Peep Show: “Local Zero”/“University Challenge”

Peep Show: “Local Zero”/“University Challenge”

In the first episode this week, Jez comes to grief because he has fallen in love with a fuck buddy; in the second, Mark spends his weekend chasing a doomed crush. The fuck buddy will stick around for a while to keep rubbing salt in the wound, and the crush will never be mentioned again, but it’s the second episode that packs the stronger emotional jolt. Maybe that’s because Mark’s crushes feel heavier than Jez’s forays into pure love for the ages. Or maybe it’s because Mark’s comes tied in a bow made from that perennial subject of poets and composers of suicide notes, regret over the road not traveled.

“Local Zero” (season two, episode three; originally aired 11/26/2004)

In the first scene, Jez is in bed with Nancy, the American hippie whose combination of cornfed blonde-cheerleader good looks and frequent insistence that she wants to find a new, experimental way of living that pushes the boundaries and busts up all the taboos is perfectly designed to keep him guessing. Trying to tell him how much he loves her without offending her kooky-nonconformist side, he utters the Cronenbergian love ode, “Sometimes I’d like to die and climb inside you.” “Okay,” she replies, as her face shifts into the expression of someone wondering if she should fumble in her purse for the pepper spray. Ice broken, Jez feels the time is right to invite her to be his “proper, you know, just-you-and-me girlfriend.”

Nancy’s way of letting Jez down easy is to suggest that he might not be spiritually pure enough for her. “I mean,” she says, “God wanted us to enjoy ourselves. That’s why he invented pills and clubs and hardcore. But he also wanted us to give something back. And that’s why he invented the homeless and the lepers and the oil spills.” Determined to prove his mettle, Jez up and volunteers to help her tend to the needs of the homeless, standing outside ladling inedible-looking soup into outstretched bowls on a bleak, freezing night. Then he becomes jealous when he sees Nancy bonding with a homeless man. When Nancy announces that she’s taking the homeless man home with her, Jez tries to recover by insisting that he take the guy home with him, instead. “I love the homeless,” he says. “One of my own would be amazing.”

Mark, meanwhile, is allowing his obsession with Sophie and Jeff’s relationship to affect his work. “Que sera, sera,” he thinks to himself as he wanders the office space. “Whatever will be, will be. The future’s not ours to see. If she fucks him, I’ll kill myself.” He ingratiates himself with the security staff, inviting himself into their monitoring room and watching as Jeff and Sophie steal a smooch. An amused officer suggests taping some of this hot action. “Don’t tape it!” Mark thinks. “Stop it! Fire up your Tasers!” This sort of video surveillance works out much better than Mark’s field work; collapsed on the grass outside a tennis court where Jeff and Sophie are hanging out together, he himself is filmed swilling from a can, and the footage ends up as part of a TV report on the evils of John Barleycorn. (Angrily critiquing the way the film has been edited, Mark explodes: “We were having a picnic! You can’t see the crisps!”) In the end, Mark’s efforts to divide and conquer result only in getting him closer to Alan Johnson, but not in the most desired way: Johnson identifies him as a fellow alcoholic and insists on taking him under his wing, dragging him to meetings. “We want it all; we want it now,” Johnson says, in a speech that suggests what Tony Montana might have sounded like after taking the pledge. “And if we’re not hitting our targets, we’re hitting the bottle.”

Stray observations:

  • Mark, enjoying the sight of Sophie not laughing at one of Jeff’s jokes: “You can’t laugh at someone you don’t trust. It’s like Mom singing ‘The Lumberjack Song’ ater the affair.”

“University Challenge” (season two, episode four; originally aired 12/3/2004)

Super Hans has some good news, for him: He has been invited by “a bunch of wankers” to serve as the frontman at a gig at Dartmouth. Consequently, he can no longer dick around with Jez, because “You can’t be in two bands at the same time. Tom Petty tried that with the Wilburys and the Heartbreakers. Nearly killed the fucking guy.” After very little pleading, Super Hans agrees to let Jez hang out on the stage with the other guys, shaking maracas. Jez happily tells everyone about his big break, though he’s careful to specify that this doesn’t make him anything like Bez. Nancy, being a stupid American, doesn’t get the reference. “You know Flavor Flav in Public Enemy?” says Jez. “Well, it’s kind of like him, but with maracas.”

Mark is thrilled when he hears the news, because he’s just developed a crush on a young woman who helped him in a shoe store. She made a joke about cubits, and seems uncomfortable in her own skin, making her seem perfect for him. (Later, he gazes at her face and thinks, “Oh God, she is just so lovely and she doesn’t even know it. Probably no one’s ever told her. I should tell her. No, don’t tell her, if she realizes, I’m finished.”) She’s a student at the university, so Mark invites himself along on the trip, so he can support Jez and the band and also track this girl down. On the bus ride up, he and Jez compares notes on their college experiences. Jez never did get his degree; Mark got his, but it was in business, and he really, really, really wanted to study ancient history. Jez thinks to himself, “I could tell him that’s all ancient history now. He probably wouldn’t appreciate that joke.” Seconds later, he confirms this.

Surprisingly, Mark quickly finds his crush and is sucked along with her into the den of the intimidating Professor MacLeish, played by Peter Capaldi. (“Why am I walking into the jaws of death!? The jaws of death are best avoided. That’s common knowledge!”) But MacLeish is impressed with Mark, and even suggests that he write something for his campus magazine, “500 words or so, kicking the shit out of Simon Schama.” “Love to,” says Mark. “I could lay into his whole accessible, interesting take on things.” To himself, he thinks, “I’m doing it, Dad! I’m studying ancient history and there’s nothing you can do about it.” Even the unexpected and spectacularly unwanted appearance of Jez can’t slow down the love train. But when Mark and the girl are back at her room, and he’s intoxicated by her “magical combo of beauty and low esteem,” she suddenly backs off—she’s had a bit too much to drink, and as she points out, there’ll be plenty of time in the years they’ll have together at school. Mark, who has used the time she was in the bathroom to call Sophie and leave a message on her phone about his imminent conquest, can do nothing but wait until morning to make his escape. Of all the words of mice and men…

Stray observations:

  • To soften the blow before telling Jez that he can’t make music with him anymore, Super Hans shoplifts him a candy bar. Jez remarks on how especially delicious the ill-gotten chocolate is. “The secret ingredient,” Super Hans explains, “is crime.”
  • Mark, on top of the world: “I’m being invited into the inner ring! I knew there was an inner ring. I’ll bet they make jokes about the Atkins diet and make prank calls to Gore Vidal in Esperanto.”

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