Peep Show has been around for 10 years now; it premièred a couple of years after Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s The Office, and I guess it could be lumped in with that show and others that inspired the term “cringe comedy.” But I don’t know that I’ve ever actually cringed at it. The genius of Gervais’ performance as David Brent really comes through in those moments—the dance scene on the Comic Relief episode comes to mind—where you feel torn between laughing at that pompous ass and just feeling for the poor bastard. And though I’ve seldom been inclined to feel the pain of the considerably more entitled “Larry David” character on Curb Your Enthusiasm, I’ve sometimes cringed on behalf of some of the people who have to put up with him.
Both David Brent and Larry David lack self-knowledge, which is what makes them so dangerous to themselves and others. That’s not Mark Corrigan’s problem. Mark is an intelligent, reasonably capable guy who can’t turn off his hyper-awareness long enough to relax for a second. He’s got a penetrating, ruthless, vicious wit that a lot of comics would kill for, and even when he’s only using it to entertain himself—for those of you who are new to it, this show is very big on voiceovers—he feels bad about it, as he does about most things that make him feel good. There’s a moment in the second episode that sums him up nicely, when he gets in an elevator with someone who’s only going up one floor, and says something catty about how this is a waste of the elevator. Then the doors open, and his new friend gets out, walking with a pronounced limp. Mark, naturally, feels guilty, and tries to make himself feel better by rationalizing the situation so that the guy with the limp is the bad guy. But as soon as he thinks to himself, “People like him should wear stickers. They’ve got them for cars,” he turns his ammunition on himself: “Good idea, Adolf!”
As Mark, David Mitchell turns himself into a live-action cartoon: shiny dark eyes that can look as big as those in a Walter Keane painting, but that communicate panic instead of cuteness; a tremulous lower lip that overpowers his weak chin and that, as his mouth dries up and he fights harder to find the words that will cancel out his latest verbal indiscretion, shimmies like that of a Graham Chapman character in the throes of revulsion. He’s a superbly funny caricature of a kind of nerd, a history buff who has a solid job and could enjoy his leisure time playing with the toys he buys with his earnings—big books on Stalingrad and suchlike—if he didn’t feel a sort of obligation to have a sex life, maybe even find the right girl. His flatmate, Jeremy (Robert Webb)—known to his friends as “Jez”—is considerably lower on the evolutionary scale, a would-be musician with grand daydreams and not a discernible speck of talent.
When the series begins, he’s just moved in with Mark after breaking up with a girl, and as Mark watches him shuffle naked into the bathroom, where he will let fly in the general direction of the toilet, with the seat down and without making much effort to take proper aim, he thinks to himself, “He just does not care one solitary shit.” It is impossible to tell for sure whether he’s mostly expressing disgust or admiration. It might be possible to cringe for Jez, except for the contrast between him and the paralyzed Mark. Jez barely seems to understand a thing about himself or the world he thinks he’s fated to conquer, so he behaves selfishly and stupidly and takes a flamethrower to every bridge in his path. But compared to Mark, who does all these things and knows that he’s doing them, he’s in a state of grace.
“Warring Factions” (season one, episode one; originally aired 9/19/2003)
The première episode begins with Jez playing back his unlistenable techno masterpiece and proudly thinking, “I’m almost certainly a musical genius!” (I love that “almost,” which is not a sign of natural caution or modesty on Jez’s part but a hint about how many times life has kicked him in the teeth: About the only thing he’s learned in 20-something years on the planet is the wisdom of building an escape clause into his fantasies.) From there, we cut to Mark, catching a bus with the girl from work he fancies, Sophie (the priceless Olivia Colman). She sits down next to him, and before he can move his hand, which is resting on the seat, her ass is on top of it. It’s the kind of minor situation that Mark can inflate into an apocalyptic scenario: The viewer sits there, thinking about how smoothly he could handle it himself—but seriously, can you give me three surefire options? The best Mark can come up with is to sit there, anticipating the fallout when she notices. (“Going to wiggle eventually. Keep the circulation going.”) When she does, they both pretend this is normal. She pulls out a book to read, and Mark interprets this as gently shutting him out, “the book-off.” “Women don’t want your hands under their bottoms, Mark,” he thinks. “That’s been established.”
Sophie represents the good girl with stable, long-term potential. Both Mark and Jez are attracted to their neighbor, Toni (Elizabeth Marmur), a divorcée who carries the promise of dirty, dirty thrills. Or, as Mark the history buff puts it, “Toni’s Russia: Vast, mysterious, unconquerable. Sophie’s Poland. Manageable. Won’t put up too much of a fight. Mitchell has to be one of very few young, male actors who can say a line like that without even a hint of aggressive, sexual threat coming through.
Jez, naturally, thinks Toni’s much more his type than that of his pal, whom he describes as “a posh spaz.” He boasts to Mark that he and Toni have even watched porn together. (Asked about this, Toni says, with surprising aplomb, “That wasn’t a porno. It was The English Patient.”) So he’s crushed, on about as many levels as Jez is crushable, when he comes home and catches Mark trying to flirt with Toni by playing Jez’s music so they can giggle and make fun of it. Mark knows how much this would hurt Jez, because he’s heard his proud boast upon completing the track: “Now I know how what’s-his-name felt when he finished the Mona Lisa. Knackered.”
