Peep Show

Back when we did our whole "best shows of the '00s" feature, there were a goodly number of you down in comments who - rightly, I think - took us to task for the list's lack of British shows. While I still maintain that the distribution of British shows (at least in legal fashion) is so sporadic in the U.S. that it makes sense that many of my colleagues haven't had a chance to see them, I've been trying, at least, to get a better sense of some of the shows you guys really thought we should check out. And chief on that list, at the top of it, really, was Peep Show, the kinda sorta sitcom starring British sketch comics David Mitchell and Robert Webb that's been sold as screamingly funny and also as very perceptive about men in their 20s and 30s. I like funny! I'm a man in my 20s or 30s! This sounded great.

After watching the first three episodes of the third season (which is now airing on BBC America on Wednesdays), I'm confident in saying that this show is very funny and very well written. I'm confident enough to say that I really, really like it. But I'm less able to say that I loved it or would consider it one of the best shows on television (much less of the last decade). On the other hand, what I saw convinced me that this is worth checking out, so if you like wry cringe comedy, this is a show you'll probably enjoy. There's some funny stuff here, and the series (created by Andrew O'Connor, Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain) actually has something to say about the role of men in the 21st century.

It's here that I should probably say I haven't seen series one or series two, which would probably help me get a better sense of what's going on. At the same time, there's nothing here that wasn't adequately explained. The show's about friends and roommates Mark and Jeremy, who spend much of their time hanging out and talking about life and the women they are bedding or what to bed. Mark's dating a woman from work named Sophie, while Jeremy is hung up on an ex-girlfriend (called Big Suze for reasons I cannot fathom, though I have two guesses) though he's with a woman named Michelle. They have friends, and they get into fairly slacker-typical adventures. It's a fun set-up for a show, and Mitchell and Webb come up with great spins on these types of characters.

Here's the thing I love about Peep Show: It's about how men in the 21st century have a vague idea of what it means to be a man but no job how to go about it. In tonight's premiere, Mark is mugged by two teenagers who ask to borrow his phone, then proceed to telling him to give them his wallet and phone and making him run away from them instead of the reverse. It comes up early, and it nicely sets in stone the kind of man Mark is. He's a guy who is about as far from an alpha male as he could be, yet is constantly aware of this fact and berates himself for it. This is a character you see all too rarely on American television (or British television, for that matter), and I love the way the show keeps putting him in situations that make him feel ever more uncomfortable about this.

It's worth pointing out here that if you don't like cringe humor, you're not going to like Peep Show. There are some funny one-liners and some good repartee between the characters, but for the most part, this is a show about people getting into embarrassing situations and being unable to get out of them, to their eternal dismay. Most of the situations they get into are very amusing, and their reactions are equally funny, but if you don't like this sort of thing, Peep Show is probably going to drive you up the wall. In other words, stay away, Zack Handlen.

Anyway, Jeremy is less of an original character. He's very funny, but he's the sort of narcissistic asshole it seems every cringe comedy is legally required to feature. I do like the show's continual assertions that he, too, is pretty bad at being a guy. He wanders through supermarkets in the middle of the day getting drunk. He wants to punch Big Suze's new boyfriend but continually shies away from it. He has weird, homoerotic fantasies. He enjoys watching a carpenter build things and pretending that he could possibly contribute anything at all. He's a better center for the show than Mark, but he also feels a little more like a standard sitcom character.

But, as mentioned, this is a show about being a man in all senses of the word. It's about being a man in the sense that men do manly things and do carpentry projects and so on and so forth. But it's also about being a man in that being a man means growing up, means putting aside the goofy stuff you do with your friends in favor of starting a family or keeping your job or making sacrifices you don't want to make in favor of making other people happy. It's less about being a man, specifically, and more about being an adult in general, about becoming a better person. That it's about this in very funny fashion certainly helps, but the jokes go down better when they have a strong theme to back them. They do here.

That said, there's one big thing keeping me from really loving this show: the way its filmed. Peep Show is most famous for its central gimmick, which involves literally the entire show (outside of establishing shots) being filmed from point-of-view camera angles. This means that Mark or Jeremy will be walking down the street, thinking about something (in a funny inner monologue), and a passerby will briefly be focused on by the camera, allowing it to cut to the passerby looking at Mark or Jeremy (and so on and so on). This means that a rather large number of things in the episode are shot in claustrophobic close-up shots, and it never stopped being vaguely uncomfortable to me. It also hurts that there appears to be no grander purpose to the first-person view. It's just a gimmick that seems designed to get the show picked up or justify having so much monologuing. There are a couple of nice uses of it - when a girl Jeremy is going to have a threesome with can barely look at him, say - but by and large, it just seems to be there for no reason.

Now, I was laughing enough by the time I finished episode three to indicate to me that I was starting to get used to the show's unusual directorial rhythms. The first-person camera certainly doesn't allow for easy outs in these scenes, which means they often have the shaggy feeling of real life. Perhaps Peep Show is just a show I will need a little more time to sink into the rhythms of. I will say that I liked what I saw for the most part - that big caveat aside - and I'm hopeful I'll get to catch up whenever I next have a little more time in my schedule. Peep Show has fantastic writing and a great point-of-view on things. It's just a shame the actual point-of-view has to be so overwhelming.

Stray observations:

  • Also, I hate the musical score.
  • I was going to write up That Mitchell and Webb Look as well, but time got in the way. I've heard from some that it's better than Peep Show. Thoughts?
  • OK, Peep fans. If I'm really going to delve into this series, should I start from the beginning? Or is it a show that has some standout episodes I should just get a hold of?
  • "That's where society's headed! People shitting in bags and throwing them out the window at each other!"

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