David Mitchell and Robert Webb are perhaps two of the funniest, cleverest, most comical individuals currently on the UK comedy circuit. They are best known for their highly successful sitcom Peep Show, which ran on Channel 4 for more than a decade. Wry, caustic, and full of banter, their characters were engaging, light-hearted, and individuals you would both like to know and avoid in equal measure.
The duo have tried to resemble this in a new form with Back, another Channel 4 comedy series, which is back (if you pardon the pun) for its second series. Mitchell stars as Stephen, a man who has just returned from the Lyneham Abbey Wellness Centre after nearly suffering a nervous breakdown at the first series’ finale. Meanwhile, Webb plays Andrew, Stephen’s (apparently) long lost foster brother who turned up at the funeral of their father. The contrast in their personalities, easy going against awkward, is a familiar reference to Peep Show. The characters this time were older, if not wiser.
There is no doubt that the cast and crew went to a serious effort to ensure this series could be aired. In an interview with LBC’s James O’Brien, Webb stated how the filming took place in three blocks. The first delay was because of Webb’s own personal illness, which required surgery, meaning that the cast had to film the scenes he wasn’t present in. The second delay, of course, was thanks to coronavirus, with the final round of filming taking place last autumn under Covid-secure measures.
I hoped the second series would ramp up the excitement and interest, for the characters to become more engaging
I just wish the series had connected with me more. I liked the first series, but thought it was just fine. The hesitancy I felt towards the second series could be put down to the first lockdown. I hoped it would ramp up the excitement and interest, for the characters to become more engaging – qualities that Peep Show enjoyed, arguably throughout all of its nine series.
I’m afraid to say things didn’t get better. My mind is still trying to work out why the series so did not work for me. I think it’s fundamentally because it never seemed entirely real. It felt like Mitchell and Webb had chosen a random setting in sleepy Gloucestershire and plonked their story in the middle of it. By contrast, Peep Show was so defined by its setting: whether in their dingy flat, Mitchell’s place of work, or the residencies of their various ‘friends’.
None of it seems real
Similarly, the characters seemed wholly artificial and contrived. Of course, this is the case for every drama series. Unless based on a true story, the creators will have made imaginary characters and made them to do certain things, depending on their personality. But the best shows remove that contrivance and make the drama realistic. Unfortunately, nearly all of the characters in Back feel superficial. Stephen’s mother Ellen (Penny Downie) is now dating the young parish vicar (John Macmillian), while his stereotypical Uncle Geoff (Geoffrey McGivern) is against health and safety culture, and his hippie sister Cass (Louise Brealey) is going from adventure to adventure. None of it seems real. Again, Peep Show was the opposite.
The hook supposedly holding the series together is one of manipulation: is Andrew who he says he is? Is his charm and wit realistic or an utter façade? Is his (supposedly cunning) plot to bring down Stephen? I bought none of it. Robert Webb, for all his talent, fails to provide the edge of being this supposed super villain from the middle of nowhere. While David Mitchell plays the kind of character we would expect, I wanted to enjoy the unexpected from his performance – and it just wasn’t there.
Comparisons to Peep Show are (I know) predictable, but they are justified and understandable
This isn’t to say the series is completely without merit. There are some individual scenes that only a person with a heart of stone wouldn’t laugh at. A pub quiz goes terribly wrong and involves all the usual aspects of competition – indeed, the two bar staff, Mike and Jan (Oliver Maltman and Jessica Gunning), seem like the only developed characters. Stephen pretends to go on a health kick when it is really just an excuse for him to drink more alcohol. Anthony Head makes an excellent guest appearance as a maverick who could just be Stephen’s actual father (he’s not).
Indeed, perhaps the part that left me chortling the most was when Cass moved into student accommodation to complete a part time A-level course. Her housemates ranged from the baffling – a carer for an elderly person about to meet their maker – to the terrifying – a teacher who is the very definition of ‘if looks could kill’. The awkwardness that existed at the central communal dinner was beautifully written, though it was a shame to see that the best scene of the series contained neither Mitchell nor Webb.
There’s no doubt the series will win over a large number of fans and possibly get recommissioned for a third series. But the level of connection and investment with the characters was just not there for me. Comparisons to Peep Show are (I know) predictable, but they are justified and understandable. Peep Show was groundbreaking. Back is nothing out of the ordinary and, at best, fine. From comedy legends such as David Mitchell and Robert Webb, any of their creations should be so much more than fine.