by Nancy McDonald

Bernard Black (Shaun of the Dead‘s Dylan Moran) owns his own book shop in which he smokes, drinks copious amounts of wine, and informs his patrons that he’s closing for lunch with a bullhorn and swats them with a broom. Barnes and Noble it ain’t. Black Books is every retail worker’s fantasy. While most retail workers are more like the character Manny (Bill Bailey), who is trying to please the customer and his boss anyway he can, Bernard… well, let’s just say that he’s never uttered the phrase, “The customer is always right.” Along for the ride is Bernard’s friend Fran (Tamsin Greig). The best way to describe her is to say that if Bernard and Manny were to get really drunk one night (and that’s not a far-fetched plot for this show) and they were to somehow magically conceive a child, it would be Fran. There’s a part of her that’s good and pure, while the other half will easily drink her dinner, have a cig for dessert and cuss out the waiter for not being quick enough with a light.

If you aren’t into British sitcoms, this might not be your cup of tea. The plots are typically silly (Manny swallows and digests “The Tiny Book of Calm” and suddenly becomes almost a Jesus-like figure, for example), but I can’t help but laugh at its absurdity. The show was created by its star Dylan Moran, who also wrote or co-wrote all 18 episodes. Graham Linehan (director, writer and producer of another one of my favorite British shows The I.T. Crowd) also directed several of the episodes. There are also cameos by many of the stars of Shaun of the Dead. Oh yes, I’m looking at you sexy Simon Pegg.  Although Black Books only ran from 2000 – 2004 (but sat out during the 2001 television season), it has quickly become one of my favorite shows to date. Here are my top five episodes:

1. “Cooking the Books” (Season 1: Episode 1)

Rarely does a pilot impress me. It always seems like the characters are underdeveloped, the script is rife with cheap laughs and the directing is either boring or lavish to a gaudy extent. There are always exceptions to my own personal pilot rule, such as Freaks and Geeks, Lost and the British version of The Office. I certainly wasn’t expecting much from the pilot, especially since my boyfriend just randomly decided to make us watch it one afternoon, but I found myself laughing from the very beginning. The show is based off of Dylan Moran’s stand-up act so I’m not sure how many of the jokes have been lifted, but I don’t care. The scene in which Bernard is trying desperately to complete his taxes alone is enough for a spot on this list.

Bernard: (reading tax form) WHAT? WHAT DOES THAT MEAN? …THE WHAT? “If you live in a council flat beside a river, but are not blind…” WHAT?! “What is your mother’s maiden name?” What’s her first name? I just knew her as Ma! Ma, that’ll have to do. (begins scribbling on the form) Ma… possibly deceased.

2. “Elephants and Hens” (Season 3: Episode 2)

Fran is determined to have a fun girls night out with some friends from high school. One is getting married (The British The Office’s Lucy Davis plays the lucky, er, make that unlucky bride to be) and they’ve rented a cabin to celebrate. Fran comes prepared with, oh, twenty bottles of wine for four adult women and as the wine starts flowing freely, so do upsetting secrets from their past. Meanwhile, Bernard and Manny have a guys night out while she’s away. And when I say a guys night out, I mean they stay inside of the book shop, drink heavily and attempt to write a brilliant children’s book. You know, your typical manly thing to do. Well, manly in a British sitcom kind of way.

Fran: (holding up a bottle of wine to the girls) You always know you’re in for a good night when there’s a polar bear bleeding on the label.

3. “Manny’s First Day” (Season 1: Episode 2)

After several drinks at a local pub, Bernard offers Manny a job at the book shop. Of course, Bernard doesn’t remember this the following morning, but agrees to let Manny work for one day to see how he does. The thing about Bernard, though, is, well, he’s not a people person. Even though he needs someone like Manny to help his sinking shop, Manny is, unfortunately, a human being which means Bernard pretty much has already made up his mind that he doesn’t like him. Obviously, you know that Manny’s going to stay because he’s listed as a regular cast member of the show, so it’s no surprise when Bernard does offer him a job. It’s Bernard’s unhappiness with this stranger now working in his shop that I quite enjoy. Plus, if you get the first season or complete series on DVD, there’s a cute deleted scene at the end of the bloopers where Manny sings a song called, “Who Will Buy My Books Today?” to the browsing customers. You’ll find that song stuck in your head for days. You’ll probably hate me for that. In fact, you’ll probably throw yourself into a fit of rage that would make Bernard Black proud. Then you’ll realize he’s not even a real person and that you’ve made no one proud. Poor you.

Bernard: (explaining the job to Manny) The pay’s not great, but the work is hard.

4. “A Nice Change” (Season 2: Episode 5)

The sound of construction next door is driving everyone mad. The gang decides to go on a holiday somewhere far away for a week until the construction is completed. There are two things I really like about this episode. The first being that so much is left unsaid. We don’t get to see their vacation. Instead, we see them at the airport before they’re to leave, and then suddenly it’s a week later and we see the sad state they are in. Bernard is wearing a colorful, tropical shirt and a…. skirt. He’s also sporting a rather large bandage on his neck. Manny looks disheveled with his hair matted down across his forehead. Fran is wearing the exact same clothes when she left for the trip. The closest we get to knowing what happened on that trip is slip up from Manny who mentions something about sacrificing a monkey. The second thing I like about the episode is the ending. Construction has ended, but their problems have only begun.

Fran: (recalling their trip) At least the natives thought that Manny was their god.

Manny: Yes, it’ll be some time before I want to sacrifice another monkey.

Bernard: (grabs Manny by the collar) WE SAID WE WOULDN’T TALK ABOUT CANADA!

5.  “Party” (Season 3: Episode 6)

The series finale finds Bernard, Manny and Fran together in the book shop on a Friday night. Manny suggests they go to a nearby party his friends are throwing and hopes to hit it off with a girl he fancies. When they return, everyone is completely smashed and clutching a bottle of booze, or something they hope will keep their buzz going (children’s cough syrup, anyone?). Manny is upset that things didn’t go his way that night and explodes on Bernard for being heartless and cold. What follows is the only true moment in the series where there’s a sense of seriousness. We find out why Bernard is the way he is and, for the briefest of moments, I pitied him. Of course seconds later the show returns to its normal, happy-go-drunk self. But I love those moments in a show when you feel something so unexpected, especially when the show is normally ridiculous in nature. I can’t say that this is how I would have liked the series to end, but I’m glad they didn’t drag it out like American shows tend to do.

Bernard: (to Manny) I tell you what, we are going to this party because I’m trying to picture this “girl” who “likes you” and all I can see is you in a dress.

You can click on the links to download the episodes or seasons through iTunes, or visit your local Slackers to have them order them for you!