I struggle to name another “prison comedy” to which I can compare the BBC’s new Dead Boss; it’s an interesting premise which is definitely fresh amidst the plague of uninteresting, dull comedies on air in the UK today, but will need an exceptional amount of effort to accomplish in a way that won’t put off a target audience more used to leering than laughing at unrepentant convicts. For the most part, it embraces its politically incorrect basis; it’s been decades since Monty Python demonstrated the potency of shock humour, and Dead Boss takes full advantage of the revelation.
The first few minutes of its first episode see our protagonist, Helen Stephens (Sharon Horgan), sentenced to twelve years in prison for the murder of her boss at the Entirely Tiles company, not at all helped by her visibly incompetent lawyer and the “supporter” holding up a “HELEN IS INNOCENT” sign behind her. Her sister attempts to cling onto her as the bailiffs remove her, but only to ask for her gym card and the key to her flat. That just about sets the tone for the first two episodes of the show: Helen maintains her innocence and tries to appeal while every other character manipulates, abuses, or ignores her.
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Its laughs feel a bit forced at first, and the show gives into the same style of humour that seems to plague British comedy right now – the use of outright weirdness to try and make situations seem funny, as opposed to the aspect of realism that makes most foreign comedies so compelling – but as we get into the second episode and reach some level of deeper character development, some genuinely funny moments finally emerge. Dead Boss’ exaggerated script is executed well by its wide cast, of which a select few clearly carry the programme: Horgan’s Helen amongst them, but also Edward Hogg as Henry, her obsessed ex-colleague, and Aisling Bea, her self-indulging sibling.
The murder mystery arc that lurks behind the episode-to-episode points of focus (like the second episode’s trivia night) introduces a more cohesive story to the programme, but doesn’t exactly do it in a compelling way. There are some unanswered questions, certainly, such as where Helen’s fiancé has disappeared to, and who is really behind the eponymous victim’s killing, but they’re not presented strongly enough to create any real excitement or intrigue. Maybe that’s too much to ask from a light comedy with only thirty minutes to spend per episode, but it might have resulted in more opportunities for laughs, which the brief shots of threats spelled in bathroom tiles don’t inspire.
The first third of Dead Boss’ six episode series ultimately show promise, but also a number of missed opportunities, something which we can only hope further episodes can improve upon, especially with writer Holly Walsh telling audiences to expect a “huge cliff-hanger” at the series’ end. BBC Three has proved a valid home for a number of successful comedies, the classic Being Human among them, but a little more effort will be required before Dead Boss can be held in a similar regard.