Peep Show: Series Four Review
This is a DVD which almost didn’t happen. After the third series of Peep Show had aired, it was widely reported that the Powers That Be at Channel Four were not going to recommission the show, disappointed by its consistently low ratings. Although critically acclaimed as one of the finest sitcoms of the decade, Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain’s comedy had never attracted a particularly high audience even given its Friday night timeslot, and if anything the third series had recorded a modest drop on its usual million plus ratings. The feeling was that it had had a good run, and it was time to move on - indeed, a trend has developed over recent years for Four’s most successful comedies to finish after three series, most notably Father Ted, Black Books and Green Wing (sort of), although admittedly in those cases the creators rather than the executives who pulled the plug. Fortunately, however, events conspired to make the channel think again. The stars of the show, David Mitchell and Robert Webb, were in the ascendant, with many hailing the duo as the Next Big Thing in comedy. The BBC had just commissioned a television version of their well-regarded Radio 4 sketch show and plans were afoot for the pair to embark on a nationwide theatre tour and shoot their first movie. Helped no doubt by Mitchell’s near ubiquity on every single comedy panel show going (where, regardless of the quality of the show, he thrives) they were suddenly hot property, even more so after the high profile "Get a Mac" adverts. Together with the fact that the Peep Show DVDs were doing great business Four suddenly had a change of heart, understandably having no wish to lose out on their slice of an increasingly hip (and lucrative) pie. Hurriedly the plans to scrap the show were reconsidered, and both a fourth and fifth batch of episodes was ordered at the same time, ensuring Mitchell and Webb remained on Four for at least the next couple of years. Peep Show had had a reprieve. Of course the question everyone then anxiously asked was: would it be worth it? Although I consider it a trifle under-rated, common consensus has it that Series Three was by far the weakest thus far, and it would have been doubly disappointing if the next season, after all that fuss, had continued the downward trend. Fortunately, while there are still a few sloppy moments and Bits That Don’t Quite Work, this is still a step up from Series Three and, even if these six episodes aren’t as consistent as those of Series One and Two, there are arguably moments which hit heights those earlier years never did.
Given that Series Five was commissioned at the same time as this one, it's a little surprising that there is a real sense of closure about these six episodes. If one didn’t know better one would be prepared to bet that this was written purposefully as the final hurrah, both specifically because of the final episode (of which more in a while) and also more generally in that thematically the writing rounds off many of the central strands of the show. Picking up from the last episode of Series Three, the season follows poor old Mark (who is the heart and soul of the series - sorry, Jeremy, but despite equal billing he just is) as he slowly walks the green mile towards a wedding day he never wanted, to marry a woman, Sophie, who he becomes increasingly convinced he doesn’t only not love, but actively dislikes. How the tables have turned! In Series One, she was the ultimate Office Fantasy, an unobtainable perfection he could never hope to get close to and who daily unconsciously taunted him by sitting in the cubicle next to him and being so bloody perfect. However, the problem with fantasies is that they should never really be followed through as the reality is sorely different, as Mark swiftly finds out. The early series had as their central thrust the fear of loneliness, of the urban angst felt by many men in their late twenties as they desperately try and find some meaning in a heartless, vicious world, but actually it turns out there's something even worse: not being lonely but being stuck with someone you actively dislike.
In the first episode of the series Mark is presented with the possible hideous consequences of ending up with someone he doesn’t love. Sophie’s Parents, the Peep Show version of Meet the Parents is a riotous start to the season, and sees Mark (with Jeremy in tow, naturally) spending the weekend at his alleged beau’s country estate. It’s the quintessential Peep Show setup: put Mark in a position of slight social awkwardness and watch him hit the self destruct button as he completely fails to cope with it. Not only does he have to contend with perilous country pursuits such as pheasant shooting and an evening down the pub with his future father-in-law, but he also discovers that said father-in-law is a future him thirty years down the line, wedded to a woman he loathes but nevertheless consumed by jealously at the slightest indication she’s having an affair. (Of course Jeremy doesn’t help matters by sleeping with Sophie’s mother.) Mark finds himself in the hideous position of being trapped: caught between the future nightmare he sees laid out before him and the more immediate present in which he is simply too spineless to escape while he still can. Small acts of rebellion - shaving off the beard Sophie encouraged him to grow, for example - count for nothing when he can’t follow through.
