In deference to one of my most loyal readers and commenters, Santa, I am writing this post to explain why I have started calling Doc Martin a farce. The actual designation I had suggested we should use previously was dramedy, and I have written a long post about why this show satisfies that label. For the first five series, maybe five and a half, I was under the impression that this show was written to reveal truths about the human condition through the application of dramatic events couched in comedy. By the end of series 6, much of the comedy was gone, and the show had taken a turn towards drama, especially in terms of the relationship between its two main characters, Martin and Louisa. Now that we’ve completed series 7, I think the show has taken another turn, this times towards farce. It has had elements of farce in previous series too.
Farce is merely a sub-genre of comedy. Classical farce created comedy out of the most basic human impulses–the desire for pleasure and the fear of pain. It is often defined as a light dramatic work in which highly improbable plot settings, exaggerated characters, and often slapstick elements are used for humorous effect. Today’s farcical playwrights create exaggerated characters and place them in ridiculous situations.
What is an exaggerated character? The two standouts in Doc Martin are Mrs. Tishell and P.C. Penhale. Mrs. Tishell is a chemist who takes her profession seriously, but her obsession with Martin overshadows anything to do with her conduct in her place of business. Once he walks through the door or passes anywhere near her window, she quickly expands into slapstick behavior and overstated facial and physical expressions. She gets her face much too close to Martin’s, acts as though they have a special connection, and makes a fool of herself regularly. The whole town has now reached the conclusion that she’s a “nutter.” Penhale, the constable, is also more of a stereotypical Keystone Kop who takes the least prudent route to solve a problem. He often bumps into people and things in his zeal to catch up to Martin or someone else. He is obviously incapable of recognizing the meaning of what others are saying to him, at least at first, and he acts without thinking, often finding himself in awkward positions. There’s an intruder in the house? Run around the back and jump through a window, falling on his face in the process. Everyone’s trying to find an abducted baby — climb up to look in the window just as there is progress being made to rescue the baby. In S7, he runs after a carriage as an heroic effort only to discover there’s no baby in the carriage; or, he climbs in a window Martin is trying to use to escape then finds his taser is useless. As Ruth asks Martin in one episode, “Is he really a police officer?” We get the same sentiment from Louisa in S7E8 when she tells Penhale directly that they need to call the police, the real police.
Obviously Martin Ellingham is also exaggerated. His stick straight posture coupled with his uniform of suit and tie under all circumstances, his tendency to shout at Morwenna or patients in the reception area, and his overall confused demeanor are signals that this is not a typical man. His clumsiness is meant to accentuate his awkwardness, but adds to the slapstick nature of his behavior. He pours wine on himself, gets wet on numerous occasions (in his suit of course), and slips and falls regularly. He has been known to find himself in ridiculous situations, e.g. in the woods without a shoe accompanied by a psychotic park ranger, or rappelling down a cliffside to reach a patient. In this series, the boat rescue has him jumping into the water wearing his suit again, looking for a missing child in the woods where he walks through water again, falling and slipping in mud, and being chased by a dog after trying to put the car into a skid as if he’s some sort of secret agent or something. Another exaggerated reaction is when he places his hand on his heart and looks completely shocked by Louisa appearing in her bathrobe, or by Mrs. Winton pointing her gun at him, or when Mrs. Tishell appears at his front door. The very repetition of that gesture tells us it’s slapstick.
In S7 we also have Angela Sim, whose behavior is extreme in several scenes; Danny, who plays the guitar rather than search for a missing boy under his care, or who regularly invokes the Lord; and Erica Holbrook who staples students’ beloved stuffed animals to a board and tells them they’ll get over their marked sadness, or faints several times. Even Dr. Timoney could be considered extreme in that she’s very impersonal at first, never actually tries to probe Martin and Louisa’s difficulties, and then becomes loopy after hitting her head while careening down the narrow streets of Portwenn. To me these are all cartoonish characters whose primary purpose is to appear ridiculous.
Janice, the new child minder, is another case. Although she seems to do a decent job with James, she is quite a ditz and our first introduction to her makes clear that she is. She enters the kitchen and asks which one of them is James. Even a ditz should find it easy to identify the child! She acts rather childish herself for the most part, although we see some signs of actual thoughtfulness on occasion. Still, the overall impression of her is that she looks ridiculous and acts ridiculous.
By the time we reach the final episode, which, if you read this blog, you know I considered very cartoonish, I was having trouble taking anything very seriously. Was Mrs. Winton ever going to shoot Martin? No. Ruth is the only one who actually shoots the rifle, and when that happens, her reaction is also exaggerated, especially for her.
Identifying a comedy as a farce is not a slur. If you check the list of television shows considered farces on the Wikipedia site, you’ll see many of the best shows ever on it: Seinfeld, Frasier, I Love Lucy, Hogan’s Heroes, Night Court, and many others. However, noticing all these farcical features of Doc Martin has made me arrive at a different place in regard to how seriously they want us to examine this show. Their message seems to be that S6 got too solemn and now we’re just going to have fun, string out Martin and Louisa’s reunification, and be a source of entertainment. We (that is, all of us dedicated fans) just have to adjust our thinking and reach a level of acceptance commensurate with Louisa’s.
Originally posted 2016-02-09 12:04:31.