Peep Show: Series Five Review
Mark: You know, Jez, I’ve started to get this feeling that I’m totally, totally fucked, you know? Everything’s fucked. My wedding, I fucked up my only ever relationship, everything’s just completely fucked.
Mark Corrigan is not a happy bunny at the beginning of the latest series of Peep Show. It's only been three weeks since his disastrous non-marriage to Sophie and life has never seemed bleaker. He’s squandered what’s likely to be his only chance of a serious long-term relationship with an actual real-life woman, he faces going back to work in an office riven with gossip about what happened, and, to top it all off, he and his equally hopeless flatmate Jeremy have finished the last of the wedding champagne. Not that Jez is in much better shape: he's just discovered he's got Chlamydia, his maternal nest egg has finally run out and his and Super Han's band, now going by the name of Curse These Metal Hands, is going nowhere. Yep, it’s business as usual for the El Dude brothers as they set off on another six episodes of social embarrassment, sexual failure and mutual backstabbing.
Series Five marks a moment of transition for Peep Show. It could quite satisfactorily have ended at the end of the last one with Mark’s story having come full circle. Over the course of four seasons we’ve followed his progress from miserable fantasising about Sophie to the equally miserable reality of his wedding to her step by agonising step. That arc had been the driving focus throughout, and now that it had been resolved (to a certain degree) it seemed like there was possibly nowhere else to go. As such a bit of a reset button has been pressed by writers Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain, with the result that this year’s instalments are far more similar in style and content to those of Series One and Two than their more recent predecessors. After multiple away days last year, the majority of Mark and Jeremy’s adventures once more are focused around the flat and work while each episode has been far more self-contained, with only Mark’s encounters with new character Dobby providing any continuity. This is, as Jeremy might put it, old skool, with the welcome addition that the show has once again adopted a far darker tone - it’s difficult to recall anything in the recent past matching the last ten minutes of the episode in the Fuck Bunker, or Mark’s uncomfortable encounter with the daughter of Jeremy’s mother’s new partner. Once again the good taste boundaries are being tested in a serious way, and given that at its heart Peep Show is a profoundly vicious comedy it can only be a good thing that it’s spending more time with its face down the toilet and rather less eating dead dogs.
Given which, it’s somewhat surprising to reflect that, despite how he feels, Mark (as ever played by David Mitchell) doesn’t actually have as bad a time of it as at first glance might appear. Okay, the incident with Australian flatmate Saz is extremely humiliating (and, even worse, he’s fully aware of that from the start) as is the end of his in-quotes “relationships” in episodes one and five, but looking at the overall picture several good things do happen to him. The biggest is the fact he’s managed to escape in the nick of time from what was destined to be a crushingly awful marriage, a burden which was weighing him down the whole of last year, giving him far more liberty than he seems to appreciate. The fact that his popularity at work has as a consequence taken a nosedive is neither here nor there, given that his usual lack of social skills meant he was never going to win the Workmate of the Year award, and at least his boss Johnson (Patterson Joseph, as much fun as ever) is still on his team - indeed, he even gets a promotion with a nice new office. Better yet, he meets the One, the real One, in Dobby (played with charm by Isy Suttie) who from virtually her first appearance is clearly his soulmate (as he says, “I hardly have to modify my behaviour at all around her.”) Their meeting in the storage cupboard is possibly the highlight of Mark’s sex life to date (as well as one of the comic setpieces of this series) and even though his total spinelessness manages to make a mess (no pun intended) of both that and their subsequent relationship at least it’s a sign that all is not over for him (it’s difficult to imagine her sticking with Gerard somehow.) He even learns how to do sex properly (it turns out, in fact, that he is better at it than Jeremy) and even dares to successfully confront a burglar in his hall, a far cry from his interaction with the muggers in Series Three. Of course, Mark being Mark all these things end up somehow smacking him in the face, but over the course of the six episodes it’s only his fault they do a couple of times, a big improvement for this normally self-destructive soul. He’s still desperate, but life has been far crueller to him than is seen here.
