Jack Whitehall, lately of Good Omens, hits the road once again with his conservative and somewhat close-minded father Michael. In season three of Travels with My Father, we see the chalk-and-cheese duo visit California, and as you would expect hilarity soon ensues. It is pretty much more of the same as seen in season one and two, albeit that they are in a different country.
Jack and Michael visit a number of key places and along the way meet some interesting characters, and partake in some unusual activities. With a simple premise it is to be expected but certain moments do seem to hit the same riffs as the other seasons. The section where Jack’s mother Hilary turns up to surprise them is a prime example, as the exact same thing happened in the second season.
The repeated formula of Jack, being the more open minded and reckless one, up against Michael, who is highly restrained and not keen to try anything out of his comfort zone, is still prominent. While it is true that it is a bit repetitive, it is also a setup that serves for some good laughs. Without that dynamic Travels With My Father would simply be another travel program. It’s the conflict and contrast between the two gives the show its voice.
While it is quite clearly apparent that a good number of the situations and encounters are engineered, they are still fun to watch. With the previous two seasons, Jack has always managed to put Michael in positions he clearly doesn’t want to be in and this season is no different. The first episode probably pushes it the furthest as we see the two taking part in a nude male yoga class.
Although Travels With My Father has always had a number of staged sections, it feels even more prevalent in season three. This could be due to the fact that they are going for bigger laughs as a result of more ridiculous situations. Alternatively it could be because the third time round, it’s just more noticeable. Either way, there is definitely a sense that a lot of it has been predetermined before being filmed.
This is a slight shame, as it takes away from the documentary aspects of the show. Additionally, it is apparent that many of the people leading these classes and activities have been told about it in advance. This unfortunately removes some of the impact, as they are clearly not learning about it for the first time. When Jack and Michael attend an acting class this is painfully obvious: the teacher’s responses don’t feel natural or believable.
Having said that, there are times when the camera zooms in on a person, and their reaction seems genuine and authentic. The section where Jack is reading out the bingo numbers in the retirement home seems to be unscripted, and for me that produced the biggest laughs. Similar to the film Borat, Travels With My Father has a handful of apparently real moments mixed in with others that are clearly engineered. While still funny, it would have been nice to see just a little more comedy acquired from true moments.
Like a lot of British comedy, there are definite moments of cringe humour, usually produced by Michael, and it is Jack’s reactions that are the icing on the cake. His father’s bluntly spoken political and social views, although probably hammed up for the camera, continually result in Jack putting his face in his hands. The scene where he writes Brexit on a wall of ‘things to be grateful for’ is a prime example – especially when Jack points out he inadvertently put it above a message from someone who’s grateful for their immigrant family. This and a number of other scenes exhibit the counter-arguments he makes towards his father, representing a lot of the emotions many people in Britain are feeling at the moment.
Where they’ve hit the nail on the head is in regards to the depiction of the awkward British traveler. Michael with his conservative sensibilities and judgement of anything foreign or alien to him is practically a punchline already. As Jack goes it is more in terms of his complete failings to succeed at acclimatizing to American culture, despite his best efforts.
In one of the first sequences we see Jack zipping along the beachfront on an electric scooter trying to look cool, only to lose control and fall off. Later on in the episode we see him attempting and failing to impress a guy from the Compton ghetto with his knowledge of rap music. No matter what he wears or how he tries to act, Jack just always comes across as a bumbling Brit out of his depth. This is played up for the camera, but there are obviously elements of truth there.
It’s a fairly short season of Travels With My Father, at only two episodes (although they are an hour apiece), compared to season one that had six, and season two which had five. However this is a positive of the show: with much more it would have definitely felt like they were milking it. The concept and situations are indeed very funny, but it’s a formula that can only be kept running for so long. The fact that they recognized this and didn’t draw it out unnecessarily is a factor that definitely works in their favour.
The sequence in Las Vegas does go on a bit too long, and an awful lot of it focuses on Michael and Hilary taking selfies at various landmarks. This is of course to play up Jack’s sulkiness at having his boys’ outing ruined, but as this gag was used in the previous season, it feels slightly exhausted. Fortunately it is saved by an excellent finale, which I won’t spoil and is well worth everything leading up to it.
Throughout most of the season Jack Whitehall does what he does best, playing up his juvenile humour and antagonizing his father. But as we saw in Fresh Meat, there is a genuine vulnerability to him as a person that comes through towards the end of the season. This was exhibited in the previous two seasons and it is part of what makes him appealing as a comedian. His ability to recognize his own issues that lie behind his comedy allows there to be a heart to the show. Without this it would just be a string of situations and setups. But by infusing some genuine emotion and feeling into the show, we can’t help but feel more connected to him and Michael. There is a touching moment at the end of the second episode where he and Michael have a heart to heart, which is a nice inclusion.
Jack Whitehall: Travels With My Father season 3 delivers exactly what it says on the tin. This works both to the advantage and disadvantage of the comedy program. It has a good formula with the love/hate relationship between the two providing a number of highly amusing moments. At the same time, the whole thing does feel a little too contrived with certain setups, such as the nude yoga class or the surprise appearance from Jack’s mother, feeling a little too pre-planned. Which is a shame, because the handful of genuine moments of humour and drama are well-captured.
The main premise is of course the father and son duo participating in crazy and humorous activities. But some of the places they visit and the things they learn about are actually very interesting. The section where they are escorted around Compton is particularly engaging and there’s some resonant, hard hitting moments in there. Their contact and tour guide talks them through vibrant culture of the area, such as the music, food, and community. At the same time he outlines the district’s slightly bloody history: how in some ways that has changed, but in others not so much. It makes for content that is both informative and shocking to learn about.
What we are left with is a season that technically delivers what is expected, providing some strong comedy moments and amusing situations. It is a short and snappy season, which stops it feeling too dragged out. The downside is that in its attempt to deliver bigger jokes and sillier scenarios, it becomes slightly too artificial. It veers too much away from documentary and into drama. In the end, though, you can overlook some of these issues for the father-son dynamic between Jack and Michael.
Despite hitting many of the same notes as its previous seasons, Travels with My Father is good fun and provides more than enough laughs along the way. The moments of realism captured are where the show excels best and there is a lot of heart behind the humour.
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