As comedy set-ups go, this one’s pretty good: Romesh (Romesh Ranganathan) finds himself stuck behind the bar of a traditional British pub when his father dies and leaves him the family business. Trouble is, Romesh is a 40-ish man-child far more interested in pursuing a career as a DJ than pulling pints, and his approach to running what is obviously a customer-centric business is a scowl and keeping one eye on the exit.
The twist is that all this actually happened: when Ranganathan’s father died in 2011, the aspiring stand-up comic and DJ was put in charge of his father’s pub. Considering he’s spent most of the last decade honing his comedy skills doing stand-up and appearing in various documentary series – he’s probably best known in Australia for his travel series Asian Provocateur – it’s safe to say his adventures running a pub didn’t go well. But that experience gives The Reluctant Landlord just enough grit to make the comedy bite.
This isn’t a sitcom where an eager dad drags his family along on a new (and clearly doomed) adventure. Brow-beaten into the gig by his mother, Romesh is barely interested in running a pub; his interests are superheroes, hip-hop and snacks. The rest of his family is far more into the situation, with his new-agey lawyer wife Natasha (Sian Gibson) the cheery one of the duo… until his sub-par advice to one of their school-aged kids has exactly the result anyone else but Romesh would expect. Let’s just say, telling a kid being bullied to “hit back” isn’t going to win you any friends, especially once the kid takes the advice to heart (and fist).
Things don’t go smoothly with the clientele either. Yes, there’s an Irish bar manager, Julie (Yasmine Akram) to handle things. The regulars seem harmless too, especially Lemon (Nick Helm). But much of the first episode revolves around an old mate of his dad’s known as “Dirty Harry” (Phil Davis) who’s back on the scene after a while away (in prison) and is looking to pay for everything with a fistful of cash that may or may not be legit.
Harry is a surprisingly menacing figure, with a collection of sinister anecdotes and a steady stream of comments that are just a little bit too racist to be laughed off. The Reluctant Landlord isn’t a sitcom that’s trying to be edgy; there’s plenty of relationship banter and jokes about fighting over video games with his son (there’s also a curry night that sees Romesh setting his own arm on fire). But when it commits to a bit it’s willing to push it further than you might expect.
At one stage Dirty Harry runs into Romesh and his kids out on the street and proceeds to do a stereotypical “goodness-gracious-me” impression of an Indian person, right down to the head wiggle. It’s cringe-worthy stuff, which is the whole point. Running a pub isn’t all beer and darts, and if Romesh is going to make it work he can’t let people just walk all over him – even if they are as threatening as Dirty Harry.
The Reluctant Landlord understands a pub needs someone charming behind the bar to keep the punters coming back. The joke is that Romesh is not that man. Swinging between sarcastic and surprised at the indignities he has to deal with whenever he moves even slightly out of his comfort zone, he’s about as far from an ideal barman as you can imagine. Which only makes it funnier when you realise that a): this is also basically how Ranganathan comes across in his stand-up comedy and his documentary work where he’s just playing himself, and b): this whole pub landlord thing was something that really did happen to him.
In real life, his family sold off the pub after a few struggling months. The Reluctant Landlord is much more successful. Anchored by Ranganathan’s polished comedy persona, a solid supporting cast (Lemon increasingly steals the show) and a willingness to go beyond the cosy for a laugh, it manages to be warm and inviting while still serving up a surprise or two. Just like a good night down the pub, really.
Well, apart from the time Romesh decides to put on a hip-hop performance. That’s nobody’s idea of a good time.
The Reluctant Landlord seasons 1 & 2 are now streaming at SBS On Demand.
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