For this installment, we are going back to a classic: the 2004-2005 mindfuck that is Nighty Night. Julia Davis writes and stars as the most psychopathically awkward woman to ever grace a comedy. It’s British, of course, and focuses on the exploits of Jill Tyrell, narcissist for the ages, and her desperate attempts to win the love of the suburban dope next door while also savaging everything else.
In the Steve Coogan-produced show, Davis throttles the trope of unattractive leading protagonist to full on repulsive. She is actually attractive, in the sense that she wears thong underwear. She loves sex. But she also keeps bags of dog shit under her sink, and violates everything (including 12-year-old boys). This is cringe humor extreme, and asks audiences who adore the faux pas of Larry David and David Brent to get more definitive. Where does funny end and scary start? When do our idiot protagonists become monsters? Are creepy, aggressive women scarier than creepy, aggressive men? Is conniving psychopath the female counterpart to entrenched male buffoon?
Danielle Roderick: Nighty Night is the most extreme version I have yet to see of the unlikeable protagonist. I constantly walk out of the room while watching the show. I’ve gagged while watching the show. But I also love it. It’s so balls out brave — she’s ethically ugly, and demands to be seen as a sexual object at the same time, becoming too much of everything. What is this show about? Desire? Art? Our worst communal fear of femininity? And, could you sit through the whole thing?
Lili Loofbourow: I did, and it was a mistake. I watched the whole series in one sitting and felt like the dude in A Clockwork Orange. This is not for the easily grossed-out. It goes head-to-head with John Waters in the Most Grotesque category, but doubles down by making Divine in Pink Flamingos a biological woman. What happens when you undrag the queen?
DR: And when you have a queen in the first place, instead of an out-of-shape white guy. While a skinny blonde lady, not exactly the craziest representation of an outsider, Jill is still ridiculously out of bounds. The assumptions she makes are bigger violations than the audacity of Larry David because it is that much far-fetched. Don, her love interest, gurgles about in a similar ball or narcissist haze, but his makes sense in the world. We’re used to it. Jill’s monstrosity almost has to be extreme because the reach is already so far. If camp is about shocking excess (usually feminine), then Jill is the camp version of our regularly scheduled schlubs.
This clip echoes David Brent helping his employees fill out their job reviews, but the stakes are no longer just one protagonist’s ego, they are other people’s sad lives:
Back to undragging the queen, is this what the title is about — a super comforting maternal phrase gone opposite?
Another thing that happens is an explosion of performance, especially feminine performance. Jill’s narcissism takes on a thousand self-narratives. Here’s Jill playing healer:
She’s also plays pretty much every other feminine archetype, complete with accessories (even if it’s a pillowcase as a nun’s veil). Meanwhile Cath, Don’s wife and Jill’s victim, is a casualty of passive niceness. This world is divided into two types: crazy assholes who assert exactly what they want without regard to others, and the poor saps who look for approval, hope for the best, and assume wrongly that the goal in the world is to love and be loved. How is this funny? I kept thinking of the phrase “A Comedy of Manners” while watching this, and wondering is there such a thing as a tragedy of manners? Or, a terror of manners? And, oh my god, the amounts of rape!
LL: “Tragedy of manners” seems right. Remember that theory we talked about last time, about comedy consisting in benign violations? Every violation in this show is malignant.
Here’s Jill throwing a “party” for love-object Don and Cath, who has multiple sclerosis.
As I think of other totally repulsive sociopathic manipulators in comedy, they’re mostly literary. Humbert Humbert in Lolita came to mind. So does Amelie Northomb’s Pretextat Tach.
As far as pathological women go, where ultra-comforting female tropes go opposite, the closest I get is Kathy Bates in Misery and Joan Crawford in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Which were both, tellingly, horror films.
DR: More camp! More terrifying lady archetypes and monstrous lipstick! I always think of Mommy Dearest when I see the title card of Jill looming in the doorway.
