How Peep Show Saved the Sitcom

Mark enters a relationship with Sophie (Olivia Colman) and finds, quite rapidly, that... he doesn't really like her. This isn't anyone's fault, neither are presented as terrible human beings. They're just fundamentally incompatible and only end up steamrolling into marriage due to crippling mutual loneliness.

What is the opposite of comedy?

Tragedy, the imaginary Greek chorus might say (it's a specialist subject of theirs), but I think not. The two modes are highly complementary. In high tragedy, the protagonist's own flawed character contains the seed of their ultimate downfall - in fact, triumph and downfall are part of the same parabolic arc, with the final outcome seeming inevitable in retrospect. If only Lear had kept his kingdom and Othello his cool, their respective plays would have no reason to exist; if they could do that, they wouldn't be the same characters.

Great comedy operates on the same principle. Basil Fawlty needs a divorce and a new job, David Brent needs to stop trying so hard, Ted needs to quit the priesthood... but they never will. The comedy comes of watching them bounce fruitlessly off the walls of their self-imposed prison in new and inventive ways, without ever inching closer to self-awareness. This could even be called the comic flaw - spamartia, if one were so moved.

No, the word we're looking for here is: sentimentality. This should not be confused with sincerity. As The Office and countless others have shown, comedy may be emotionally truthful and hilarious. The fatal thing, the failing that is to laughter as salt is to slugs, is unearned sentiment - being told what to feel without the necessary groundwork. This contagion is especially virulent in the big pond of American comedy.

Even a series like Scrubs, one of the most innovative and daring sitcoms of the last decade, would grind to a painful, jarring halt in the final minutes of every episode. The muzak would swell, the narration would swerve out of levity like a perfunctory wedding speech and Serious Thoughts would be had. It was as though one day, a writer said "Guys! What are we doing? We can't spend a whole half-hour just... entertaining people. How could we live with ourselves? I just won't feel like I've earned this smoothie until we've made people think, gosh darn it."

Nearly all American comedies have fallen prey to this scourge. The most notable exception is Seinfeld, whose heroic motto - "No Hugs, No Learning" - should be the world's motivational poster. British comedy, though, isn't entirely immune. Gervais and Merchant, the other leading candidates for "saviours of the sitcom", succumbed to gravity and gave both their landmark shows a happy ending, with mixed results. Red Dwarf, my childhood love, slid gracelessly into sub-dramatic soap opera nonsense in its later seasons. There is, at the time of writing, just one programme upholding the sacred rule that comedy must be pitiless. It will shortly return to our screens for an eighth six-episode run and its name is Peep Show.

As a man, though a generation or so younger than the subjects of Peep Show, the bleak depiction of the male psyche therein is familiar to the point of acute discomfort. After one in an endless series of social humiliations, neurotic underdog Mark (David Mitchell) thinks to himself: "Just stay mute, Mark - you're a social freak. Remain in your compound". Being the chronically awkward type I am, a variation of this thought occurs to me at least daily. "There's only so much happiness in the world and they're hoarding it all!", declares aimless fuckwit Jeremy (Robert Webb) in another episode, a suspicion I've always quietly nursed.

As Fawlty Towers is about class and The Office about loneliness, so too does Peep Show have a single, overarching theme: conformity and its corrosive effect on the human spirit. This is enabled by the show's most distinctive feature, the internal monologues that make us privy to the characters' thoughts. Jeremy and Mark aspire to two different models of what a 21st century man should be - bohemian artist and respectable wage-earner, respectively - but the inner microphone discloses how far at odds these identities are with their truer selves.

In one episode, Jeremy finds himself (nominally) involved in a group sex session. As an urban hippy, he knows this is the sort of thing he's supposed to enjoy. Instead, as he watches another man penetrate his love interest, he thinks "This is good. This is like watching a porno, except I can't see anything, I haven't got a hard-on and I want to cry". Mark, on the other hand, is already resigned to a life of disappointment and mediocrity: "I'm dangerously close to getting what I want. Feels a bit weird". As I write, millions of people, perhaps even a majority of the population, are just barely hanging on over a roaring chasm of despair, playing a part each time they leave the house. Peep Show is for those people - for my people. In a television landscape still dominated by pretty, confident, successful extroverts (the bastards), this is most welcome.

I'm also filled with admiration for the series' narrative arc, not traditionally a strength in situation comedy. In the early going, it appears thoroughly conventional, for all the stylistic innovations: man hopelessly pines for woman, experiences setbacks and encouragements, then eventually (at the end of season 2) gets the girl. We all know how it's supposed to go from that point. Either they become a successful couple and the show adapts to the new setup (Frasier), the curtains close with a Happily Ever After (every romantic comedy film ever made) or they break up, but we're left in no doubt that they're Made For One Another (Friends).

Peep Show finds another way. Mark enters a relationship with Sophie (Olivia Colman) and finds, quite rapidly, that... he doesn't really like her. This isn't anyone's fault, neither are presented as terrible human beings. They're just fundamentally incompatible and only end up steamrolling into marriage due to crippling mutual loneliness. When it all finally disintegrates, it's a relief for all concerned. In other words, unlike most love stories in film and television, this one actually resembles a relationship real adults might be familiar with. How shaming that a low-budget, cult comedy pulls this off better than much serious drama.

What have I left out? Oh, yes. It's extremely funny. That helps. Writers Jesse Armstrong, Sam Bain and Simon Blackwell have quietly amassed an astonishing body of work between them - The Thick of It, In the Loop, Veep and Four Lions, to name just a few - but Peep Show remains the crowning glory for all three. Every single episode contains the kind of lines you're immediately moved to post as your Facebook status (surely there is no greater accolade) - "I'll tell you what, that crack is really moreish"; "I did not try to sell her body. I tried to rent out her sexual organs on a one-use basis"; "It'd be like picking off bystanders with a sniper rifle: fun at first, but it would quickly become a depressing chore", and so on.

I could rave endlessly about almost every aspect of Peep Show. The astonishing supporting cast, who've depicted a parade of characters who each manage to be soul-destroyingly ghastly in an exciting variety of ways. The broad palette of cultural allusions that skip effortlessly from high to low ("Tonight, it's not about the bitches, it's all about... the Hitches!" "The 'Hitches'? You think we're Peter and Christopher Hitchens on a big night out? And I suppose I have to be Peter..."). The pointed satire. The grim realism. The tiny touches that reward repeated viewings (attention to detail is another hallmark of great comedy). An embarrassment of riches.

This essay has already rambled on quite enough, though. Suffice it to say this: as you've noticed, I haven't embedded any clips in this post, which some might find perverse when writing about a TV show. That's because, if you're a Peep Show neophyte, I don't want you to watch clips. I want you to go to 4oD's Peep Show page, register, then watch every single episode from beginning to end. Then make your friends do it. You really have no excuse not to. You'll thank me when you're done.

Peep Show will return later this year on Channel 4.


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