The rest of the season sees him agonising impotently over the situation, alternately trying to pretend everything’s okay and panicking when he remembers that actually it isn't. In another reverse from the early years, when he was constantly making reasons to intrude on Sophie and office sleazeball Jeff and stop them getting too cosy, here he tries to find as many excuses as possible to avoid spending time with her. You know the poor guy is desperate when he joins a gym - the equivalent of Jeremy joining a library - but ultimately it’s no use. As the series wears on he increasingly tells himself and anyone else who’ll listen that “I might not even marry her” but it’s a hollow promise. The sad truth is, though, that even as a coward he’s pretty rubbish: as Conference makes clear, he can’t even run away without making a mess of it (or, indeed, being stopped by Sophie herself). The malevolent genie who has constantly plagued Mark throughout his life seems to ramped up his campaign of torment as he gets closer and closer to the day of judgement. Not only has the poor guy discovered that his current Ideal Woman has feet of clay, but Fate then feels the need to underline the lesson even more by presenting him with a chance to get off with his last Ideal Woman, an old schoolyard crush, only for that to go tits-up (and not in a good way) as well. Even on the morning of his wedding he is not immune as he encounters a gorgeous waitress reading Roy Jenkins’ biography of Churchill, the very definition of his real perfect woman. Cock knobs, as he might say. As this season makes abundantly clear, it’s not just Mark who digs his own grave, but life itself is happily alongside him helping out with an extra large shovel.
Of course, one of his main problems is that his best friend is Jeremy. This would be a problem for most of us, but is particularly so for Mark as his friend tends to make a bad situation even worse. Series Three saw Jeremy emerge from Mark’s shadows somewhat and become his own character, but perhaps the only real disappointment of this series is that that development is reversed a bit. At his best here Jeremy is simply a catalyst for more trouble for Mark, such as mucking up his business opportunity in Holiday or encouraging him to cause trouble in Gym. Left to his own devices, Jeremy flounders a little bit, and the writing suggests that Armstrong and Bain weren’t quite sure what to do with him. My main quibble is that not quite enough is made of Jeremy’s concerns that Mark is going to desert him - although he is convinced that Mark really will get out of his impending marriage, he doesn’t actively do anything to help, which seems a bit of a missed opportunity. As well, the reintroduction of Nancy (Rachel Blanchard) sounds a good idea in principle, but in practise she contributes precisely almost nothing to the series that another character could not have done, and the slightly artificial way she is reintroduced suggests her presence was very much a last minute addition. The only thing that can be said for her reappearance is that it does give some closure to a storyline which was left hanging through Blanchard’s enforced absence from Series Three (she was making some film about snakes on a plane - I forget what it was called). As Mark and Jeremy drive off at the end of Wedding, Jeremy studiously avoiding the sight of Nancy making out with Super Hans, one gets the impression that maybe, just maybe, the brutal truth of their relationship - or lack of one - has permeated even his self-deluding head. That’s about the only bit of character development for him however - after his character progression last year, unfortunately he slips back to the role of catalyst.
Ultimately, though, it doesn’t matter that much. As far as the writing and performance are concerned, he’s still a character every bit as funny as Mark, and even when he’s not doing much the number of laugh-out-loud lines he gets more than compensates for any failings in his storylines. The one area I would agree wasn’t as good last time around was the number of quotable lines, but Series Four has more than its fair share, noticeably compensating for even the weaker episodes - and there are a couple of these. Conference, like Mark in it, meanders a bit without ever really knowing what it’s doing while Gym is very slow to get going before having a vaguely sudden end. However, even those two have each a quintessential Peep Show set piece which rescues them from being duds: the former has the already mentioned “Running away” moment, while Gym’s climax neatly summarises Mark and Jeremy’s entire approach on life. As such, there’s no repeat of Series Three’s Sectioning, which had no redeemable merit at all. Of the other episodes, Handyman is a good example of an average Peep Show - it's by no means weak, but doesn't have that extra edge which would distinguish it from the pack - while Holiday is a mite contrived: I found myself echoing Mark’s question “Did you actually have to eat it?” but the scene in question is so strong (and so well played by Webb) that one can forgive the writing contortions that get them to that place.
By far the finest episodes, however, are the afore-mentioned Sophie's Parents and Wedding. Indeed, regarding the latter, I find myself in the odd position of finding that I almost wish there wasn’t going to be a Series Five, as the episode not only serves as an encapsulation of Peep Show’s thematic basis but would also prove a fitting climax to the entire saga. As Mark gloomily prepares for his nuptials, Jeremy is alternatively supportive - “One brown one white” - and incredibly selfish as his main concern is that he finally appreciates that he’s about to be abandoned. The scene in the church belfry is a perfect ending, one which simultaneously manages to perfectly encapsulate Mark and Jeremy’s relationship while also being perhaps the funniest between them… ever. If one was going to be a Pseud about it, Jeremy tacitly acknowledges Mark as his superior, while simultaneously managing to completely muck things up (and literally, in this case!) or that while Mark is mentally pissing himself Jeremy, ever the literalist, actually physically does so, but that would just be silly. More importantly, the final moments, in which Jeremy jumps into the car once Sophie has run away and they set off back for the flat, is a perfect walking-into-the-sunset moment: after four series of angst, they’re back to where they started (albeit both married to women who are out of their lives). Throughout the entire series Mark’s main raison d’etre has been Sophie - now that that chapter is (apparently) closed, where else is there for him to go? Finding some happiness? Surely not. His genie wouldn’t allow that at all.
