Black Books Pilot (2000) TV Study

The pilot episode of Black Books is called “Cooking The Books”.

One thing Cooking The Books does really well is introducing the audience very quickly to the three main characters (all of them transcending stock characters, though based on stock), and weaving them together for gags at the climax. When broken down, we can see that each of the story strands indeed has the seven basic steps of a complete narrative. Indeed, even the minor characters, the Mormons, have their own complete storyline.

1. Weakness/Need

Bernard

Psychological need: He’s terrible with numbers and has no patience to learn how to do his own taxes.

Moral need:  He’s horrible to people, and as an example, doesn’t even know his own mother’s name.

Fran

Psychological need: She is a bit clueless and probably a drunk. For example, she’s ordered something to sell but has no idea what it is.

Moral need: Self-centred, she plans to get drunk while her friend gives birth ‘so that it can be like the good old days’. She has no desire to actually help the friend. She sells ‘a lot of wank’ to her customers.

Manny

Psychological need: Manny is highly-strung to the extreme, and can’t control his cortisol levels.

Moral need: He isn’t doing his job properly even though he’s being paid to do it. He is petty and in order to get out of a situation he’s been ‘caught out’ in he’ll continue to elaborate on the lie. (A common feature of comedy characters.)

The Mormons

Psychological need: They’re out proselytising but they have no idea what they’re really supposed to be saying.

Moral need: They push the word of god onto people even if they don’t want to hear it. (The audience knows this moral need already — it doesn’t need to be set up by the show.)

2. Desire

Bernard wants to get his taxes done so he doesn’t get in trouble with the tax department.

Fran wants to find out what the big round thing is that has arrived in her shop and which she has to sell in great numbers.

Manny wants to do as little work as possible while remaining calm. In order to do this he needs a ‘The Little Book Of Calm’ at arm’s length so that he can refer to it at any time.

The Mormons wish to convert Bernard to Mormonism, or something (they’re not really sure — what they really want to do is go door to door knocking, then onto the next one, as they’ve obviously been told).

3. Opponent

Bernard’s opponents are ironic. Normally people are annoyed by Mormons knocking on the door, but Bernard welcomes the distraction because he is in the middle of his taxes and has already paired all his socks. Bernard wants to get his legs broken, so the thugs who eventually beat him up are unwittingly doing him a favour. Bernard’s real opponent is the tax office, unseen by the audience.

Fran doesn’t have a clear, single opponent in this episode, unless it’s her friend giving birth, which will be standing in the way of her partying from here on in. 

Manny’s opponent is his immediate boss, who expects him to do work, which he can’t/won’t do.

The Mormons’ opponent is Bernard, who is a sort of ‘secret enemy ally’ — his only motivation is to procrastinate over his taxes but he gives them the impression he’s interested in hearing all about Jesus.

4. Plan

The main source of comedy in this episode is that Bernard’s initial, sensible plan does not work. His subsequent ideas get more and more ridiculous. In fact, this is the format of the entire show. As TV Tropes explains:

Black Books relied on A Simple Plan for pretty much all of its plots. The characters would decide to go to a party, or do their taxes, or write a children’s book, or something, and would more or less use this as a springboard for a lot of bizarre and/or appalling behaviour, until they eventually failed, or at best broke even.

Bernard plans to get his dodgy accountant to do his tax but this can’t happen, first because Bernard’s book keeping skills are terrible and second because the police come for the accountant while Bernard is sitting in his office. So he is forced to change his plan: He decides he’ll read all the instructions and do his tax himself. But he doesn’t know the most basic information about himself (e.g. His mother’s first name, let alone her maiden name), and he can’t understand the instructions. He welcomes any distraction. Finally, he reads a bit where he can delay filling out his tax form if he can prove he’s been sick/injured, so he plans to get his legs broken. He’ll swap this favour for a free book. But this plan doesn’t work even after he’s set it up because the man who has agreed to break his legs realises at the last second that he has in fact read this book and doesn’t want it anymore. So next, Bernard plans to start a fight with some thugs.

Fran’s plan is to ask everyone she comes across what they think the lighter thing is. Fran’s plot line is a mystery, of sorts.

Manny’s plan is to buy a copy of The Little Book Of Calm and read it while looking like he’s working but actually eating chunky soup at his desk. This plan goes wrong when he accidentally drinks the little book when it falls into the soup. For the rest of the episode he wanders round in a Jesus-like state spouting advice from the book.

The Mormons plan to come back later, after Bernard is finished being drunk, and work on their conversion then.

5. Battle

Bernard’s battleground is the fight between him and the thugs, which he picks deliberately. This is your classic ‘battle scene’.

Fran’s battleground should be the birthing room but she is instead having her own battle — rushing up to a customer and demanding to know what the round thing is. The scenes are similar in their levels of desperation. When another customer suggests the ball looks like ‘a fake breast that dads wear’, Fran is suddenly reminded of where she’s supposed to be.

Manny’s battleground is also with the thugs, until Bernard intervenes.

We don’t see the Mormons’ battle, but we do see Bernard drunk and saying goodbye to them, so we can assume this is their battleground. The looks on their faces show that they are rather taken aback by whatever has just preceded the arrival of our camera.

6. Self-Revelation

Bernard works out that the Jesus figure who he has woken up to is an accountant. He realises he can just get him to do his accounts (and also ask him for a wine and a sandwich with a pickle.)

Fran works out that the ball thing is a lighter when she sees Manny using it.

Manny’s ‘self-revelation’ comes in the form of cheese lines spouted out of The Little Book Of Calm which he has literally swallowed… and absorbed into his system.

When Manny opens the door of Black Books looking like Jesus, the Mormons run away.

7. New Equilibrium

Bernard has a friend who is going to do his books for him.

Fran has a best friend who now has a baby (and are they still best friends, since she forgot to turn up for the birth?)

Manny is a much calmer version of his former himself, and has a new friend in Bernard.

The Mormons presumably they think Manny is the second coming or something — we know they won’t be back — not by choice, anyway!

Irony in this episode

Irony is the ‘meaningful gap between expectation and outcome’.

Presentation Irony: This is when the audience is used to the tropes of a particular genre but the story throws us off course. The audience expects Mormons to be experts on all things biblical. But ironically, Bernard actually knows more about Jesus than the Mormons do. This is ironic on multiple levels: Because he knows nothing at all about taxes, even though that’s his business — no one in this show knows how to do their job properly — they’re all complete misfits. The other irony is that we expect people who know about Jesus to behave in a ‘Christian like manner’, and Bernard is basically a cynical misanthrope.

Opposite Outcome Irony: This episode has several instances of this kind of irony. Lemons become lemonade when the skinheads turn up outside Bernard’s shop, because he was just aiming to cut off his own wrist with an electric kitchen knife after trying desperately to persuade someone to break his legs for him. Also, when Manny almost dies from swallowing a book he absorbs its messages into his system and turns into a Jesus-like figure.

Surprising means to an end: “Oh come on Bernard, you’d really have to cripple yourself. You’re hardly going to do that just to avoid doing your accounts,” Fran says, the voice of reason. The look on Bernard’s face tells us that’s exactly the sort of thing he would do.

Leave a Reply