As a big fan of Peep Show, I couldn’t give Channel 4’s Back a miss. It reunites David Mitchell, Robert Webb, and Simon Blackwell for a new six-part comedy, potentially named to make finding it to stream on YouTube quite difficult.
David Mitchell plays Stephen, whose father has just passed. While his Mark Corrigan in Peep Show was bitter, cynical and plugged in, Stephen seems to be far more optimistic about the world, with the world being more cynical towards him. While his father was dying, he had the family pub made-over with pine, which no one but him seems to immediately like. Stephen himself doesn’t sound sure of it, but is disappointed that it’s not the hit his father hoped for.
Robert Webb plays Andrew, Stephen’s one-time foster brother… for five months. As in Peep Show with Jeremy, we see enough misfit in Andrew to not trust him, but after episode one, secrets still seem to be held quite close to the chest. Andrew seems to give bad advice, pretend he has medical knowledge he doesn’t actually possess, and wants to edge himself back into the lives of Stephen, his mother (Penny Downie) and his sister, Cass (Louise Brealey).
Back seems to have more of a designed arc than Peep Show initially did; just who Andrew really is and how his re-emergence in the small town inhabited by Stephen and his family (inhabited feels like a better word than “lived in” for a David Mitchell character) remains to be seen, but thus far, it seems to have a more narrative-based vision than Peep Show’s beginning. This could turn out to be more “mature” work.
The humour is there. While not as outrageous and contagious as Peep Show, Back provides some meaty laughs. The biggest, for me, came from Stephen’s uncle Geoff (“Geoff!”), played by Geoffrey McGivern, who voiced Ford Prefect in the 1978-1980 radio adaptation of Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Geoff seems to be the “life of the party” in Back, in the same vain that Super Hans (Matt King) was in Peep Show. The snippets we get of Stephen’s deceased father, in retrospect, swearing and dropping his yoghurt, are a beautiful contrast to Geoff’s up-to-date, tech-savvy, lever-loving senior.
Speaking of retrospect, while Peep Show used the first-person, peephole gimmick, Back flashes us back, and intercuts the adult characters with child versions of themselves, as they play out often contrasting memories. Matthew Holness plays the younger version of Stephen’s dad, and it was surreal to see him chastising a bearded David Mitchell for doing his homework away from the foster kids. Back is already offering little nuggets of character goodness: Holness mutters truthful obscenities as he walks away from customers he serves in a very similar way to how Stephen does as he is jostled on the street by a well-wisher offering condolences, who needs to reverse himself after calling Stephen’s dad a “living legend”. Things like that are just a matter of speech.
Pilots are hard work. Comedy pilots are especially hard. In the first episode, you need to try and set a tone, establish characters from a narrative perspective, and find a way to hook people—all whilst being funny. Back achieves this. While Peep Show gets most of its laughs out of sharp dialogue and screwball situations that its characters find themselves in, Back seems to be more stoic, and confident that it can get by with more “traditional” humour. It can be a bit early to predict these things, given how shows evolve, but I admired the change, as it would be difficult to follow-on from Peep Show’s manic, and often sadistic, bombardment of comedy. I laughed out loud twice watching the first episode of Back on my own, and laughing out loud on my own is something quite rare for me. That it achieved this in its inaugural episode is a good sign. I’ll go on the record and say that I preferred the first episode of Back to the first episode of Peep Show.
Of course, it may be unfair to compare them. It may be unfair to Back, as it will have to contend with a lot of memetic and cult-like support. But it may end up proving unfair to Peep Show, which was a very different approach to the sitcom, and may have been designed to have less of a deliberate arc in mind.
I strongly recommend checking out the first episode of Back, however, and whenever you get the chance—even if you are not a fan of Peep Show. It’s a more traditional approach to the sitcom, but it confidently layers this traditional approach with character and enough of a dark outline to stand out amongst the pack thus far. It delivers laughs, and it seems to be alluding to a heart at the centre of it all. It’s worth it just to hear David Mitchell tell a dog “Your mum’s sexy”. Its human owner mind you—at this point, Stephen hasn’t met the dog’s biological mother. He’s sure she’s lovely though. Maybe her name is “Mummy” and tastes like turkey?