From the opening, it’s hard to tell if “Takin’ Over the Asylum” is going to be a comedy or not. Window salesman Ken Stott is rushing out of a customer’s house for some reason, running away from a potential sale apparently—I’m not sure you need to have seen Glengarry Glen Ross or Tin Men to really grok the sales culture but they sure helped me with it—because he’s late for his radio show. Stott’s got an oldies show he’s been doing for eight years and it turns out it’s his last show because he’s a volunteer and Ashley Jensen’s staff and she wants her own show and people might actually listen to hers. It’s a quick cameo from Jensen as the hip mid-nineties alternative fan versus classic rock means the fifties too guy Stott.
So Stott’s out. But the radio station manager does tell him about another potential gig, resurrecting the radio station at a local mental hospital. At this point it no longer seems like the show can be a comedy because the title’s so direct it’d be weird to subvert it. Contraction not withstanding.
Before Stott gets to the hospital—St. Jude’s, hence the episode title—we also meet his disappointed Lithuanian grandmother Elizabeth Spriggs. She lives with Stott. Oh. They’re Scottish. It’s not really super important to know right off because once David Tennant shows up, he’s flamboyantly Scottish. Tennant’s a patient at the hospital and quickly becomes Stott’s sidekick, whether Stott wants one or not.
The show’s got an interesting way of handling the radio station at the hospital—we don’t get a big tour, we don’t get to meet Stott’s boss, instead, he just goes to the radio station and starts getting to work. He meets nurse Angela Bruce, who’s around but in the background. No doctors lurking about either. It’s mostly just Stott and the patients (though also jerk tough guy Kenneth Bryans is around for roughing up unruly patients). This episode focuses on Mary MacLeod, who’s speaking something language she’s made up so no one even knows her name for sure.
Outside Tennant, MacLeod becomes Stott’s first real listener. His radio show goes up against some pretty popular television programs the patients prefer watching, so it takes a whole scheme to get people interested in the radio station. As it unfolds, we meet some more of the regular cast, Angus Macfadyen and Ruth McCabe. McCabe’s got OCD and cleans everything, including the disaster zone station, Macfadyen’s a tech genius who can help with the busted old radio equipment.
We also briefly meet a fetching lady patient, Katy Murphy, who Stott notes until her behavior starts throwing him off. And then his boss at the window company—Roy Hanlon—who plays it outrageous, almost absurdist humor without a laugh track and it’s mesmerizingly good.
The finale goes for a sharp stab to the heart; the show’s off to an excellent start. Stott’s great, Tennant’s charming; excellent writing from Donna Franceschild and good direction from David Blair.