IS Scotland different? Well, here’s one indicator. The most watched BBC show north of the Border in 2016 was the geriatric comedy Still Game. Its most watched episode matched the numbers for Andy Murray’s Wimbeldon final last July.

It’s a good shake-up to the Scottish cultural elites, myself included, who might lazily bemoan the absence of HBO or Danish TV style dramas coming from BBC Scotland. I’ve been an occasional watcher, but I sat down over the last few days to watch the chart-topping seventh series.

It is easy to report that Still Game is as beautifully wrought as any other leading Scottish artwork, in any other genre.

It holds a mirror up to a small nation that hangs onto its past a bit too much, even as that history has knocked pieces off its people, who still defend their brokenness passionately. It also triggers a laughter in the dark which any human culture, wrestling with hard limits inside and outside, would instantly recognise.

For one thing, Still Game is a brilliantly functional comedy. The one-liners are beautifully crafted – similies sturdy as a seventies’ sideboard, ripping giggles out of your midriff.

In this series, perspiration seems to be a fertile theme. People sweat “like Stevie Wonder at a darts final”, “Susan Boyle at a cake show”, or “Pavarotti’s pallbearer”.

Now I can hear either Jack or Victor telling me I’m about to “take this too far” – but I’m too long in my own game to worry about that. The Italian philosopher Paulo Virno says one of the liberating functions of humour is that it’s a double negation. Wit and slapstick is a tiny, last-ditch way to push back against those who are crushing you.

As Primo Levi once said of his concentration camp commandants, your oppressors will say that that you’re “not a man”. However, your muttered joke replies that you’re not “not-a-man” – even if the joke is turned against yourself. Linguistically, a gag is a way to lever open some mental freedom, from within a grim and determining situation. It’s literally a “wise-crack”.

Still Game is full of this mordant humour, playing lightly with the worst or the harshest things. In Episode 1 of the last series, Winston (an amputee) meets his brother Walter. As he shakes his hand he’s finds it’s a prosthetic.

Walter: What happened to your leg?

Winston. Lost it. Fags. What happened to your airm?

Walter: Lost it. Rigs.

In barely sixteen words from two stolid, florid, half-pissed pensioners, you have the teeming history of industrial-era Scotsmen and their health – both the acute dangers in the work itself, and the slow burn of the drugs that compensate for the grind.

But the joke seizes all that back, for one dizzying moment, in a riff of words. Billy Connolly would often say that the funniest men he ever met were in the shipyards, “It was siege humour. It was like being in jail.” (In these episodes, Victor is clearly from the same background: “Thirty years in Babcock and Wilcox”).

Probably the biggest negation that’s being negated in this show is old age and decrepitude itself. Everyone is “still game”, still desirous or ambitious or fiercely loyal, despite the encroaching darkness. But this means being brutally honest about frailty.

“Have I gotten off the lift at a zombie movie – Dawn of the Decrepit?”, says a delivery man. Jack and Victor find themselves temporarily housed in a care home: they “don’t want to live with a bunch of old dribblers”, stuck in here with “all these furnace dodgers”.

In one episode, the Craiglang community become obsessed with buying from a catalogue of futuristic devices. One oldster’s electrically-warmed bunnet catches fire. Jack gets stuck in his bath, lodged underneath his Technotub device. While he sleeps, Victor takes the chance to “park a loaf in his lavvy”.

Defying all this crumbliness in a sprightly manner – escaping collapsing buildings, stealing parking-fine records from council offices, smashing up a suspected hooch den – is part of the basic fun of Still Game. But it’s the overall socio-economic fragility of their situation that provides the low cellos to the whole comic performance.

Craiglang is a composite Glasgow housing scheme: the oldsters live in two nondescript tower blocks (cladding-free, at least), called Osprey and Eagle Towers. Their pub is only a plaque or two away from looking like a depot equipment shed.

And in honour of their function – as places of stunned refuge from the demands of the imperial-industrial era – the establishment is called The Clansman. Its featured drink? Fusilier lager, of course.

The level of mutual abuse is constant, triggering faux outrage before a smile. Again, Connolly explains from the yards: “People would become very profane. They’d swear more than normal and men would become very funny to each other without telling jokes”.

Yet beneath the savage banter – and like the families in both Rab C. Nesbitt and the Simpsons – there is a thick braid of social inclusion and acceptance. The Asian shopkeeper Navid Harrid is challenged by Boabby, the Clansman’s grouchy barman, as to the “cushy” nature of his work, compared to being a landlord.

Navid (Sanjeev Kholi) is given a moving and rare moment of drama: “Cushy?! 40 years ago, I was the only dark face in Craiglang. Everytime I put my shutters up, somebody put my windows in. Everytime I shut up shop at night, somebody broke in … Battling neds, dodging boys with blades – it was a war zone. So apologise! And walk a mile in my shoes”. The last series also copes beautifully with the death of the actor Jake D’Arcy, who played a minor character Pete the Jakey. Again, like Rab C – and in a tradition of the indigent philosopher that goes all the way back to Diogenes – Pete the Jakey has an overactive imagination. Going to his sleeping spot under a bridge, two of the Clansmen’s regulars find his young pal there, known as Methodone Mick.

Mick is cut from the same cloth, and reputed for his “way with words”. When Victor and Jack ask him whether he thinks he should wear a shirt and tie under his interview suit, Mick replies: “You don’t need that other stuff. ‘It is only with the heart we can see fully. What is essential is invisible to the eyes’. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, 1940. There or thereaboots”.

The scholar-gypsy, who just happens to be coming off the junk in a Glasgow housing scheme … How inaccurately romantic, some of our leading critics might say, when school performance indicators bend this way and that. Poverty porn, cartooning or idealising deprivation, etc, etc.

Well, Connolly be praised for writers and performers like Greg Hemphill and Ford Kiernan (and for that matter many others in the BBC’s Comedy Unit). They seize on humour as the natural way to express the complexity and poignancy of being Scottish – a state of affairs which often knots together its shoelaces, just as it’s about to make the longest strides.

Would it be better for the charts to be topped by dramas of Scottish action and purpose, taking place in history and the wider world? When that happens, will it be a different country that’s watching? Certainly.

But as a Comedy Unit veteran once said to me, “when the sphincter twitches on the velvet, you must pay attention”. You might want Scotland to be playing a bigger game. But right now, Still Game shows what we are, one tear-squirting belly laugh at a time.

Still Game series 7 is available on Amazon Prime and DVD