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TELEVISION REVIEW

Two treasures off the beaten path

By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / January 25, 2010

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People often tell me there’s nothing on TV anymore. And I inevitably list off the gems, which sounds something like “Mad Dexter Men Friday Night True Lost Blood Breaking Lights Bad Nurse Modern Family Jackie Glee.’’ Oh, and “Men of a Certain Age.’’

But there are lovely, weird, twisted, and lesser-known shows on cable TV, too, aside from the Quality TV that tends to get awards recognition. In recent years, you could look and find AMC’s “Hustle,’’ Starz’s “Party Down,’’ BBC America’s “Torchwood,’’ FX’s new “Archer’’ - series that are something like indie-theater alternatives to cineplex biggies. No, you probably won’t find the next “Sopranos’’ laying low and undiscovered, but the next “Undeclared,’’ or the next “Summer Heights High’’? Sure, absolutely. You might even find something that isn’t the next anything because it’s actually original.

Tonight, two new culty comedies offer alternative viewing to those who like to go off the beaten path every now and then. Neither show is destined to make Top 10 lists, but they’re unusual enough to merit consideration. “The Inbetweeners,’’ premiering tonight at 9 on BBC America, is a British sitcom that plays like a Judd Apatow production, if Apatow were British and still making the TV shows “Freaks and Geeks’’ and “Undeclared.’’ It’s a coming of age comedy that’s raunchy and sophomoric, but, as is typical with Apatow products, it’s also character-based and at times kind of touching. On “The Inbetweeners,’’ you feel the humiliation and awkwardness - as well as the growth spurts - of being a teenager all over again.

Will (Simon Bird) is the new kid at a public high school who’s eager to make friends. Problem is, he’s kind of nerdy, carrying a briefcase from class to class and speaking in complete sentences. He used to go to private school, where he fit in a little better; but now that his parents have broken up his mother can no longer afford it. Bird makes me think of a British Jason Schwartzman - he’s unique, and doesn’t fit into any of the high school stereotypes, hard as he may try. He’s a rare bird.

Will forms friendships with three guys - Simon (Joe Thomas), Jay (James Buckley), and Neil (Blake Harrison) - all of whom are only slightly less ostracized than he is. Together, they seek sexual situations with girls even though they hardly know what to do when they find it. They try to get booze, they skip school, and they do all the politically incorrect, “American Pie’’-like things American boys do. But refreshingly, these actors aren’t as pretty as our homegrown young male stars. They feel a little more real. Written by Iain Morris and Damon Beesley, who’ve also written for “Flight of the Conchords,’’ “The Inbetweeners’’ will be both familiar and distinctive to American audiences.

“La La Land,’’ which premieres tonight at 11 on Showtime, is also a winning mixture of things we have and have not seen before. This unscripted six-part series has a strong streak of Sacha Baron Cohen in it, as British comic Marc Wootton goes into character and then mingles with real people. Just as Cohen has played Ali G and Borat among the unsuspecting, Wootton plays three different Brits who’ve supposedly come to Hollywood to find their fortune in the world of entertainment.

Each of Wootton’s characters is crass and offensive, but the duped citizens seem oddly willing to put up with them. Of course, the presence of the cameras may explain that - especially since this is all taking place in La La Land, where the presence of cameras justifies all.

Wootton’s Shirley Ghostman is a TV psychic who has absolutely no talent. When the conversation goes places he doesn’t like, he puts up his hand and says, “And . . . sleep,’’ as if he can hypnotize - which he can’t. Every time he did that, I laughed - even after it was no longer surprising. In one episode, Shirley works with a real private investigator and the results are disastrous.

Wootton’s Gary is a wannabe actor with absolutely no talent. Still, he manages to get veteran actress Ruta Lee to serve as his mentor. Lee either thinks Gary’s real or, more likely, she’s a good sport looking for a little attention. Gary is insufferable, and his attempt to get his head shots done by a professional photographer are fantastically cringy.

And Wootton’s Brendan is a documentary filmmaker who will stop at nothing to make his movies more dramatic. In one episode, he tries to kill a climber in order to create a more dramatic situation for his movie.

I enjoyed watching Wootton work his way through the fringes of Hollywood, the world of D-list publicists and acting teachers. He’s not as brilliant in the moment as Cohen can be. And he can be hard to watch, as he overacts each character and pushes his British accent to the limits and still manages to fool people. A week between each episode is highly recommended. But in small doses, his shamelessness, persistence, and humor are remarkable.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit boston.com/ae/tv/blog/.

LA LA LAND
Starring: Marc Wootton
On: Showtime
Tonight, 11-11:30

THE INBETWEENERS
Starring: Simon Bird, James Buckley, Black Harrison, Joe Thomas
On: BBC America
Tonight, 9-9:30