-making portrayal as the sappy, slightly unhinged yet straight-laced Ross Geller. He’s popped up in small guest spots now and then, the most successful – comedically speaking -playing an unlikeable version of himself for three episodes in the fourth season of Larry David’s brilliant cringe-comedy Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Intelligence is also purposefully cringe-inducing and Schwimmer again plays against his Ross Geller typecast by portraying an even bigger jerk than the Curb version of himself.

But that’s where the similarities have to stop because Intelligence is not a brilliant comedy. The show’s decidedly average despite Schwimmer’s Herculean efforts to elevate it into something greater than it is. He’s like a premier league player slumming it in the junior leagues, nimbly outclassing the other players with ease. An achievement even more impressive because the show’s not filled with rookies. Most of his British co-stars have long and extensive resumes. Schwimmer’s just really bloody good at what he does.

Here he plays Jerry Bernstein, a loudmouth, arrogant American National Security agent who is transferred to work across the pond at the GCHQ, the British intelligence and information agency, as a liaison in the cybercrimes dept. He arrives in bombastic fashion and immediately alienates the boss with his all-staff announcement that, “We can learn a lot from each other … especially me”.

Bernstein is a walking, loud-talking stereotype of a brash American. All pants no trousers, as the UK saying goes.

If the GCHQ wasn’t staffed by complete buffoons he’d be quickly shown the door. And this is the major stumbling block that trips up Intelligence. The British agents, presumably the top of the field at information gathering, are idiots.

And while yes, we all work with plenty of those, Intelligence pushes their dimwittedness too far into cartoonish territory. A character trait can be ridiculous as long as there’s some believability or truth to it; Gareth from the original UK version of The Office or Dwight from the American version of The Office are both good examples here.

In Intelligence they’re just broadly dumb. It’s hard to suspend disbelief when the show buries that disbelief under a mountain of stupid. I know it’s not a doco but none of these people would last two minutes in any job, let alone one of national security.

At one point Bernstein asks an assistant if she can get him a protein shake. Nodding enthusiastically she replies, “Lamb or beef?”.

Okay, that’s mildly amusing but the effect is lost because nearly all the characters are this dense. Friends wouldn’t have worked if every character was Joey.

To its credit Intelligence does address this in its second episode, explaining how prize doofus Joseph Harries, portrayed by series creator and writer Nick Mohammed, landed his job through diversity requirements.

“There’s only so far we can take positive discrimination I’m afraid,” Christine Cranford, the steely chief, tells him.

“You know,” Bernstein says, “I”ve never really understood that.”

“Well, it’s when someone who isn’t white,” Harries replies, gesturing to himself, “is really good at what they do.”

“That’s not it,” his boss, Cranford, replies, stone-faced.

There’s lots of quick humorous exchanges like this, but momentum never builds or carries over to the next set-up. To borrow a famous phrase familiar to Friends fans, it’s like they’re always stuck in second gear.

The thing is, in each episode there’s always one sequence which is absolutely, properly hilarious. I am not exaggerating when I say Intelligence has had me fighting back big mirthy tears at times. In the first episode it’s Bernstein’s increasingly desperate search for a bathroom as the gormless Harries leads him from one dead end to another in the labyrinthine GCHQ offices. In the second it’s when the unlikely pair are trying to blag their way through a lie-detecting test under Cranford’s suspicious eyes.

These belly laughs are all coming from Schwimmer, whose slapstick physicality, wide range of expressions and reactions and his precise comic timing is wringing so much humour out of every scene that it’s keeping the whole show above water.

In an interview about the series Mohammed said he wrote the role for Schwimmer after they personally hit it off while working on another show. Having friends in high places has paid off, as getting Schwimmer on board with Intelligence proved to be a very clever move indeed.

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