In “Mr. Bean,” which first aired on New Year’s Day, 1990, the bumbling title character (Rowan Atkinson) settles into a church pew for the long slog of a droning service. He stares at the ceiling, drifts off to sleep, and blows his nose into the pocket of his blazer, but the most telling moment in this, the episode that introduced the now-iconic figure to Britain and the world, comes courtesy of a candy wrapper.
Scanning his fellow worshippers to make sure no one’s looking, he slowly unravels the twisted plastic, grimacing as it crinkles. When the gray-haired man sitting next to him sends a stern glance in his direction, Bean swivels in his seat and shakes his head vehemently, as if to say, “Who, me?”—and then proceeds to open the treat anyway. Watching “Mr. Bean: The Whole Bean 25th Anniversary Collection,” now available from Shout! Factory, it’s clear that Bean is no innocent, but rather a comic outlaw, taking a jocular shot across society’s bow by breaking the unspoken rules of everyday life.
The series, which ran on Britain’s ITV until 1995 and has since spawned two Working Title hits (“Bean,” “Mr. Bean’s Holiday”), an animated TV series, and a video game, is a joyful swipe at the little absurdities we endure at the department store and the public pool, in trains, planes, and automobiles, using Atkinson’s unusual comic persona to question the most basic social graces. Nearly wordless, broken into extended, pre-recorded sketches with an added laugh track, the first iteration of “Mr. Bean” is a bracing amalgam of influences, from silent comedies to Jacques Tati, but the series’ most riotous gags all share an unyielding focus on the ridiculousness of rules. Bean, for all his good-natured smiling, is an anarchist through and through.
Whether he is, as Atkinson told the Scotsman in 2005, “a child in a grown man’s body,” or, as the brief title sequence begins to suggest, an alien beamed down to Earth on a wave of white light, Bean is a stranger in a strange land, and what he finds here is an endless series of inexplicable rituals. In “The Return of Mr. Bean,” for instance, he celebrates his birthday at an elegant restaurant, deconstructing the seemingly “ordinary” aspects of fine dining in the process: the high cost, the obsequious service, the unfamiliar cuisine. Pressing a few pounds into the server’s hand as soon as his food arrives, or hiding his steak tartare in a small vase of flowers, Bean becomes a comic anthropologist of the social contract, exposing the arbitrariness of even the simplest interaction. We’re as bizarre to him as he is to us.
Bean is no rube, though, and Atkinson’s genius shines brightest when the character encounters a disapproving, or perhaps completely bemused, regular Joe. In the series’ very first sketch, Bean sits for an exam, but not before a little gamesmanship with a fellow test-taker. When the man lays a blue pen on his desk, Bean, bulging his eyes in a significant stare, removes one, two, three, four, five pens of his own, and then a bundle, and then a stuffed policeman, a Pink Panther, and a child’s alarm clock. Bean has a mean-streak, the rebel’s “You want a piece of me?” sneer, and though the bit lands in part because of the ludicrous props, the truly novel element in the comedy of “Mr. Bean” is this slightly bitter undercurrent, this anti-heroic spark.
Presented here in 14 episodes, a short documentary, and several never-before-seen sketches, Bean emerges not as a naïf but as a wily mutineer, playing out our fantasies of a world without strictures. He may be foolish, but he’s nobody’s fool: he most assuredly knows the rules, and then proceeds to break them anyway. In this sense, Bean is an emblem of both wonder and mischief, suggesting, even as he sends up the most risible features of modern life, that the tacit compromise between the individual and society exists for a reason. Otherwise we’d act as Mr. Bean does, anarchists all.
“Mr. Bean: The Whole Bean 25th Anniversary Collection” is now available from Shout! Factory.