Swords crossed—“I have a brain,” Mark thinks, “the most erotic muscle. The longbow versus the crossbow, my idiotic friend!”—the two guys attend a party at Toni’s, each primed to make his move. But Mark can’t get anything started with Toni, and Jez is shunted off to entertain her friend, Paula. He’s psyched when he learns that Paula works in the music industry, and hauls her to his bedroom to listen to his work, though he’s a bit nervous because he believes—mistakenly—that Paula, whose hair is concealed under a wool hat, has cancer. This situation is about as cringe-inducing as comedy gets, but even here, I didn’t flinch. I think it may be because, despite its focus on the two guys and their self-interested take on everything and everybody, Peep Show is generous with its comedy: Paula, the potentially mistreated woman in an awkward situation with a guy who wants to exploit her, is just as self-centered and blinkered as anyone. Flailing about trying to say something that he thinks a woman dying of cancer might find so flattering that she’ll want to sign him to a record deal, Jez tells her, “I just think you’re very brave.” If she were sane, she’d say, “Huh?” Instead, she has the capacity to see how any praise directed her way does, in fact, refer to her. “I just make my decisions and stick by them. Everybody said, you can’t market acid jazz to the over-35s, but I said, ‘Fuck that shit!’”
“The Interview” (season one, episode two; originally aired 9/26/2003)
The second episode provides an opportunity to see Mark at work, while addressing two salient points of interest: His developing relationship with Sophie, and Jez’s never-ending battle to avoid becoming a productive member of society. (It also introduces Jez’s fellow musician and hero, Super Hans, who doesn’t quite seem himself here. He’s louche, vain and delusional, but you wouldn’t necessarily call Homeland Security if you caught a glimpse of him passing through your neighborhood.) Mark has the happy news that he’s set up an interview for Jez at work, so he can get a job as a clerical assistant and start paying his share of the rent. Jez, naturally, is indignant: “You wouldn’t ask the Chemical Brothers to do the laundry for you. They’d be off their tits.” So, forced onto the highwire—“Got to be really careful. Don’t want to get the job, don’t want to piss off the land baron”—he embarks on “Operation Come Over Like An Unemployable Freak” and blows the interview, partly by trying to pitch the interviewer on a pyramid scheme that Toni has pitched to him, when he thought he’d been invited over for what he’ll always assume she’s inviting him over to do. (It’s the magic of Jez’s a character that he’s actually tanked the interview within the first 15 seconds, just by being himself, but imagines that he’s so irresistibly appealing that still has to pull something outrageous out of his trick bag.)
Mark, meanwhile, has been flirting with Sophie by trading little doodles that the two of them draw and leave at each other’s work stations. Stumped for an idea, Mark tries to channel the devilishly seductive rogue Jez and whips up a drawing featuring a heart emblazoned with a swastika; she takes it surprisingly well, which is sure as hell one way to ascertain that a woman likes you. (He is also trying to recover from having left a garbled, over-emotional message on her phone—the most cringe-inducing thing in these episodes, but mostly because, as a comic idea, it’s the most played-out.) “I like you,” Mark says, taking a stand before steering their relationship to the next level, “and if you don’t like it, you can just fuck off!” “I like it,” says Sophie, with an expression that helps you understand how intelligent, seemingly level-headed people can become cult members.
- The title of the series comes from its fondness for P.O.V. shots, which, along with the voiceover commentary, put the viewer right in Mark and Jez’s skulls. This is mostly an unobtrusive gimmick, but for the first five minutes of the première episode, the show really breaks a sweat trying to make sure you get the idea. If you’re seeing it for the first time, relax—this will pass.
- Those who’ve never seen this show but who share my love for verbal comedy (and, for sure, those who don’t) should know that Peep Show is almost wall-to-wall talk. Hulu, which has to find places to insert commercials into episodes that were designed to run without interruption, has managed to pay tribute to this quality of the show’s by actually taking breaks in the middle of people’s sentences.
- In a masterpiece of nerd comedy, Jez, leafing through Mark’s possessions while looking for masturbation material, comes across a fantasy-illustration magazine (with a picture of a woman stroking the underside of a giant cobra) and immediately concludes that Mark uses it as a stroke book. Later, when the flatmates are sore at each other, Jez snaps at Mark, “At least I don’t fancy elves and pixies!” The fact that Mark is genuinely bewildered by this (“I literally have no idea what that means!”) doesn’t necessarily prove that Jez is on the wrong track here.
- How long ago 2003 really was, despite what you may be trying to tell yourself: Mark is unfamiliar with the term “fuck buddy.”
- Jez watches a lot of TV, and one of the many images he flips past in “The Interview” is a snippet of the old BBC sitcom The Good Neighbors. R.I.P., Richard Briers.