Lab Rats is a new sitcom on BBC2, co-written and starring Chris Addison, a stand-up comedian and Perrier award nominee and actor known for his part in the brilliant political satire The Thick Of It. The show is produced by Armando Iannucci, creator of The Thick Of It, and producer of The Day Today and the various Alan Partridge shows. These credentials beg the question, ‘Why is this so poor?’ Actually, you wonder why it is on BBC2, when you can’t imagine it being on BBC3. And, if you’re being cruel, you wonder why it was allowed on television at all.
Lab Rats is set in a university research centre. Addison plays the normal one, Alex – he runs the lab of Geoffrey McGivern’s Nobel prize-winning professor who is coasting on the award – in a lab with the pony-tailed, unlucky-in-love Brian and the ‘simple’ one Cara (she is allowed to say silly things because she has a Brummie accent). There is a Dutch Dean who rules over them like a slightly strict school teacher, and a large Northern woman as their secretary. And, allegedly, hijinks ensue. However, the actual gags whimper and the story flops along and there is no laughter. There is an edge of surrealism that gets close to working, because the science setting allows almost anything to happen, such as growing a six-foot-high snail that slimes over Addison or keeping a looney professor in cryogenic freeze state because he is so annoying, but the pantomime approach dampens these flights of fancy.
I think it’s a shame that it doesn’t work. They have gone with an old-fashioned approach, using the traditional studio-based televising and laughter track (like The IT Crowd), but this only seems to make it look amateur, like a sixth form revue. This also makes it feel quite dated, like watching something from 20 years ago that you didn’t know existed. Some of the lines can actually be amusing but they get lost in the mess, withering in the overall limpness. I really want to like it but the programme itself prevents it – I even watched two episodes, hoping it would be settling-in problems with the first. It doesn’t help that they accurately portray the university system (there is a joke that any academic will recognise about getting funding for a project and making it last all year) but at the same time get small things wrong: calling Watson & Crick the ‘inventors’ of DNA is fundamentally incorrect – DNA was already there, they didn’t invent it, they didn’t even discover it; they just described the three-dimensional structure for the first time (appropriating Rosalind Franklin’s X-ray data in the process and robbing her of a Nobel prize).
You see, I am angry and saddened by this show at the same time. I have a PhD in molecular biology – I worked in the exact setting for this sitcom – and it angers me to see the waste of an opportunity: I have always wanted a good comedy set in a science lab, which is rife with potential for stories and jokes. Therefore, it saddens me that this programme has effectively removed the possibility of this area being used in any form of entertainment ever again, because it will be held up as the reason why it will never work. Another aspect to this is the form of a confession: although I write this blog, I’ve never seen it as an advert for my writing abilities in order to get paid-for work the way other bloggers do; however, I did, in my younger days, try to write a sitcom set in a research laboratory, with interesting characters and surreal jokes and knowing references, which I even submitted to the BBC in a competition for new sitcoms. This review may seem like sour grapes; on the contrary, I realise only too well how difficult is to write a good sitcom, especially in this setting, and I had nothing but high hopes for Lab Rats. Seeing the finished product, my heart sank at the result, left wondering how Addison (whose Edinburgh shows Atomicity, Civilisation and The Ape That Got Lucky displayed erudition and humour in equal measure) got it so wrong.