Series Four continues the subtle evolution which Peep Show has been undergoing over its four year history. There are far more setpieces in this season, and far more time is spent away from the flat and Mark's office, which opens the world up some more. The two central performers now play their characters like old gloves, but Webb once again proves to be the more impressive here - his commitment in such scenes as the “turkey”-eating scene or on the church balcony contrast with the few tender moments, such as when he attempts to serve Mark his wedding breakfast and show that he is perhaps the more versatile of the two actors. The writing, meanwhile, is sharper than it was in Series Three, but one senses that deadlines got the better of Armstrong and Bain at times, with the weaker episodes having the same problems as Series Three. They’re too talented to make a complete hash of it, however, and the two instalments which bookend the series rank easily among the very best the show has ever offered. But still I have to wonder: do they realise just how much this series feels like a final chapter? Let’s hope that Series Five, when it does come along, remembers above all that it has to justify its existence as more than a lengthy postscript and does something new. That, perhaps above all, is the main recommendation for Series Four: after all the trauma the series’ fans went through before it was recommissioned, it ended up being worth the angst. Too bad we can’t say the same for Mark’s wedding…
All six episodes of this fourth series are included on a single dual-layered, single-sided DVD. Going along with the principle of if it ain’t broke don’t fix it the Menus are nearly identical to those of Series Three (and probably before - I don’t have my copies to hand now), using the main titles motif as the background. The Main Menu’s options are Play All (hooray), Episodes, Extras and Subtitles. Each episode has its own mini-menu, with clips running from the episode and any episode-specific extras, such as deleted scenes or commentaries, included here.
Unfortunately, the transfer suffers from the same problems as Series Three's. A lot of the time it looks washed out which, even allowing for the visual style, seems a bit much. Both interiors and exteriors suffer from this, with some exteriors in particular looking poor. There’s also not the sharpness of picture one would expect from a 2007 series, while scenes with a lot of detail suffering from compression problems. I've seen better transfers.
Unadventurous, just a 2.0 track which is fine for what it is but is a little unthrilling given what we are used to nowadays.
Four episodes come with commentaries this time. Armstrong and Baines contribute two, unsurprisingly for Sophie’s Parents and Wedding, joined on the latter by Script Editor Iain Morris. They provide exactly what you want from a writer’s commentary: they actually talk about the evolution of the two episodes in some detail (something a lot of writers just don’t on commentary tracks) and as such the two tracks are among the disc’s highlights.
Series Producer Phil Clarke and Morris chat over Handyman. They are an amiable pair and have some good things to say, even though they do occasionally wander off the subject somewhat. The final episode to have a track is Holiday which features director Becky Martin and producer Robert Popper who is not, I would respectfully suggest, nearly as witty as he thinks he is. At one point Martin observes “I bet they wish someone else was doing this DVD commentary.” You said it.
“I really have got to stop asking her to marry me.” The odd cutting-room floor snip, there are short deleted scenes for Gym, Handyman, and Wedding included. The best is the alternative ending for Handyman which actually makes for a far more satisfying conclusion than the one aired.
Barn Burning (5:35)
Exactly what it says, a brief look at the scene in Sophie’s Parents. Disposable.
A Peep Behind the Scenes (5:50)
Oh look, see what they’ve done there? They’ve called it “A Peep.” That’s like what the show is called! Anyway, this is a bit of location footage stitched together with Mitchell, Webb and others talking about it and filming the show in general. A bit of filler.
The Best of Peep Show Series 1-4
Although it smacks slightly of padding, this is an effortlessly amusing Top Ten, in which the leads, Martin, Popper and the writers all nominate their favourite moments. A bit skewed towards Series Four, mind.
A Peep at Mark and Jeremy (19:08)
Hey look! They’ve done it again. That “Peep” thing. How delightful. This is the best extra on the disc, featuring Series Producer Phil Clarke offering some very insightful commentary on Mark and Jeremy’s characters, illustrated by plenty of clips from across the four series.
Anyone who already has a Peep Show DVD will find no surprises on this, with the extras essentially more of the same. With the exception of the video quality this is a good presentation of the series with a couple of decent extras thrown in.