Meanwhile, there’s been some criticism voiced online that Jeremy (the ever-enthusiastic Robert Webb) this year has crossed a line and become acutely unlikeable, with many citing the Fuck Bunker episode and (especially) the one with his mother, but I think the slight mistake made in the writing is more that he has become even more infantilised than usual. The mother episode, of course, is the prime example, but there are plenty of others throughout, and the dynamic of the relationship between him and Mark has never been clearer - as he says “You’re my mummy now, and I’m going to have to suck on your dry teat forever.” Whether it’s Mark having to pay for him following his adventures with Johnson’s credit card (the equivalent of a parent having to pay for the damage to a neighbour’s garden) or his joining the cult as a way to hide, Jeremy cuts an even more a pathetic figure than usual this year. That said, there are moments of gittishness that this doesn’t excuse, such as his trying to get Big Suze into bed, but overall he cuts a rather forlorn figure, sadly sticking to the sofa after Mark kicks him out of his room and playing a gig for one person at the Christian rock festival. No wonder he takes to the cult so easily - just as Mark tries and fails to delude himself that Saz is really interested in him, so Jeremy wants to join the Scientologist-like New Wellness Centre despite knowing it’s a load of rubbish. He’s totally without guidance - “Why do I even do half the things I do?” he asks at one point.
Such introspection is not usually part of his character and might reflect maybe there’s a little uncertainty on the part of the writers how much more mileage they can get out of the two characters. Certainly this is a series which is far stronger in its first half than second. The opening two episodes are superb; Peep Show has a happy habit of opening with a particularly strong instalment and this one is no exception, packed full of good jokes and amusing situations. The second starts off a mite slowly before hitting its stride at about the halfway point (as well as providing my nomination for best monologue of the series, the gloriously childish “She’s got one, and she’s got one…”) The remainder never quite manage to achieve such heights again. The birthday episode and the festival one are typical yarns which feel like Peep Show on automatic pilot, with few surprises, although in fairness the latter is rescued by some choice dialogue. The gunny episode, meanwhile, feels at times like a retelling of the canal boat show from last year, but gets away with it, just, by again some good one-liners (“It’s Paddy Ashdown!”) This is the first episode not written by Armstrong and Bain, and it’s tricky to know if this is a good thing or not. On the one hand, sitcoms which lose their original writers often see an instant nosedive in quality (see Red Dwarf as a prime example) but on the other Simon Blackwell, who wrote the show, certainly produces an episode indistinguishable from any other (doing a particularly good Super Hans) and if the shows around it are looking a little tired the prospect of new blood might not be a bad thing.
The last episode of the season is a bit of a return to form and certainly shows greater promise for the future. The thought of either Mark or Jeremy as a father is quite appalling and it’s difficult to know who one hopes the father of Sophie’s baby will turn out to be. This has been a season of mixed quality; returning to the show’s roots has been undoubtedly a good thing, and as far as dialogue goes remains as good as ever (it’s difficult to think of a more instantly quotable sitcom from the past decade). But I’m really not sure everything they do with the characters has worked as well as it might. There’s a definite sense of uncertainty, as old themes are repeated in not especially interesting new variations. The show needs that central thrust which Sophie used to provide but which this year has been missing, and one hopes that the baby re-establishes that next year. Eighteen months ago it looked like the show’s days might have been numbered; now, with the quick commissioning of series six, there’s the possibility it could be around for a long while to come. Let’s hope that next year proves that this is a good thing, and that we don’t start to see the downward turn of what remains, the odd blip aside, quite the best comedy on television at present.
DVD Times received an early version of the DVD for its review copy with no menus and a clearly inferior transfer to that of the final disc, and as such I cannot comment on either the Video or Audio quality at this time. However, all the Extras were present and correct, although they won't divert you for very long. There are no commentaries this time around which is regrettable as on past discs they have often been a highlight, while the two Deleted Scenes (1:21) are very brief, one being an extension of the scene in which Mark helps Sophie out of the Fuck Bunker and the other a short sequence in which Jeremy returns to the Sperm Clinic. The Peep Show Relationship Tree (13:43) is equally unsubstantial, with Colman narrating a short history of Mark and Jeremy's romantic entanglements complete with clips, and is an archetypal piece of DVD filler. Slightly better is Behind the Scenes (9:52) in which Armstrong and Bain chat about writing the show, accompanied by some random clips from the filming this year, but is nowhere near structured enough to be a proper Making Of. The highlight of the extras, then, is undoubtedly Sophie's Peep Show (9:29) which shows the events of Episode Six from Sophie's perspective, complete with her own internal monologue. This is great fun, very revealing about the character and adds a whole extra dimension to the episode.
Fine performances from the regulars and a good hit rate of jokes, but some of the episodes this year are a little uninspiring, coupled with a DVD that's okay but nothing to write home about.