“No, it’s not about a peep show.”
This is invariably my response to people when they hear what show I have been watching recently. “Peep Show” is a British sitcom set in the 2000s about two guys living in a flat together. We see the world through character point of views while we hear their voice-overs, allowing us to witness their interiority. It is one of the funniest and most melancholic shows I have ever seen.
A few months ago, “Succession” concluded its third season with a highly satisfying finale that exemplified the show’s strongest aspects of its writing: its well-crafted plotting, comedic and cruel dialogue, and wonderful cast of characters. While, of course, the credit for such writing needs to be given to the people in the writers’ room, perhaps the greatest amount of praise should go to Jesse Armstrong. As the show’s helmsman, Armstrong established the show’s world and how it operates. A few days after watching that season finale, I felt a sense of Armstrong withdrawal, and not willing to quit him completely, I searched his IMDb page to find out what other projects he masterminded. This led me to my next wonderful TV experience. After I pushed my way through the first six episodes, I laughed and cringed my way through the rest of Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain’s brilliant sitcom, “Peep Show.”
The show follows two flatmates, Mark Corrigan (David Mitchell) and Jeremy Usborne (Robert Webb), old college roommates who become stuck together as they navigate their 20s and 30s in early 2000s Britain. The standard problems that would occur during this transitional time from youth to middle age occur: bad relationships, work crises, conflicts in friendship and even a sudden death are all used as comedic fodder within the show’s storylines, with Mark and Jeremy’s “Odd Couple” dynamic at the center. Mark is the more straight-laced conventional roommate who pays his rent on time, has a typical office job, and enjoys Channel 4 radio in the morning. He plays off of Jeremy, the not-so-bright slacker, pothead, wannabe musician who can never seem to hold a stable job or reach some semblance of maturity (even at 40).
When trying to figure out how to relay what makes this show such a distinct pleasure, the thought that comes to mind is, where to begin? Many of the elements that Armstrong incorporated into “Succession” are formed in this show to great effect: the vividly drawn pathetic protagonists, the wonderful supporting cast, the laugh-out-loud and gut punching dialogue and (yes, even) the show’s structuring.
Mark and Jeremy are wonderfully pathetic characters. Take Mark, portrayed in a BAFTA-winning performance from David Mitchell. While he may sound like the typical square found in many classical comedic duos, he is still his own person. One aspect of Mark that sets him apart from the others is the pseudo-intellectual historical references he uses to shape his reality. Only Mark would try to aggrandize his pointless existence by likening a tedious walk through a touristy town to Napoleon’s march to Moscow, comparing his ex-wife crying in public to Joseph Goebbels spreading propaganda, or connecting witnessing of a polyamorous make out session to the origins of the Manson family. These pedantic and disproportionate comparisons reveal the insignificance of his life in a hilariously cynical British fashion. Mark’s fascination with history not only leads to some clever one-liner comparisons, but also various episode and series plotlines that can only occur for a character like him. The most engaging of these stories is perhaps his scheme to drive a scholar to insanity by having him attempt to write a history of the Byzantine church “for the everyday reader.” This way, Mark can run off with his scholar’s wife. How many sitcoms do you know that can genuinely fit in a reference to the 325 Council of Nicaea?
In contrast to the bookish office-grunt Mark, the slacker and stoner wannabe rocker Jeremy “Jez” Usborne is a man too stupid to not realize how miserable he should be. Like Mark, Jeremy is clearly derived from a stock character, but nonetheless seems like a genuine individual through the presentation of the writing and the acting. What Armstrong and Bain seem to get about this character, and what they derive humor from, is that such a character truly does not understand the corrosive nature of being essentially pure id. Whether it’s sleeping with Mark’s sister against his best wishes, ruining Mark’s proposal for his girlfriend because he decided that he is in love with her, or even trying to get the rest of a jury to let a defendant go free because he likes her, there is nothing that will stand in the way of Jeremy receiving some sort of instant gratification. There are moments when Jeremy has doubts about his life: moments like a cult leader revealing to him that he’s not living his best life, witnessing his girlfriend get engaged to another woman, or when he realizes that he is going to die. However, all such moments temporarily strike Jeremy the way water strikes a rock: there’s a momentary splash without any mark. Of course, this infuriates his roommate, whose life seems to be a collection of scars that have left their marks.
These two characters are elevated by a colorful supporting cast. There’s Mark’s Machivellian boss, Alan Johnson (Paterson Joseph), who delivers every line, whether it’s about his driving gloves or acquiring new clients, as if he is about to murder James Bond. There are Mark’s two primary love interests, Sophie (Olivia Colman) and Dobby (Isy Suttie), who respectively represent the sunrise and the sunset of Mark’s yearning to find a romantic partner. And, best of all, is Super Hans, Jeremy’s crack addicted bandmate who can be best described as Keith Richards without any of the talent, prestige or notoriety while somehow maintaining his confidence.
The structure of the show is also unusual for a sitcom. Most sitcoms tend to remain static, allowing the characters to stay the same from the beginning of the episode or season to the end. Of course, in most sitcoms, there are exceptional “major episodes.” Sometimes there’s a wedding, sometimes there’s a death. But usually such episodes are merely a cosmetic shift that don’t really change the nature of the characters. “Peep Show” is different: the show has a narrative arc that carries its characters from beginning to end. It’s rare in a sitcom to watch a protagonist become single, get a girlfriend, get engaged (accidentally), get married (for a day), get divorced, become a father, find a new girlfriend, almost get engaged, only to wind up single again. Such a premise seems to combine the so-called “arcs” characters go through in shows like “Friends” or “How I Met Your Mother” while adhering to a Seinfeld-esque notion that nothing should change. Nothing has changed for these characters; it just took them twenty years to realize it instead of one twenty minute episode.
And that leads to the final aspect that makes this show so special: its sense of reality. Most sitcoms either have saccharine endings (“Friends,” “How I Met Your Mother”), or, even if they maintain a more realistic level of cynicism, contain characters and plotlines that are so absurd to be taken seriously (“Seinfeld,” “Arrested Development”). “Peep Show,” in true British fashion, keeps these cynical elements that make those other sitcoms worth watching, and adds a level of realism to it.
Jeremy and Mark are people you could see on the street or in a restaurant. When you see them get themselves into ridiculous, horrid, or uncomfortable situations, or when you see them wasting their finite lives away due to their poor value judgment and wrong choices, a level of melancholy is evoked. These aren’t just cardboard cutouts that we can view then dismiss. We have to view them as people like us.
There’s a subtle moralism that seeps through to the show’s world. These characters are all sad and pathetic because they don’t seem to understand why their values are so hollow. In one episode, Mark, after pretending to be a hippy who believes in the “Big Lie” of capitalism for an evening to impress a group of people, he finally reveals his true colors and kicks them out of his house.
While Mark is probably right, and while the hippyish values that Jeremy believes in are most likely to lead to destruction, Mark’s reliance and belief in the capitalist systems has drained him of any values that makes life worth living. Life, for him, is work, failed relationships, and his loser best friend, and it all adds up to nothing. It’s no surprise that the creator of “Succession” was integral in the creation of this bleak, absurd, and yet still grounded comedic world with such memorably pathetic characters.
Isaac Slomski-Pritz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.