Black Books takes place at the titular Black Books, owned by Bernard Black. Bernard hates everything. No, seriously, he hates everything. And everyone. He doesn't want to be bothered by customers, even when they would like to give him money for books; in fact, here, have some money, get out of his store. I did have some trouble suspending my disbelief at the store's very existence as a financially viable operation, given how Bernard treats his customers and how little he seems to know about running a business. He is ludicrously unable to take care of himself, his hair a constant mess and his home (in the back of the bookstore) a Level 3 hazard zone. Dylan Moran—also co-creator and writer/co-writer on every episode—actually manages to make Bernard somewhat endearing at times, which is impressive, given what a terrible arse he is. It helps that he does get some hilarious lines and the occasional genuinely sympathetic moment.
In contrast to Bernard the misanthrope, we have Manny Bianco, who is incredibly cheerful but ludicrously incompetent. Manny loves customers and will do his very best to serve them and help them find the books they need, but don't bother giving him instructions because he will probably mishear and/or forget them, leading to comical shenanigans. Bernard constantly torments him and calls him nickname after nickname to make fun of his hair (as if his bird's nest of a 'do is so great), but they have a very co-dependent relationship, as Manny essentially becomes Bernard's caretaker/slave/son, and both of them are quite attached to their roles. Every so often, Manny does attempt to grow a backbone and break free of the cycle of abuse, but he always comes back because this show likes the status quo. Bill Bailey plays Manny with much gusto, and even when he's being an idiot, you can't help but love him. It helps that he's not always an idiot, and he often has great moments of inspiration.
Rounding out the trio is Fran Katzenjammer, Bernard's oldest friend and a regular presence in the store. Although she fulfills a necessary role in the character dynamics of the show, she doesn't have as strong a character definition as Bernard or Manny. In comparison, she is relatively normal, but only in comparison. Like Bernard, she is often found drinking and/or smoking, but unlike Bernard, she treats Manny nicely. Hey, there is one episode where people make fun of her hair, so let's keep that theme going. Because Fran doesn't work at the bookshop, she gets a variety of plots that allow us to see the outside world more often than usual. Tamsin Greig gives Fran an awkward likability. It helps that unlike Jen from The IT Crowd, she actually feels like a real person instead of a female stereotype.
Bernard, Manny, and Fran have all sorts of wacky adventures that stem from problem customers, authors doing readings, and even many things not involving the bookstore at all. I was pleasantly surprised by the variety of stories but dismayed at the lack of continuity; only a few episodes even acknowledge anything that happened in a previous episode. But there is no bad episode in the eighteen; each one is pretty solid. Interestingly, even though my final motivation to watch the show was Graham Linehan's involvement, he was only involved with the first season, so the show is really more of a Dylan Moran joint. And, well, the show actually gets better once Linehan leaves. Although I did like the surreal nature of some first-season episodes, the rest of the series is more grounded and mines humor from the characters rather than stylistic departures and flights of fancy. I didn't laugh out loud all that frequently, but the show is very funny and has just the right dose of oddball strangeness. I did appreciate the amount of work the show sometimes went to pull off a brilliant visual gag, although I think that was a Linehan thing.
The show is also notable for its parade of guest stars, which include several people from Spaced, a couple from Green Wing, and even one from Garth Marenghi's Darkplace.
As I consult my records, I realize that Black Books is a show I was first recommended six years ago, before I even watched my first British comedy, Green Wing (followed soon after by Spaced). I'm glad to have finally seen this Britcom classic!