“Gym” (season 4, episode 3; originally aired 4/27/2007)
It’s a tribute to David Mitchell’s talent that Mark Corrgian feels like such an original character, but, especially in TV comedy, originality is often a matter of detail and degree. If you turned Mark into a New Yorker, peeled off most of his hair, stuck a pair of glasses on him, and gave him an Italian-sounding last name that came with a family that appeared to be Jewish, he’d look a lot like George Costanza. Mark has never seemed more Costanza-esque than he does in “The Gym,” maybe because the episode details his agonized response to activities—exercise, being massaged by a man and worrying that he might enjoy it—that George also endured, even though it’s hard to imagine either of them doing such things voluntarily. George used to do a lot of things that seemed a little out of character for him, presumably for the convenience of the writers who could always fall back on, “Ehh, it’s what people do in New York.” Peep Show does provide Mark, who is much more naturally disinclined to leave the house, with a good reason for signing up for a gym membership and agreeing to sessions with a personal trainer: As he explains to Jez, he’s desperate for “some time—not away from Sophie, just without her!”
Unfortunately, the trainer, a good-looking guy named Matt, is exactly the kind of fellow that Mark feels he has to open up to, because he seems so enviably normal. (Listening to Matt reel off various clichés, Mark thinks approvingly that his new friend is a fount of “exactly the kind of bullshit I’m going to need to believe in for my new life.”) With very little probing, he readily admits to Matt that he probably doesn’t love his fiancée. He also runs into Nancy, who is working at the gym, having taken a circuitous route to get there since last we saw her: “I was supposed to hang out with these Belgian nuns, but then I got waylaid and ended up on crystal meth, assistant managing the IMAX in Bradford for, like, a year and a half.”
After giving it due consideration, Mark tells Jez, who has been eating his heart out over Big Suze and her decision to hook up with Johnson. (For her birthday, he sends her an envelope full of nasty doodles and dog excrement; thinking better of this after he’d slipped it into the mailbox, he tries to light the mail on fire, an act that Mark likens to “burning a swan” in its level of disrespect for what’s official and proper.) Jez has no difficulty at all switching from obsessing over one woman who doesn’t want him to trying to woo a different woman who doesn’t want him. “Faint heart never won fair lady,” he says. “The epigram that starts the stalker’s manifesto,” says Mark. Figuring that remaining in close proximity to Nancy is the best way to win her heart, Jez takes a job at the gym, though to get it, he has to convince the bewildered manager that he has fully grasped what a terrible, terrible job it is he’s begging for. “Are you writing a novel or something?” the man asks. Jez, figuring the guy must be concerned he’s overqualified, replies, “What’s a novel?”
There’s just one problem. (Okay, that's far from true, but humor me.) Jez would stand a much better chance ingratiating himself with Nancy if he were the last man on Earth, and he isn’t even the most attractive man within her line of sight: She thinks that Matt is the bee’s knees. On top of that, Sophie, eternally failing to get the point, has decided to sign up at the gym too, so that she and Mark can see more of each other. Since both Jez and Mark desperately need to drive Matt from the gym environment for the sake of their love lives, they complain to the management that Matt touched Mark inappropriately and also did a number two in the swimming pool. The episode ends with both men and their intended significant others laughing together at judo class, which would count as a happy triumph if Matt didn’t walk in, looking for payback, at which point they both undermine their romantic mission by using the women as human shields.
“Handyman (season 4, episode 4; originally aired 5/4/2007)
Until it snuffs itself out in a desperation finish—which sometimes feels like an inevitability when this show pushes a situation so far it’s hard to imagine a logical way to wrap things up in half an hour without one of the principles getting shot—this episode feels much fresher than “The Gym,” despite the fact that it includes that hoariest of all sitcom conventions, the reunion with all the former classmates who made the hero’s life miserable when they were all adolescents. Maybe it just goes to show that, no matter how thoroughly pop culture has treated the idea of being scarred as a teenage, it’s always possible to till that particular stretch of soil a little deeper.
Mark attends his reunion while Sophie is at a work meeting in Frankfurt with Jeff. Having enjoyed giving her grief for being away with her ex, Mark realizes this is his chance to reconnect with “lovely Sally Slater, one of the few girls in my year to notice me and yet not mock.” And Sophie is “definitely not going to mind, because I’m not telling her.” When Mark first lays eyes on her again, he’s a goner. “I should speak to her,” the thinks, as he watches her shimmy on the dance floor. “What the hell can I say? Anything that doesn’t mention that I masturbate over her memory would probably be good. I think that’s a compliment, but women just don’t want to hear it.”
When their eyes meet, Sally lights up at the sight of him, and Mark begins to tell himself that he might have a shot: “Maybe things will be different now! Maybe the perimeters have shifted! Most of my rivals from school have probably perished in Blair’s oil wars.” (As for any feelings of guilt he might have given his own situation, “Sophie’s probably doing it with Jeff to the brutal rhythms of the oompah band.”) Alas, things spiral down fast in a couple of ways. Sally is now married to Foz, one of Mark’s loutish tormentors who “used to sit behind me in French and put bacon on my shoulders.” And Mark has foolishly brought Jez along for moral support, having somehow failed to recognize that he can expect the exact opposite. Jez, seeing that Foz is the alpha male in the group, reverts to high school survival strategy and joins in with his mean jokes and picking on Mark. The dynamic doesn’t change when Mark arranges an outing for the four of them to visit a safari park. It is, he explains to Jez, intended ironically. Sally shows that she really is on his wavelength when she tries to explain to her clueless husband that the appeal of such an adventure is “retro.” But beyond that, Mark himself has to wonder, “What’s my plan? Lure them to a safari park like a Bond villain? What’s the aim? Torture myself with contact with an unattainable woman?”
For once an attraction to someone unattainable isn’t Jez’s problem. He has made the acquaintance of Russell, A.K.A “The Orgazoid,” a techno musician he idolizes. Russell hires him to help out around the house, paying him 500 pounds a week, though his duties seem ill-defined and mostly involve making smoothies. (He also gifts Jez with a disc of unreleased material. “Super Hans is going to shit when I show him this,” Jez thinks. “Finally, something to beat that car battery he nicked from the Prodigy.”) Mark is dubious and cautions Jez that Russell probably means to “sell your organs, or invite a German ‘round from the Internet to eat you.” But Jez scoffs at this. He explains that Mark doesn’t understand the bond that exists between “creatives” like himself and the Orgazoid. “We don’t make steam engines out of pig iron in this country anymore. We hang out, we fuck around on the PlayStation, we have some Ben & Jerry’s. That’s how everyone makes their money now.”
Not exactly. Jez finally learns that part of his job involves wanking Russell off. He does it, but then sits at home in a near-catatonic state, unable to even return to the house. “I feel dirty,” he says. “I feel as if my soul is being chipped away, piece by piece.” “Welcome to the world of work,” says Mark, most unsympathetically. The two plotlines go off in opposite but rhyming directions at the end: Sally throws herself at Mark, who is totally unable to deal with his dream threatening to come true. And Jez, having backed away from Russell just enough to make it clear that he doesn’t enjoy giving him hand jobs, suddenly realizes what easy money he’s walking away from and tries to take it all back, even telling Russell that he loves him. But Russell isn’t buying it, and as the two go their separate ways Jez reflects on how quickly he has just gone from being handsomely paid for the first time in his life to having his services as a prostitute politely declined.