Emily Pope’s five-part web series, The Sitcom Show, is a throwback to the chameleonic class-consciousness and wry pessimism-as-realism embodied by the vein of British pop culture that gave the world Pulp and Peep Show. In her fast-talking series of diary entries or vlogs, some spontaneous and some scripted, Pope deals with the disappointment and disobedience of her everyday existence as an artist who works for other artists. It’s a line of work which gives her an intimate perspective on the art industry’s hypocrisy, which rests on patronage yet requires of its participants an ever-exacting performance of far-left and identity politics. Her bullshit radar is hyper-tuned. As the art critic Jaclyn Bruneau has written, ‘There is a criticality unique to the [art handler]: the artwork as seen through the lens of the specific labour required to accommodate it.’ Pope mines her unique vantage point for humour. In one scene, in an urgent happy whisper, she recounts the time she accidentally dropped some Sarah Lucas ‘bunny ears’ into Damien Hirst’s formaldehyde – only to be told by Lucas’s studio to just ‘remake’ the million-dollar artwork with some stockings and thread.
A twenty-something art graduate living in Hackney, Pope is seen ricocheting from contract job to contract job. (‘No benefits, stability, or security,’ writes Bruneau of art handlers.) Pope’s two art degrees, not to mention her hard-earned experience in studio management, sees the scant ‘reward’ of earning London living wage. Twin this with the spectre of austerity, and it makes for precarious living. Episode one opens with a court summons – Pope has neglected to pay her council tax – and rest of the series is loosely predicated on actions that are ‘vaguely illegal, but not illegal enough to pose a threat’: skiving off work, getting high, shoplifting. Choppy edits eke out a chaotic, but nonetheless pertinent, narrative about financial uncertainty, told from Pope’s bed. ‘How do you channel this level of extreme class-based anger and rage into something productive… when all the structures that would give you leverage have broken down?’ she demands into her laptop camera.
Shot and edited in grainy digital low-fi, the series is hardly TV-ready, though vestiges of the genre remain throughout. There’s the schmaltzy intro track by Canadian lesbian icons, Tegan and Sara, and an abundance of punchlines. There are the monologues that come fast and refractive, externalising the internal thinking that propels situational drama, as in the bare-faced melodramatics of Dawson’s Creek. But while sitcoms – like the most obvious 90s reference, Friends – depend on gangs of pals who seem to spend every waking moment together, Pope’s episodes are devoted to a more realistic ratio of socialising to solitude. Friends appear in quick flashes of comedy, with the iPhone’s vertical video formally breaking from the horizontal laptop orientation. They’re often ambushed by Pope at the pub or on the kitchen floor, drunk and warning: ‘you’d better not be filming this!’
I rewatched the older episodes in anticipation of the fourth and latest, which was screened on a balmy evening at one of the artist studios in Penarth Centre, a South Bermondsey ex-shopping centre that felt more equatorial than London. There, the episode bled outwards into its surroundings – the building houses squatters, as well as artists who can afford to rent the larger units. To lighten the mood, says Pope from the TV screen, this episode will be a musical – riffing on one of the more absurd, and perhaps most meta, sitcom tropes. Retelling a neighbour’s attempted suicide within minutes, however, which Pope witnessed from the window of her flat, she quickly stymies any commitment to pure levity. Like an earworm, her furious anxiety about ‘art, money, capitalism, loneliness and politics’ loops back into the script.
Music is collaborative by necessity, relying on skills Pope doesn’t yet have. She buys a cheap keyboard off eBay and attempts to learn the basics, scratching the letters of the musical scale on the white keys with permanent marker, tapping out the theme tune to Jurassic Park with a friend. The end goal is a duet about dinosaurs both reptilian and Conservative. Through the small, circular frustrations of trying to teach herself a skill in adulthood, she rhapsodies about the unevenness of education: private- and grammar-school educated friends have a facility for understanding piano scales and the concept of evolution, and a connection is made between privilege and so-called academic – or even creative – discipline. (One person at the screening dressed to code with a ripped tee that said, simply, ‘fuck’ private school.) Much of the series centres around questioning received knowledge, especially that which is taken for granted by even the most liberal of minds, like the idea that anything short of a miracle could override ‘fate’ – that is, the socioeconomic circumstances of one’s birth. The traps of neoliberalism, she insists, are any real belief in luck, charm, honesty or hard work as ways of getting ahead.