One Foot in the Grave (BBC, 1990-96; 2000) is one of the finest, most complex, British sitcoms. Its enormous success - only matched in the 1990s by Only Fools and Horses (BBC, 1981-96) - proved the form could ask difficult questions of a mass audience while still providing huge belly-laughs.
The situation is deceptively simple and traditional. Some critics balked at its apparently 'old-fashioned' suburban domestic setting, but the layers of normality are gradually peeled back to expose a dark and disturbing universe spinning out of control.
For all his anger, Victor Meldrew (Richard Wilson) remains sympathetic. His catchphrase - "I don't believe it!" - is funny because through him we see that the world really is mad. Victor rails against universal irritations, such as voicemail or clingfilm. Then bizarre misfortunes beset Victor - mistaking a dead hedgehog for a slipper or finding a toupee in a loaf of bread. Finally, the madness is the unfairness of a world in which we struggle to overcome pain and failure. The only hope becomes Margaret (Annette Crosbie) and Victor's kindness.
The show avoids being depressing because it resonates with its viewers' experience. His neighbours may consider Victor insane and unreasonable, but we know better. He voices all the complaints and concerns that we try to control, suffering so that we don't have to.
With its studio laughter, suburban setting, and comic pratfalls, One Foot in the Grave could be seen as one of the last great 'traditional' British sitcoms. But it also paves the way for much of the new comedy that followed with series such as The Office (BBC, 2001-02) and The League of Gentlemen (BBC, 1999-). David Renwick's densely plotted scripts, with their bleak view of life and dark, occasionally macabre humour, created a new kind of expectation for viewers of television comedy. Fans of the show understand that the most hilarious visual joke might immediately be followed by sudden tragedy. They also appreciate that the comic and serious elements complement each other - the acknowledgement of death and cruelty serve to heighten the laughter.
The show was brought back for a final series in 2000, culminating in Victor's death from a hit and run driver. It might seem an odd way for a sitcom to end but for One Foot in the Grave, where comedy and tragedy are so intertwined, it seems entirely appropriate.