TV comic genius 4: Peep Show


(c) Channel 4


Now seems an opportune time to write some words in praise of Channel 4’s long-running situation comedy Peep Show, which last night aired its final episode.


Peep Show has, over twelve years and nine seasons, been a hilarious and compelling saga of male loser-dom.  It’s charted the progress, from their late-twenties to the beginning of their forties, of two misfits who seem totally dissimilar – apart from the hopelessness that pervades both their existences and especially pervades their dealings with the opposite sex – but who have a symbiotic relationship nonetheless.


There’s the cerebral, conservative, timid and endlessly self-torturing Mark Corrigan, the sort of bloke who muses when he spies a women he once went to school with: “I should speak to her, but what the hell should I say…?  Anything that doesn’t mention I masturbate over her memory is probably good.”  And there’s the dim, carnally-obsessed, self-deluding and relentlessly naïve Jez Usbourne, whose love-life seems to be a mantra of: “Oh God, I think I love her.  I think I’m falling in love.  Or getting a bone-on, which is basically the same thing when you get rid of all the Valentine cards and bullshit.”


While Jez is an unrepentant slacker, Mark has resigned himself to a weary and dreary lifetime of office-work, tax returns, mortgages and bills; and the former spends the show as the latter’s lodger and co-habitant in his pad in the unglamorous southern-London district of Croydon.  Inevitably, there’s friction between the two: “You’re a posh spaz,” Jez accuses Mark at one point.  “Really?  Well, I’d love to know in what way I’m a posh spaz.”  “In the way that you do posh, spazzy things…  Like tidying up and… ironing your socks.”  Or as Jez describes Mark another time: a “fusty, sweater wearing, spirit-crushing no-fly-zone with a ten-foot carrot up his ass.”  But there’s a real sense that neither would survive without the other.


(c) Channel 4


Playing Mark and Jez are the comedy duo David Mitchell and Robert Webb and such is the impact they’ve had in these roles that I find it difficult to accept them doing anything else.  Their BBC2 sketch show That Mitchell and Webb Look, for example, doesn’t quite work for me – because no matter who they’re playing, I keep expecting there to be a flash of lightning and a puff of smoke, and suddenly the pair of them have reverted to being two neurotics from Croydon.


Sitcoms about people living in flats together are ten-a-penny – ranging from the charming old 1970s show The Odd Couple with Tony Randall and Jack Klugman to that 1990s / 2000s epic of smug yuppie ghastliness Friends.  But Peep Show has two distinguishing traits.  Firstly, the audience is frequently treated to point-of-view shots where Mark and Jez peer wearily / cynically at the world around them and their inner thoughts play as voice-overs.  Needless to say, these thoughts are usually angst-ridden in Mark’s case (“How do I feel?  Empty?  Check.  Scared?  Check.  Alone?  Check.  Just another ordinary day…”) and delusional in Jez’s (“I’m definitely the alpha-est male here…  I’m definitely king of the hippie jungle!”)


The other distinguishing trait is the show’s dark tone – and during its nine-season run there’ve been moments when I’ve wondered, queasily, just how dark it can get.  Season 4 alone, for instance, had Mark lying at Jez’s behest about being touched inappropriately in the gym, so that a gym-worker who is Jez’s love rival loses his job.  (“Please don’t do this!  This is my career!”  “You should have thought about that when you were touching his cock.”)  It has Jez peeing his pants in the middle of a wedding ceremony.  (“Am I actually going to piss on the church…?  Richard Dawkins walks the walk but does he actually follow through with an actual act of piss?”)  And it has the infamous episode Holiday, which climaxes with Jez eating bits of someone’s pet dog – which he’s accidentally driven over and then tried to dispose of by setting on fire – pretending that it’s barbecued turkey.  (“I’m eating dog leg!  This is definitely a new low.”)


(c) Channel 4


Thankfully, when the antics of the two main characters become too disturbing, Peep Show has an entertaining supporting cast to divert one’s attention.  This includes the various women who, over the years, have had the misfortune to become involved with Mark and Jez: the increasingly unhinged Sophie (Olivia Coleman), Mark’s ex-wife and mother of his child, who by Season 9 has become a shambling alcoholic; the eccentric Dobby (Isy Suttie) who replaces Sophie in Mark’s affections when he discovers that Dobby is as much of a misfit as he is – the problem being that she’s a cool, bohemian misfit, whereas he’s truly the misfit’s misfit; Jez’s posh ex-girlfriend, Big Suze (played by Sophie Winkleman, who in real life has a properly posh pedigree – she’s married to Lord Frederick Windsor, son of Prince Michael of Kent, the Queen’s first cousin); and the vacuous and fickle Russian bisexual Elena (Vera Filatova), with whom Jez becomes infatuated in Season 6.


Inevitably, the male supporting characters get entangled in this web of relationships and become rivals to Mark and Jez.  There’s Alan Johnson (Paterson Joseph), Mark’s frighteningly focused alpha-male boss who eventually ends up with Big Suze, though not before Mark discovers to his alarm that he’s developed a ‘man-crush’ on him.  There’s the annoying Jeff (Neil Fitzpatrick) who delights in tormenting Mark about his lack of virility whilst also pursuing Sophie.  And there’s the mouse-like, perpetually unhealthy Gerrard (Jim Howick), who becomes Mark’s main competitor when he’s trying to woo Dobby and who often seems to have the upper hand because Dobby feels sorry for him – having a tube up his nose helps.  In a typically dark Peep Show twist, Gerrard dies at the start of Season 8, but even then he manages to get in the way of Mark and Dobby: “Well played, Gerrard.  You couldn’t beat me on earth, so now you’re shitting on me from heaven, like a dead jealous person.”


(c) Channel 4


But Peep Show’s greatest supporting character is the substance-addled Super Hans, played by the excellent Matt King.  As well as being Jez’s not-to-be-trusted partner in his attempts to crack the music business, a drug-fiend and a liability to all who know him, Super Hans has a predilection for snakes – though his knowledge of which ones are poisonous and which ones aren’t is a little shaky.  “Red next to black, jump the f*** back,” he assures Mark and Jez when he turns up at a party draped in one lethal-looking serpent.  “Red and yella, cuddly fella.”  “But red is next to black,” points out Mark.  “Yeah, I dunno…  He’s been milked, I should think.”


(c) Channel 4


I suspect that the show’s writers, Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain, have had a dilemma with Super Hans – wanting to limit his appearances so that the character remains fresh and funny, whilst also having him in the limelight long enough to keep the audience happy.  Come to think of it, the worst thing that Channel 4 could do now would be to give him his own spin-off series.  Meanwhile, I’ve no doubt that there’s a clothing company somewhere churning out T-shirts emblazoned with Super Hans’ endlessly-quotable and usually drug-inspired one-liners.  (Most memorable of all: “People like Coldplay and voted for the Nazis.  You can’t trust people.”  I think that’s the Peep Show quote I could live my life by.)


It’s probably just as well that Peep Show ended last night, before it stopped being a comedy altogether and turned into something bleaker.  I imagine that if Mark grew a little more of a backbone and Jez developed a little more of a brain, they’d become like the Brandon and Philip characters in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 thriller Rope – and end up murdering someone just for the hell of it.


(c) Channel 4


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