From Maggie Simpson to Father Dougal, arrested development is so core to the art and sustainability of the average sitcom that there’s even one named after it. To allow your characters to age, evolve or experience major life changes – beyond the long-teased will-they-won’t-they cop-off at the end of series three – is to risk unbalancing the chemistry or, worse still, allowing them the faculties to consider escaping their intricately constructed comedy bear trap.
Rarely, though, has the fine art of arrested development been so liberally, and often brilliantly, deployed as in Stath Lets Flats. If we came to series one expecting a satirical takedown of a laughably overpriced and exploitative rental market that expects you to shell out 400 per cent of your monthly income to live in a ‘well-appointed’ cat litter tray above an all-night abattoir on Tooting’s ‘trendy’ Asbestos Mile, we were disappointed. Stath misses a million tricks by speeding through the viewing scenes, with their landing toilets, four-foot ceilings and kitchen-diner-bedroom-bogs. Instead, it gave us the diametric opposite of South Park – the behaviours of the playground transposed into the adult world.
Writer and star Jamie Demetriou pointedly gives Stath an excuse for his notoriously poor English, the Stath-isms which acts as the show’s comedy froth. He only started speaking English on his arrival from Cyprus at 14, so we can excuse him calling clients “langlords”, hoping to work “park-time” in a barber’s or pronouncing pretty much everything like Borat having a stroke. But his linguistic tumbling through a language he’s only half learned actually signposts his essential character schtick. Stath, you see, is a six-year-old, in a suit, who can drive.
He tuts and whines moodily whenever asked to do anything at all. He forms random, rudimentary attachments that flick from adoration to disdain and back again in an instant. He’s inordinately clumsy, socially incompetent and incapable of the merest hint of tact or discretion. He’s deeply concerned about being liked, coy about sex, believes it’s a short, inevitable step from mild flirtation to marriage and has absolutely no idea how food works, let alone a pizza restaurant. It’s a miracle he’s yet to do a viewing in Paw Patrol pyjamas.
And he’s far from alone in his peer group. Sister Sophie – played by Demetriou’s real-life sister Natasia – is the archetypal shy kid in the corner, inventing awkward, unconfident songs, dances and plays with her moody-cool friend Katia in the hope of gaining any form of personal affirmation from an audience, just for trying. Her courtship with Stath’s workmate Al, the 10-year-old school geek personified with the pre-pubescent singing voice to match, consisted almost entirely of the pair laughing nervously at jokes that weren’t funny. Then, when their love finally came to fruition, they didn’t collapse into each other’s arms a la Friends‘ Chandler and Monica or The US Office‘s Pam and Jim. Nope, they jumped excitedly on the spot for a minute, then needed a poo.
Smethwicks are the cool older kids from the rival school, Cem the well-meaning kid from the bottom class with behavioural issues, Katy Wix’s Carole the businesslike childminder. Kiell Smith-Bynoe’s Dean is often cast, teacherly, as the only adult in the room as the dynamic has become more emphasised over the course of three series. The final episodes of season three made the conceit as blatant as possible, with business meetings held in actual playgrounds and the whole series literally ending with a kiss-chase. There’s a key, somewhat meta moment in the season which sets the schoolyard premise of Stath in stone. Watching a home video of the foundation of Michael & Eagle many years before, Dean notes the interactions and behaviours of each main player and mutters: “Exactly the same stuff.”
Such a simplistic concept should make for a series so shallow you’d expect Leigh Francis to have a hand in it. But Stath touches on genius thanks not just to Demetriou’s undeniably tour de force performances but to its setting. The UK housing market is so obscenely unrealistic and unfair, its rents so laughably la-la land, that it makes perfect satirical sense that it would be in the hands of self-centred children we can’t say no to. And if our leaders are such clowns, then how hapless could their lowest-level facilitators be? Stath Lets Flats doesn’t set out to humanise the letting leeches or stir our sympathies for this most parasitical of lowlife, so much as highlight the mindless opportunism at the heart of an out-of-control system. At the end of the day, though, you can’t help but forgive Stath for his part in the ruse. He’s an innocent man-child with a muff to feed.