The second episode of Simon Blackwell’s Mitchell and Webb vehicle, Back, gets off to a much pointier start than the inaugural one. David Mitchell’s Stephen wakes up and tries to empty his full wine glass from the night before back into the bottle. We’ve all been there, Stephen. That’s Economics 101 for those who live in a post-Boomer world. You save your wine and pray it starts raining avocados. Not to God—the Y2K killed him, of course—but to someone ironically: perhaps Steve Buscemi? Maybe the man who is in everything can be everywhere?
Stephen’s mother, Ellen (Penny Downie), has a fun interaction with a young priest, Julian (John MacMillan), in a church. After addressing her question about the height of people in “Jesus times”, Julian asks if she would like an escort part of the way back.
“I was thinking about having a Full English at the café,” he clarifies.
“Ooh, naughty. You won’t be getting into Heaven,” she jokes.
“I actually will. It’s pretty much guaranteed,” is his severe reply.
This dialogue is loaded with the sharpness that Peep Show got noted for, and is a departure from the gag-based “set-up; punchline” approach of the first episode. In the first two scenes, I felt assured that Back was not just going to have funny jokes in it, but was going to aim to be funny about things.
David Mitchell’s “angry logic” is enhanced in this episode. His response to cleaning up faecal matter and dealing with his father’s will provide ample room for him to wander off in the tone that fans of his comedic persona will no doubt enjoy. Blackwell has seemingly catered this more to Mitchell’s actual comedic personality than Peep Show ever was, and this is a good case study in how understanding your players can allow for more organic and fruitful comedy.
“I’m humbled, and I’m proud.”
“You can’t be: they’re opposites. It’s like being simultaneously on the moon and not on the moon.”
The plot of this episode involves Stephen trying to implement his static caravan housing idea to better the family pub’s financial standing, and his family preferring Robert Webb’s Andrew’s idea for a food festival instead. Stephen swears by his static caravan idea to the point he is willing to give up his room at the family house, which very subtly makes a comment on modern economic climates. We’re living in a world where a bearded David Mitchell, 43, but perhaps playing younger, still living at home doesn’t even warrant addressing. That is sharper than any number of blatant gags about kids still living in the basement at 20-whatever could. Also, one could argue that it has better aim too. Really, more important than the actual arc of the plot, at least thus far, is the sharpness of the writing. Simon Blackwell has enlisted assistance from Will Smith, perhaps most widely known for writing on Veep; Tony Roche, also from Veep; and Jesse Armstrong from Peep Show. It’s a tight team that seems to mesh very well philosophically.
Penny Downie deserves credit for her performance in this episode. As a woman fumbling around with the idea of religion after the passing of her husband, she delivers some extremely punchy lines with panache. There’s a scene where Julian the Priest almost brags about the power of baptism (his list of the places you can find Jesus, usually around running water, is gold), and Ellen is almost moved, hilariously, to tears, as she volunteers her eternal soul. As Julian, John MacMillan delivers an extremely sharp performance that really helps this episode pop. Just watch his reactions to Andrew’s recounts of running an acting workshop for recovering addicts in Germany. And Geoffrey McGivern continues to assassinate with one-liners as Uncle Geoff.
As six-part series, British comedies often have to hit the ground running a lot quicker than some of their American counterparts, but still, pilots are hard by the shared principle that they have to introduce all their moving parts. Is episode two of Back funnier than episode one? In my opinion, yes. And not just because of what it mines for comedy, but how it mines comedy. The series continues to trend towards being one big, tasty cheese on toast, as opposed to a boiled chicken.