Peep Show: Series Three Review

Things are beginning to look up for the El Dude brothers at the start of Peep Show’s third series. Mark (David Mitchell) has finally been able to pull his office sweetheart Sophie (Olivia Colman) away from the grasp of the odious Jeff, while Jeremy (Robert Webb) has big hopes of rekindling the romance with ex-love-of-his-life Big Suze (Sophie Winkleman). Of course, life being the shitter it is for these two, all their hopes quickly come crashing down around their ears, as Big Suze turns up with her “hunk of monk” new boyfriend and Sophie gets a promotion which means she has to move to another city, putting her new relationship with Mark in jeopardy almost before it’s begun.

This is the series of Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain’s sitcom, famous for being shot entirely from the point-of-view of its characters, which divides viewers. After two series during which the show had garnered critical plaudits and a cult following (if not the audience figures to match), it's unsurprising that the third instalment would come in for a higher-than-usual level of critical scrutiny from fans, and when first broadcast there was a general feeling among its more vocal following that the episodes just weren’t as strong this time around. They certainly have a different feel, with at least three of the six having a far more formally constructed “sitcom” air about them than is usual for the normally naturalistic format of the programme, but whether that is a development to the series’s detriment is a matter of taste. Two episodes in particular - Shrooming and Quantocking - are extremely artificial in their construction, the former building up to a climactic scene akin to Curb Your Enthusiasm and the latter an attempt to provide a suitably dramatic series finale, (complete with a change of location and that old stand-by of the leads getting lost in a wilderness.) The success of this change of style is variable; Shrooming is this reviewer’s favourite episode of the six, Quantocking a rather weak conclusion - but the change is perceptible, with eyebrows being raised in some quarters over whether the show had lost its way.

The good news is that those initial impressions are unfair. The bad news is that while on average this series is easily as good as those that come before, it is far more uneven, with every moment of excellence countered by a real low point. The main strengths of the show continue to be in its central characters and Armstrong and Bain’s observational wit, with the writers having just as much to say about the culture their show depicts showing as ever. Their ear for the ironic one-liner continues to be a highlight - Peep Show is a very quotable show - and in general the writing this time out has an air of familiarity and confidence with the main characters that is to the show’s benefit. This is particularly noticeable with Jeremy, who arguably has his strongest series yet. Whether he’s finding himself conflicted over Big Suze’s new boyfriend while apparently developing an alcohol problem in Mugging, coping with the joy and despair of co-owning a pub with unstable pal Super Hans (Matt King) in Sectioning or going all Twelve Angry Men with a jury in Jurying, he has the lion’s share of the best material and for the first time in the show’s history is by far the more interesting and amusing character out of the two leads. Webb clearly relishes what he has to work with, and, together with now knowing Jeremy inside out, delivers a deceptively multi-faceted performance that sees him emerging from Mitchell’s shadow for the first time and, entirely unexpectedly, becoming the star of the show.

That’s not to say Mitchell is poor - although there is the suspicion that he is occasionally phoning it in during some of the lesser episodes this time around - but he has the problem that he doesn’t have as much to work with in some episodes as previously. After a superb first episode (of which more in a moment) he looks a little lost for much of the time. The main problem is that Mark’s storyline just isn’t as compulsive or sympathetic as it has been in the past. For the first two years, we’ve watched him squirming as he tries to cope with his crush on Sophie, supplemented in the second year by the exquisite torture of watching her then-boyfriend Jeff thumbing his nose at him at every opportunity. This despair was at the heart of what Peep Show is about, the backbone of the existential angst the show sets out to portray, but now that he’s actually got it together with Sophie a certain degree of that tension dissipates. The problems of this series - can his relationship with Sophie survive her move? Is she really the woman of his dreams? Just what do they have in common? - could have been as interesting, but Sophie’s absence for long periods of the show ensure they’re not as vital or intense: ultimately, a long distance relationship is even less satisfying to watch than it is to endure, and Mark’s (apparently well-grounded) suspicions that she is playing away from home is not developed particularly well. Some of the angst is restored in the finale (and is well played by Mitchell), but by then the thread of the couple has been lost, and it’s difficult to muster up any sort of reaction to his involuntary proposal, or feel for him in the same way we did when he knew what Jeff and she were up to.

That’s not to say he doesn’t have his moments. Indeed, this series has perhaps his Finest Hour when, at the end of Jurying, he gives a speech to some stoners before kicking them out of the flat (“You're not a bad person, but I'm afraid to say you are a moron”), and there’s at least one other quintessential Mark scene at the end of Shrooming, one which is very possibly his worst nightmare. His best overall episode, however, is the first, Mugging, which, despite writers Armstong and Bain’s qualms on their commentary, is a very strong show and one which perhaps more than any other is a perfect summary of what the show is about, a portrayal of two young men trying to fathom out the society in which they live, their place in it and how they should survive. Although not the funniest of the six - as mentioned, I think Shrooming holds that crown - it is thematically the strongest.

