“Just imagine—refectory tables, reclaimed church pews, old mismatched wooden library chairs painted white. Distressed and old-fashioned is attractive.” –Andrew
“I’m distressed and old-fashioned and I haven’t had sex in 22 months.” –Stephen
Funny as the above exchange is, episode three of Back brings a lot more heart to the forefront. Although it is present in the previous two episodes, “Episode 3” (as Wikipedia reliably informs me it is titled) exploits more of David Mitchell’s ability to emote through his seemingly wooden exterior. Is “exploit” the right word in this context?
Two people who certainly feel exploited are Jan (Jessica Gunning) and Mike (Oliver Maltman), who work for the John Barleycorn Traditional Ales pub. Andrew had the idea of introducing “fuckables” into the pub to work. This is an industry term—it means that customers might want to fuck them. Robert Webb’s smarmy performance as Andrew continues to walk the line between mysterious, grating, and oddly sympathetic. His idea to introduced attractive bar staff gives Geoff plenty of time to let Mike know that he thought he was doing a bang up job already.
In my previous reviews, I have neglected to mention the technical direction of Back. The establishing shots of beautiful green countryside contrast beautifully (and almost tauntingly) with the grey interiors of these characters’ small town lives. When confronted about some misdeeds, the clothes in a washing machine drop like a dramatic musical beat to punctuate their interrogation. Listen for how diegetic sound is omitted and reintroduced to establish and subvert dramatic tension. Although the comedy in Back is based around the strength of the dialogue and the situational stresses of the characters, scenes are constructed to contain perfectly timed reactions that enhance the strength of the comedy. Penny Downie does a particularly noteworthy job of this, and has been a gem this entire series, but mention should be given to all the cast, specifically its two stars.
Stephen’s sister, Cass (Louise Brealey) has a more pronounced role this episode. “Should I sleep with Andrew?” she asks her brother. “It would sorta be incest, but with none of the negatives and all of the positives.” Stephen’s wife, Alison (Olivia Poulet), gets to turn up the passive aggressive dismissing tone of a person who has moved on from “mediocrity”. That she can’t wait to get away from her life in Stroud is indicative that she wants to move way past her life with Stephen—something she probably already considers a done deal, but he has been unable to accept. Through very simple interactions, universal feelings of longing and rejection are conveyed. Empty? Check. Scared? Check. Alone? Check.
I’ve tried to keep my references to Peep Show in this review esoteric. It is not fair to continuously compare and contrast two pieces of work. It’s also easy, which makes me feel dirty. But Back is shaping up to be a truly effective companion piece to Peep Show, trading concrete London and tiny flats for the valleys of Stroud and its tiny caravans filled with shit.
“Throw all the ketchup away. This is fucked up.” –Stephen