I’ve been turned off television shows for one reason or another. But nothing grinds my gears more than certain annoying, misbehaving or morally corrupt protagonists who survive by their own self-righteousness (I say certain here because there are some anti-heroes out there who find justifiable means to hang around for the full length of a series). I’d name names but this blog steers away from such criticism, so that I don’t shoot down major projects of television networks that I might one day work for.
With Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip, I think Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon are toying with my natural response to an arsehole protagonist. There’s a malleable awareness afforded by the program’s pseudo-documentary nature: every element of its structure can cut right to the core of Coogan’s deepest insecurities. Watching The Trip, I quickly realised that the program wasn’t trying to simply broadcast Coogan’s detestable qualities – it was trying to look at why they were there in the first place.
Steve Coogan is Steve Coogan
The plot, locations and cast performances seem real enough to suggest that we are watching actual life unfold in The Trip. By signing on, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon more or less feature in an exposé of themselves. Yes, they’re portraying exaggerated and often scripted versions of themselves, but they’re still allowing the audience to understand them on a fairly personal level. For instance, the puzzled expressions of those enduring Rob’s endless impersonations is as much a comedic device as it is Rob’s declaration of the real Rob Brydon; one who doesn’t need to necessarily make you laugh – he’s enjoying himself nonetheless.
Although Rob is one of only two principle characters in The Trip, the focus is essentially on Steve Coogan. The series opens and closes with him cutting a lonely figure in his high-rise apartment. When the show does follow some sense of narrative, family and career matters in Steve’s life are propelling things forward. This is Steve’s trip, and Rob is tagging along as an antagonistic force to inspire change. Steve will never share Rob’s content in being an entertainer first, and perhaps never carving a meaningful acting legacy, but he does crave Rob’s personal satisfaction with all facets of life.
The facts in The Trip don’t have to correlate with facts in real life. Steve isn’t really in a rocky romance with an American girl but if he was, he might become infatuated with the idea of someone like Mischa and their relationship might unfold in the jealous terms depicted in the miniseries. Steve wouldn’t normally initiate competition between Rob and himself quite as often as he does (err… maybe), but his incessant attempts to put down and outdo Rob in The Trip suggest an actor’s internal battle within the real Steve. Every documentary faces the struggle of trying to represent an irrefutable truth. The second you point a camera at something, your ‘reality’ becomes in someway staged because the elements in front of the camera become conscious of its presence. The Trip steps around this issue by repeatedly demonstrating and exaggerating the characteristics of its actors.
“Sometimes you have to lie. One often has to distort a thing to catch its true spirit.”
– Robert J. Flaherty, documentary filmmaking pioneer
The Trip is a collaborative effort between two actors who, by abnormally pushing their own limits and each others’, agree to let their most profound personal issues surface to the small screen (in Steve’s case, anyway). There’s something to admire in a celebrity who, instead of opting to nurture an easily maintained image of invincibility, allows himself to enter a publicly vulnerable state.
Stuck in a Metaphor
Without understanding what has conditioned them to behave in such a manner, it’s hard to be sympathetic toward someone who won’t ever back down during an argument. Acknowledging this, The Trip capitalises on moments when its two protagonists are geographically separated. These moments of privacy take up the shortest amount of screen time in episodes predominately concerned with Steve and Rob’s restaurant banter and yet; without them, The Trip could’ve been reduced to a superficial case study in semi-improvisational comedy.
In ‘The Inn at Whitewell’, Steve responds to one of Rob’s many impressions with the following:
“I think anyone over 40 who amuses themselves by doing impressions needs to take a long, hard look in the mirror.”
I don’t know whether this quote is scripted or improvised but in either case, it’s a stroke of genius in relation to constructing Steve’s identity. At the conclusion of two separate episodes, Steve stands before the bathroom mirror committing acts of physical self-preservation (brushing his teeth or moisturising the crow’s feet around his eyes) when he tries out the very technique he has chastised his colleague for doing. Hopelessly falling victim to contradiction, Steve is imitating Rob’s ‘small man trapped in a box’. Aside from working on a metaphorical level to suggest that Steve feels imprisoned within his own being, this sequence truly renders Steve a tragic figure because he is A) talking to himself; B) doing Rob’s talent no justice at all and; C) contradicting and tearing down the defences he’s constructed in his myriad exchanges with Rob. Rob indulges in marital phone sex while all this is happening, as if Steve’s failures weren’t exacerbated enough.
The second iteration of Steve’s mirror soliloquy unfolds similarly to the first, albeit with some form of resolution:
The voice Steve employs toward the end is his own creation – he is no longer undermining his own ideas by doing impressions. The smile to himself is proof that Steve is – probably for the first time in the series – content to be in his own skin and to act like himself.
We’ve seen personal development inspired by negative reinforcement when Steve is shown what he isn’t and what he cannot become. But there are some skills or aspects of knowledge that are never beyond Steve’s reach if he will only open up to his singularly most despised human quality: humility.
To Steve, knowledge is power. Throughout The Trip, he barrages Rob with mundane facts about anything from the history of deciduous trees to the intricacies of the late poet Samuel Coleridge’s life. Steve’s pride is quickly tested however when in ‘The Inn at Whitewell’, Rob criticises his wine-tasting etiquette. Steve’s defence mechanism is to suggest that Rob appears “camp” when trying to demonstrate the correct way to acknowledge that a wine bottle is corked or uncorked. He defers attention to his own lack of knowledge and the issue is promptly glided over.
The incident never rests easy on Steve’s mind however, and he actively seeks to redeem himself in front of Rob when the opportunity presents itself. Rob resembles a proud father when Steve gives the waiter a curt nod to confirm the quality of the wine. More importantly, Steve looks to Rob to ascertain whether or not he’s done it correctly. Such moments are few and far between but Steve shows that he can put aside his egotism in the company of others – even if only as a means to avoid future embarrassment.
There is an instance where Steve comes to empathise with Rob to a degree. After giving a geological lecture to Rob (and subsequently pissing him off), Steve decides to scale a limestone cliff face. At the summit, Steve tries to take in the stunning view – much like Rob tried to comprehend the cliffs when Steve launched into his boring monologue – when he is greeted by a fellow traveller. Pleasantries soon give way to the traveller’s own harangue on limestone. Steve’s frustration at being on the receiving end of a verbal spiel builds until he finds a semi-polite moment to exit. It’s important at this point to remember that the actor Steve Coogan is complicit in allowing this sequence to play out. He allowed himself to both self-righteously defend his geology speech to Rob, and fail in enduring a version of himself atop the cliff face.
It is a contradiction amongst many in Steve’s life, but in the context of The Trip, it’s as if he’s trying to come clean about a psychological condition of his. He is consumed by the need to know and be skilled at everything, and he’ll be damned if he crosses paths with anyone who exposes him as being anything less than that. Traditionally, I’d be deterred from watching someone so incensed with keeping up appearances, but under the circumstances in The Trip – which is, at times, a heart wrenchingly inward-looking psychological examination – it makes for truly unique television.
The Italian Sob
The Trip has been picked up for another stint in Italy. It seemed like a pretty definitive resolution where we’d left off; with Rob utterly at peace in the arms of his wife and Steve valuing his family over a role in an HBO pilot. I suspect, at the very least, we’ll see more of the same Steve stuck in a sad existential crisis. It would be confronting (in a good way) to see that, despite his best efforts, Steve continues to suffer under the expectations he has set for himself. Above all else, such poignancy makes embarking on The Trip truly worthwhile.