Regarding the secondary characters, it’s a shame but understandable that Neil Fitzmaurice’s Jeff is consigned to a handful of scenes, his character now essentially redundant, but boss Johnson (Paterson Joseph) gets a starring role as the cavalry who comes to Mark’s rescue in Shrooming in another highlight from that episode. Meanwhile King’s Super Hans is as amusing as ever and a highlight of the below-par episodes Sectioning and Quantocking, while Sophie Winkleman makes for a welcome addition to the cast as the oft-mentioned but never before seen Big Suze. Originally Jeremy’s wife Nancy, played by Rachel Blanchard, from Series Two was going to return, but Blanchard had other commitments in the United States so the scripts were hastily rewritten to include Big Suze instead. It’s a credit to Winkleman that, after hearing of the character for so long, her appearance is not a letdown. At first one wonders what on earth she could ever have seen in Jeremy as they seem totally unsuited until it becomes clear that she is mind-bogglingly dense, and as such a perfect fit. She has charm and never overplays her hand.

Ultimately the series is a mixed bag, with pluses and minuses. Taken as a whole, it probably isn’t as strong as the more consistent Series Two, but when it hits its heights it’s as good as anything that has come before, with three episodes in particular - Mugging, Shrooming, and Jurying - standing out. To counter that, however, there’s an out-and-out dud in the misconceived Sectioning which, aside from a single joke from Super Hans (“Jesus, who will they go for next?” something which if you haven’t seen the episode will make no sense at all), is terrible, while Quantocking is not as good as those involved seem to think, while Sistering is a well written exercise but, aside from an amusing climax, doesn’t quite take off. It’ll be interesting to see what Armstrong and Bain do with Series Four, as Peep Show seems to be at a real crossroads stylistically speaking. (Originally, of course, the show was cancelled after this series due to disappointing viewing figures, but fortunately there was an outcry which, together with a celebrity champion in the shape of Ricky Gervais, convinced Channel Four to change their mind). As it is, this is a flawed but funny series, one that’s not as bad as its critics will make out but not as good as the show can be, but still a very diverting way of spending three hours and, less one forgets, still one of the best written comedies there’s been for the past five years.

All six episodes of this third series come on a single DVD, are available either on its own or in a collected boxset of Series One through Three. The layout is near-identical to that of Series One and Two. The nominal Main Menu, with clips running along one side, has four options: Play All, Episodes, Deleted Scenes and Subtitles On/Off, although the Episode Menus themselves are where nearly everything can be accessed. Each episode gets its own screen, with a collection of clips, four named chapter stops, any extras attached and the option to watch with or without commentaries. It’s worth noting that there are some reports online that the copy protection on the disc causes problems when playing it on a PC or games console. However, I myself had no problems playing it through WinDVD.

The episodes themselves, and all extras with the exception of the commentaries, are subtitled.

Mediocre. Colours are sometimes washed out, the image is occasionally blurry with detail at a distance being lost, and there are some compression problems leading to the odd blocky face or light. Watchable but no great shakes.

Fine but unremarkable, an example of a good quality TV transfer. One would never expect a dialogue-heavy show such as this to challenge your subwoofer, and so it proves, but all is clear and unmuffled and the disc does its job fine.

With the exception of the deleted scenes, the extras this series are episode-specific, and are to be found on each episode’s submenu.

Episode One, Mugging has Armstrong and Bain genially chatting away on all sorts of subjects, including the difficulties of rewriting this particular episode, their hopes for Series Four, and more, and make pleasing companions for the show’s length. It’s a shame the same can’t be said about the second commentary, on Episode Three Shrooming: to give them their due, Script Editor Iain Morris and Producer Robert Popper admit they realise their track isn’t going to be great and they do fit in some interesting bits about the show, but the majority of the track is taken up with their matey lads-down-the-pub banter, the sort of exchange it’s fun to be a part of but one which is guaranteed to make any listeners want to smash their self-satisfied heads together. The third track, Mitchell and Webb on Quantocking, is better, with Mitchell in particular interspersing dry wit with factoids about the shooting of the episode. Ironically, though, the best commentary on the disc is to be found on the…

Deleted Scenes (19:44)
Over half the running time here is devoted to an extended version of Mark and Jeremy lost on the Quantocks, and doesn’t add a great deal to the broadcast version. Indeed, it’s easy to see why most of this material ended up on the cutting room floor, with only the scene between Mark and his sister really worth a look. Comes with an optional commentary by director Tristram Shapeero and series producer Phil Clarke which is superb, relaxed but intelligent and with some good insights.

Mark and Jez’s Phone Messages (4:59)
“I could mentor you if you and your associates would not just keep mugging me.” Poor old Mark attempts to reason with his muggers via his voicemail. From the villain’s own POV, we see both Mark and Jeremy’s messages as they try to bargain with him to return said mobile, Mark increasingly desperate, Jeremy pretending to be a hard man. Good fun.

Johnson’s Frankfurt Pitch (3:30)
A little postscript for Shrooming, we see Mark’s boss making a video presentation to the people Mark was meant to be meeting, and shows himself to be as much of a Mark as Mark himself. Spoken directly to camera, this isn’t especially amusing and doesn’t seem particularly Johnson-like: surely a man who has got to his level would be a little better than this?

Mark and Jez on the Quantocks (8:30)
Mark and Jeremy’s internal monologues after splitting up as they wander the moors trying to find their way back to the hotel, which is of a similar standard to their broadcast monologues, and as such amusing.

Like the two previous series, this set of episodes gets a reasonable if unspectacular series of extras which in the main complement well the main feature.

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