First of all, one thing hardly needs said. Rowan Atkinson’s face and body language is a wonder of the world.
He can convey an encyclopaedia of expression. More animated than any cartoon character, Man vs Bee is a constant reminder of how much we’ve missed Atkinson flexing his formidable comedy muscles.
Not since Mr Bean has his genius been given as much joyful, manic free rein. And Man vs Bee, landing this week on Netflix, is the perfect platform for him.
The entire plot is covered by the title. Atkinson plays Trevor Bingley, a blundering but well-meaning divorced father who’s finally secured a job as a house sitter.
The house is full of fancy gadgets, plush furnishing, expensive artwork – and one bee. Cue havoc.
Told over nine bitesize episodes, Man vs Bee consists of moreish morsels with great repeat value. Each follows the gradual escalation, starting with a simple brushing away of a passing bee to chasing it through a house with a flamethrower.
Every step is logical, reasonable, relatable – even when Trevor is caught by a policeman wearing a fur coat and dog collar. (A “good boy” shoutout should go to the house’s resident dog Cupcake, Atkinson’s main living co-star).
With limited dialogue and outlandish stunts, it could have been a vehicle for Mr Bean.
“We didn’t really want to do it as a Mr Bean project,” Rowan Atkinson has said. “Mr Bean is fun, but he is quite a weirdo. A childish figure and very self-centred. I wanted a new character, and I liked the idea of playing a nicer, milder man with a broader outlook and a more identifiable life and situation.”
While we Brits believe the world sees us all as James Bonds or Harry Potters, the truth is that Mr Bean probably defines us best. Next to the Queen, he is probably the UK’s most famous face. He sums up how the world really sees us. Petty. Dogged in our self-deception. But not entirely charmless.
Trevor is an evolution of that character, with softened traits, resulting in him perfectly personifying us in 2022. Tries and fails. Tries again, fails harder.
The foes that puncture our hopes and dreams are not some dastardly villain, but happenstance and bad luck.
While in this day and age being a bumbling buffoon won’t necessarily hold you back in life, for most of us, our good intentions are proving increasingly futile. Get a job to save money and provide for your family? Don’t bother. There will be a global pandemic and cost of living crisis caused by forces outside your control.
Which brings us to the antagonist. This CGI white-tailed bumblebee is a glorious creation.
It has precedents on television. There’s the infamous third season episode of Breaking Bad where Walter White and Jesse Pinkman spend the whole time trying to catch a pesky fly contaminating their meth lab. Among many Breaking Bad fans it’s considered the most hated episode, blatant mid-season filler. But simultaneously the storyline sums up the entire series. Despite being up to their necks in gang wars, and transforming from normal men, innocent men to criminal masterminds, it’s not an evil drug kingpin that presents the biggest risk and the most furious frustration, but outlying, unseen, unpredictable elements that could sideswipe any of us at any time.
Walter White and Trevor Bingley cannot escape their inevitable, disastrous destinies once their story is set in motion. And so they are all of us.
The Breaking Bad fly and Man Vs Bee bee stand in for many of life’s challenges. The best laid plans are consistently swatted away by fly or bee (or mice). And what’s worse is that these creatures are totally unaware of our plight.
There’s a complete absence of malice on the bee’s part – but that only makes it more sinister. Relentless in its oblivious villainy, the bee symbolises the parts of our lives that are on the surface completely benign while they’re simultaneously undercutting the fabric of society. There’s the constant hum of social media. Modern technology. Consumerism. The actions that used to make life fulfilling and give meaning – from going on holiday to having a child – are now sources of guilt, adding to our carbon footprint and destroying the planet.
How can we keep calm and carry on when everything is spiralling out of control in unprecedented, unpredictable ways? If you told Trevor the bee he tried to get to buzz off would lead to catastrophic carnage, he wouldn’t believe you. If we told ourselves two and a bit years ago how our reality was about to be warped, we wouldn’t believe ourselves either.
And resistance against who-knows-what surprise coming our way next is futile. Pushing back only risks absolutely everything toppling over until we’re all aiming metaphorical flamethrowers at each other, ignoring the fact that burning down the house isn’t going to help any situation long-term.
Or… this could just be a show about a funny man bothered by a bee.