LL: Jill’s awkwardness is so selective, though, in that it has zero to do with crises of self-esteem. Jill gets compared a lot to Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction and Larry David. I can see both, but Davis has no interest in staying likeable through the credits; David does. A better parallel might be Mel in Flight of the Conchords.
DR: Yes! Another sexually frustrated narcissist, absolutely clear on what she wants, and therefore a bit of a terror. She is willing to pretend to serve her targets, but all of her actions are towards fulfilling her own fantasies.
LL: And Jill, like Mel, isn’t just a narcissist, she’s a fan. And like many fans, her desires are weirdly unspecific when it comes to the object of their fanhood. Fuck it? Eat it? Be it? Nothing is enough. It’s passionate undirected energy. That’s what’s kind of amazing about Jill: Don becomes the object, but her issues don’t stem from a biological clichés. She wants Don the way Muriel Hesslop wants a wedding, the way Blackadder wants to expose the Scarlet Pimpernel, the way Brain wants to take over the world. It’s a fine distinction, but it’s an important one. Jill can’t be explained; she’s evil just because.
Three cheers for Davis kicking the biological clock to the curb! I mean, it’s real, but it chokes everything else out like storytelling kudzu. Biology is a stupid crutch and we KEEP leaning on it in movies which would be fine if the crutch didn’t keep upstaging the plot. I love that Davis created a psychological monster sort of like Lorelei in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, who Freud advises to get some goddamn inhibitions already, forchrissakes!
DR: Biology is all over the story here. Think of how many times Jill mentions somebody is “feeling a bit bubbly,” which I assume is a Brit euphemism for gastric distress. All of the orifices of the body are fair play here, and they all get fed in some way (and yes, that includes attempted insemination by shoving food into Jill’s babymaker…and in another scene, a queen size bedsheet). Actually, I think that bedsheet might be a key — as her henchwoman attempts to insert the entire sheet, Jill holds up her hand and says something like “I’m an accommodating woman, but there is only so much I can take. If it was a double…”. The joke is on the body, or, the expectations of the body. Davis is laughing at the absurdity, fear, and power, that come with the feminine.
LL: OH my God. I’d blocked out the sheet. The Brits are also a lot more comfortable with using the soap opera tropes we leave to the soap operas. And just plain surrealism. Remember when Sue White in Green Wing steals semen from the comatose dude, impregnates herself and gives birth to a lion? Still, though, what impresses me most about Davis is the sensitive range of this comedy. There’s gross-out humor galore and all sorts of stuff that’s beyond the pale, but what makes Nighty Night so smart is how it combines that with all these little passive-aggressive moments that teeter on the edge of normalcy. Take this scene, where Jill sort of snares new-neighbor Kathy into a version of that weird dynamic where one person declares you’re BEST FRIENDS and forces you to perform their version of that, which usually means following little scripts they’ve laid out for you:
So smart, right? The VOICE. That kittenish voice that makes bitchy things seem forgiving! That effortless move — the triple-luxe of passive aggression — where you steer a conversation so that you seem to be forgiving the person you’ve knowingly inconvenienced.
DR: It’s like an even more epic battle of Nature and Grace than Tree of Life. Over coffee.
LL: But nobody gets to look pretty in the glass coffin.
DR: Julia Davis continues to poke at the unattractive. In Four Lions, she is a mouthbreathing dolt with a fondness for hoodies, and in her show Lizzie and Sarah she and Jessica Hynes take on yet another version of monstrous gal: the old woman. It wasn’t renewed last year even though fans loved it, and was apparently even darker than Nighty Night.
LL: We’ve talked a lot about Jill, but what about the other characters? This scene between Don and Cath is Jill’s handiwork (she recommended that Cath try a celibate regimen to try to cure her legs), but it’s, um, tremendous:
DR: The American version of this is….Bad Teacher?
Lili Loofbourow is a writer living in Oakland. Danielle Roderick watches movies in Los Angeles. They both blog here.