Night on a deserted street in London. Saint Paul’s Cathedral shines on the horizon. A beam of light shoots down from the sky and expands into a spotlight. A man falls from above and lands smack on the ground. He wears a tweed jacket and red tie, brown slacks and a white shirt. An angelic choir begins to sing in Latin.
Ecce homo qui est faba.
“Behold the man who is a bean.”
Mr. Bean has been around for so long, is so iconic, and has produced so much related material – two movies and an animated series, for starters – that it’s hard to remember sometimes it’s barely a TV show by conventional standards. It has zero seasons, with each of its fourteen episodes (plus a clip show) airing standalone over the course of six years. Annual standalone episodes of popular sitcoms – usually Christmas specials – are a staple of British TV, but they typically come after a show has aired at least a couple of full six-episode series.
I rewatched Mr. Bean earlier this year for the first time since I was a child and, even with the decline in the later episodes, I was pleased to find it’s still one of the best television shows of any kind ever made. Rowan Atkinson is transcendent as Bean. He can provoke fits of gut-wrenching laughter with a twitch of his eyebrow and he has few peers as a physical comedian. It might be the greatest comic performance in television history. But it’s not all him – the show is just well-made, particularly the editing, which is a masterclass in comic timing. Just watch the sandwich-making scene from “The Curse of Mr. Bean”: the long over-the-shoulder shot of Mr. Bean washing his lettuce in a park fountain and putting it in his sock while Angus Deayton watches bemusedly cuts to a parallel shot of the two men just as Bean starts swinging the sock around, to give a sense of scale to Deayton’s flinch.
Often, when we return to childhood favourites, we encounter subtext we missed as children. All of the jokes in The Simpsons you didn’t get, or the not-great racial politics of Pocahontas. The sudden realisation that Labyrinth is, in part, about puberty and that’s why David Bowie has a distracting crotch bulge. One of the basic principles of the modern critical discourse is that “all art is political”, and therefore fair game for political criticism, like challenging its portrayal of women or interrogating its moral values. It’s usually deployed reactively, when rebuking people whose only response to unflattering cultural analysis of art they like is to accuse critics of shoehorning their politics into their work. It’s a fair retort in that context, but it’s too often thrown around as a slogan without further analysis or thought, or used to deflect fair critiques of poor political criticism.
Not all art is equally political, or political in the same way. The truest way in which all art is political is that all art, particularly narrative art, inevitably refers to the world in some way, and is therefore embedded in its political and social context. For example, the Toy Story movies are about a single-parent household, and even though it’s not at issue in the text, it’s clearly a lens through which you can think about Andy’s relationship with his toys. But there’s an obvious difference in the way The Big Short is political and, say, Some Like It Hot is political. It’s hard to describe exactly. Previously, I’ve phrased it as “all art has moral and political content, not all art has a moral or political purpose”, but “purpose” is a loaded word that implies a level of intentionality or design that isn’t necessarily accurate or helpful. Suffice it to say, some art is bursting with political content and some art is almost empty. Some art is obviously about things and trying to say things and wants you to believe things, but lots isn’t. Some art wades intentionally into political issues, some stumbles into them accidentally, and some have nothing to do with them. All art is political, but not all of it is so political it’s noteworthy.
Mr. Bean is easily the least political TV show I’ve ever seen. There are a couple of gags related to the Royal Family, of whom Mr. Bean is a fan, but you could swap in other celebrities – the Corrs, perhaps – and it wouldn’t make much of a difference. Mr. Bean is a white man, and you could do one of those “if the main character were a different gender or race, people would react differently to it” takes, but such takes are rarely analysis of the work itself so much as commentary on society, and collapse with worrying frequency into shit like Jack Halberstam calling Manchester by the Sea racist because if the protagonist was black, he would have been shot for taking a policeman’s gun. But even though my mind is so saturated with critical theory and rotted from reading endless takes that I can barely look at a birthday card without analysing it to pieces, I didn’t have to actively turn off my brain to watch Mr. Bean as pure entertainment. It just is pure entertainment, and it’s honestly incredible.
Lots of odd characters in comedy are, intentionally or not, at least partially coded as mentally ill, intellectually disabled or autistic. The most blatant example is Sheldon Cooper in The Big Bang Theory, who’s only not explicitly described as autistic in the show because then its creators would have to admit the main source of comedy in their show is making fun of autistic people. But Bean isn’t strange in a way that resembles any illness, disability or neurodivergence. Even his preference for non-verbal communication doesn’t read that way, since it clearly is just a preference – he can speak, but just doesn’t like to, for some reason. He’s strange like a man who’s gradually accumulated a bunch of misconceptions about the world and idiosyncratic habits, none of which would make him that eccentric on their own, but in aggregate, transform him into the weirdest person in the world. Atkinson has described him as “a child in a grown man’s body” but that’s not exactly right: he has too much guile for that. He kind of comes off like an alien – a not-uncommon interpretation of the opening credits – but, more than anything, he’s just himself, totally and completely, a middle-aged man in a tweed suit who carries a teddy bear around and locks his awful car with a padlock and butters his sandwiches with his credit card. I can’t think of anything more perfectly Mr. Bean than when he notices he and another customer have accidentally switched credit cards, so he tries to swap them back by pickpocketing rather than just talk to the man. It’s not that he’s too anxious or awkward or whatever, it’s just how he decides to approach the situation.
I know there’s a risk, in describing something as pure entertainment because it’s not very political, that I’ve framed political content as a corruption that infects art and detracts from it. But it’s simply an acknowledgement that political content (or, at least, significant political content, since all art is political) isn’t fundamental to art in the way that things like form and genre are, that it’s an inflection or quality that art can have, but doesn’t always. Some art does – and should – exist just to delight its audience. Mr. Bean is that kind of art, and thank God. I love provocative, political art as much as anyone. My favourite film is Brazil, the greatest dystopian satire ever made. But sometimes you want to watch something that just makes you happy, not in a way that requires you to “turn off your brain”, but which lets you dedicate your whole attention to the perfect delight of a man introducing Daleks to the Nativity.
So, behold him. The man who headbutts the Queen of England. The man who locks himself inside a postbox. The man who unplugs the Christmas lights at Harrod’s.
Behold the man who is a bean.