Each of us lives inside a little bubble of culture -- containing the things we like -- inside a bigger bubble of culture that holds the things that are available to us to like. The world is made of these bubbles, which can intersect to greater or lesser degrees. The culture bubbles of the United States and Finland, for instance, meet with relative infrequency, while those of the U.S. and England can seem to overlap to such a degree that it seems sometimes we must be living identical lives, culture bubble-wise.
But this is not true. Let's take British television comedy, which has been regularly broadcast on PBS for more than three decades and on multiplying cable outlets since, right up to BBC America. Yet we know only what we're served -- "Benny Hill" and "Mr. Bean," "Ab Fab" and "Blackadder," "Monty Python" and "Are You Being Served?" -- and though the recent stateside success of series like "The Office," now replicated in an American flavor, means that we're getting more British shows sooner, we're still only fractionally informed and behind the times.
Take Steve Coogan, who is now nearly 40 and has been a force in English comedy for more than a decade -- he was recently ranked 17th among the all-time-greatest comics, according to a survey of comedy professionals, ahead of Rowan Atkinson, Michael Palin, Stephen Fry and Ricky Gervais of "The Office" fame, who has certainly been influenced by Coogan. But he is just coming into focus in this country: What might have been his mainstream breakthrough, last year's big-budget remake of "Around the World in 80 Days," did badly, and he is breaking into Hollywood by way of high-cachet but lesser-seen independent films such as "24 Hour Party People," in which he plays impresario Tony Wilson, and Jim Jarmusch's "Coffee and Cigarettes," in which he plays "himself."
You might have seen him there, or in Terry Jones' "Wind in the Willows" (distributed here as "Mr. Toad's Wild Ride"), in which he is a sweet Mole among a cast of Pythons. But unless you have made an extraordinary effort, or had the right friends, you will not have seen the real core of the comedian's work, little of which has crossed the Atlantic. You will not have seen "Coogan's Run," a kind of suburban-English "Spoon River Anthology" that includes a pitch-perfect re-creation of an old Ealing comedy; or his "Dr. Terrible's House of Horrible," a six-part tribute to the Hammer House of Horror; or "The Tony Ferrino Phenomenon," in which he becomes a politically incorrect Portuguese pop singer; or his films "The Parole Officer" or "Cruise of the Gods." Most crucially, you will not have encountered any of several works featuring the young philosopher-drunk Paul Calf and his sexually overactive sister Pauline Calf (both played by Coogan), or Alan Partridge, his greatest creation, a chat-show host forever rocketing between desperate fawning and disdain.
But now, as if to acknowledge the belated rise of Coogan's star over American shores -- he's acting in Sofia Coppola's next movie, will be doing something soon with Ben Stiller -- BBC America is about to show "The Alan Partridge Experience." Presumably, if we can handle "The Office," we can handle Partridge, whose mix of self-approval and arrogant insecurity anticipates that show's David Brent in many ways.
Beginning Saturday and running for 19 weeks, the package doesn't represent the complete Partridge. It leaves out, for example, the character's first TV appearances, as a sports reporter, in the news parody "The Day Today." But it will give you a sense of Coogan's development as an artist, from the 1994 "Knowing Me, Knowing You," through a Christmas special ("Knowing Me, Knowing Yule") and on to the "fly on the wall" sitcom "I'm Alan Partridge," from 1997 and 2002, which follows Alan after his fall from grace -- as he lands on late-night radio back in Norwich and plots his return to television.
There's a sense in which Alan is an impossible creation -- he is too extraordinarily bad at what he does to have ever made it as far as he has. But he is real, nevertheless, as are all of Coogan's characters, however broadly drawn. What makes them real is their humanity -- not in the warm, cuddly sense to which the word is usually put, but in the way that each is supported by a web of sharp detail in which we can recognize a fellow faulty human, and our own potential awfulness.
It's all about him