Garth Merenghi’s Darkplace is a show that is definitely not for everyone. It’s not that it’s disturbing or controversial; it’s just surreal and probably too metafictional for most people.
The main conceit of the show is really about the viewing of a show within a show: the framing device for each of the six episodes involves bestselling horror author Garth Merenghi (Matthew Holness) reading to the audience from one of his books, which tend to contain such gems as “Mike stared in disbelief as his hands fell off. From them rose millions of tiny maggots. Maggots!? Maggots. Maggots. Maggots. Maggots. (Checks line)…Maggots. All over the floor of the post office, in Leytonstone.”
He then shows an episode of his commissioned-but-never-shown series from the 1980s, Garth Merenghi’s Darkplace, which he and his publisher Dean Learner (Richard Ayoade) defend in talking head segments interspersed with the footage as a groundbreaking show unappreciated and far ahead of its time.
Darkplace, the show-within-a-show, stars Merenghi as Dr. Rick Dagless M.D., an expert surgeon who is also a stone-cold genius who is brilliant at anything and everything he does, with Learner as his boss, Thornton Reed, who always charges him with solving various problems at the behest of his boss, the unseen Won Ton. Merenghi’s co-stars include actor Todd Rivers (Matt Berry) as Dr. Lucien Sanchez, Rick’s macho, lothario best friend and Madeline Wool (Alice Lowe) as Dr. Liz Asher, a ditzy blonde who is also psychic and is easily ignored by everyone else.
Over the six-episode series (which originally ran on Britain’s Channel 4 in 2004), Merenghi and Learner defend episodes of Dagless & Co. dealing with a creepy eye baby, broccoli aliens from space and “Scotch mist” which carries the spirit of vengeful ancient Scottish warriors. The show is a deliberate send-up of ’80s television, with deliberately poor acting (particularly on Learner’s part), little to no continuity between episodes and scenes, downright awful special effects, and ridiculously cheesy synthesizer music.
Overall, the show (with each episode written by Holness and Ayoade and directed by Ayoade) is an entirely different feel from Spaced, evoking not just bad television, but bad television that is infused with the ego of someone like Merenghi, who, throughout the show, is revealed to be entitled and deeply misogynistic among other things. The sheer absurdity of it all, though, is what makes it funny, right down to the way every episode ends with Dagless standing on a roof pondering the events of each episode. Ayoade’s direction is downright natural, sucking you completely into the settings and making the comedy stand out amidst all the low-budget weirdness.
The cast is key to this whole thing, though; luckily, they play the material straight, which only makes things more absured. In particular Berry (whose voice might be familiar as Douglas Reynholm from The IT Crowd)’s unwavering commitment is what sells Sanchez, much the same way Holness disappears into the role of Merenghi, who visually evokes a younger Stephen King, but is such a conceited blowhard who doesn’t realize his own jerkishness that lends such comedy to everything. Ayoade has the toughest challenge because, as Learner playing Thornton, he has to not just be bad, but ridiculously, irresponsibly terrible, The fact that he pulls it off is yet another example of Ayoade’s (best known as Moss from The IT Crowd)considerable talent.
The series has aired on Adult Swim and Syfy in the past, but most of it is available on IMDB and I heartily recommend you check it out.