David Mitchell does two things better than anyone else in the world today: swearing and saying the name “Geoff”. Mitchell takes cursing out of horror stories and rumours about my sex life, and plies, changes its meaning, and raises it to an art form.
“No turkey? You fucking idiot, Jeremy. You total fucking idiot. That was your job, you fucking moron! You cretin. You’re a fuckhead. That’s what you are—a fucking shithead!”
I do try to keep the Peep Show references down in my Back reviews, but I’ve waited so long to transcribe that one. Or, almost as beautiful, there’s this classic:
“Fuck off, fuck off, fuck off me!”
Anyway, Stephen responds to the suggestion of Geoff getting to be the new face of John Barleycorn Traditional Ales by asking “Geoff?”, and now we’re here. Geoff runs the pub under archaic and anarchic rule, despite throwing around the word “chillax” (which my spellcheck now recognises), while Stephen and Andrew engage on a cross-country trip to visit the John Barleycorn’s suppliers, and Cassie tries to sell some of her Andrew-themed artwork (featuring some dolphins) to fund an overseas trip.
There’s an old joke about there being two kinds of wine: red or white. Episode four subverts this with a fresher punchline: screw-top. As they move up to the second cheapest red (which is always funnier than the cheapest red), Stephen and Andrew discuss more of their childhood. The surreal humour of Back is laced by the characters responding to these spanners thrown in their mental works in unexpected ways. Most comedies would be satisfied with simply the odd, but Back strives to be odd about the odd. When confronted by a story about a childhood friend, Smelly Ellis, that stopped showing up to play “clunk-splash” by the canal, the Stephen character responds by knocking on Andrew’s door late at night and urgently asking if they killed him. The show then skewers its own technique of juxtaposed flashbacks, lacing this all with sharply written dialogue.
The big discovery Stephen and Andrew make on their cross-country journey is not shocking, but it earns its reveal. The comedy and revelations then build on top of that. By the end of episode four, there are great suspicions, not just about the mental stability of some of the characters, but about how honestly they have been representing themselves. The final two shots tell a powerful story.
Robert Webb’s performance is a lot more nuanced than I originally gave it credit for. There are almost two ways to read almost every scene he is in. Are we dealing with the devil, or simply a man wearing jeans? David Mitchell continues to deliver a well-calibrated performance as a neurotic man who is coming apart at the seams, but almost seemed to expect it. Being happy for more than a few minutes at a time seems nice, but it also seems like tiring work, and an excuse not to be a “white whine”.
If you are not already watching Back, and a fan of any of the performers, or just an appreciator of some finely tuned comedy, check it out. You’ll at least pick up some life advice. For example, did you know that 600,000 people a year die from second-hand smoke? That the United Kingdom is no longer in the Euro? Or that dolphins are actually smarter than humans, but they’ve got no arms, so that kind of fucked them? My personal favourite “Back Fact” is that any bottle of wine with an alcohol content of less than 14% is a mixer.