The Young Ones absolutely lives up to its title. This show is an absolute mockery of young people that is, itself, the product of a bunch of young minds. Some shows get their power from discipline and craft; shortly after finishing this show, Ben Elton would join Richard Curtis in writing Blackadder, which would become one of the greatest sitcoms of all time by channeling all its inspiration into simple farcical plots with familiar character types. The Young Ones, on the other hand, is powered almost entirely by inspiration, gleefully tearing through ideas and satirical points and parodies and anything else Elton, Rik Mayall, and Lise Mayer could stuff in. Not only does the show often take detours away from the main cast, some of these detours are built in, like the musical guests (written in so it could be classified as a variety show and get a bigger budget that could be blown on goofy special effects and explosions) and the various bits of standup by Alexei Sayle. Of course, the main meat of the show is interactions between the four protagonists, each of whom is a riff on a type from a different era – Mike is a 50’s cool guy, Neil is a 60’s hippie, Vyvian is a 70’s punk, and Rick is an 80’s poet – but is also a riff on a type of Young Person that the cast and crew would have seen around the alternative comedy scene in the late 70’s and early 80’s – Mike is a deadpan schemer who can quickly turn any situation so he doesn’t have to do any work or give up any of his coolness, Neil is a put-upon slacker who prefers to feel sorry for himself rather than face confrontation or deal with anything, Vyvian is purely interested in hedonism and mindless destruction, and Rick is a pretentious wannabe who very poorly uses ideas he’s picked up to cover up the fact that he’s a childlike moron.
Combine that with the surrealism, and you get a very potent headtrip of a fairly clever and creative Young Person’s view of the world, one in which everything around us has unlimited potential, where you’re constantly surrounded by politics and viewpoints and Ideas, and the only thing that really grounds you is a few friends you’ve made (or at least total bastards you’ve gotten to know), and you don’t really feel the need to take anything all that seriously (to put it another way, we’re looking at the world Conor Crockford was in when he first saw The Dark Knight). The Young Ones has no responsibilities – not to good taste, not to providing a clear point of view or premise, and certainly not to the set designers or budgeting – and it revels in that fact, all the way to its final explosion. Of all things, the show I kept thinking of this watch was Family Guy, which shares a lot of traits with The Young Ones – a willingness to go down rabbit-holes, a gleeful rejection of good taste, and an overall nihilistic worldview – but with a few exceptions. Firstly, FG went for so long that its energy went from youthful glee to a sad old white guy who doesn’t realise the party’s long over and that his jokes about women, minorities, and queer people have been revealed to be horrible. Secondly, while one could never say TYO loves its characters, it definitely approaches them with more clarity and care. It’s notable to me that in a show that otherwise smashes the fourth wall like Vyvian smashes bricks over Rick’s head, we only see the actors out of character in one ten second clip; otherwise, Rick is always Rick, Vyv is always Vyv, etc. The repartee between the four main characters is the only thing that really grounds the show and is the part that has aged the best; the second season is way funnier than the first because it leans in harder on their chemistry and keeps building comedy out of the ways they interact.
Before I went in, I thought about beloved Soluter Rosy Fingers talking about how he showed his teenage son the show and how he didn’t react all that well to it, and I thought about Lindsay Ellis’ observation that comedy ages terribly, and I wondered if comedy is something that has to keep updating itself throughout the years – that people should take the kind of humour The Young Ones works in and update it for the modern day with new characters and situations, and that comedy writers should resign themselves to aging like milk and exclusively shoot for topical relevance over some kind of lasting legacy. The beauty of The Young Ones and its wide scope is that it shows how Ellis’ observation is and isn’t horseshit; I don’t really laugh at the references I don’t get, but slapstick and character-based humour is evergreen. I laugh just as hard now at “I’ve just nailed my legs to the table!” as I did when I first watched the show fifteen years ago, and as hard as audiences did in 1984; the political nature of England has moved on but the pretentiousness of “The bathroom’s free, unlike the country under the Thatcherite juncture,” is still funny.