Peep Show, Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong’s long-running Channel 4 comedy about flatmates Mark and Jez, exposed a great comic truth. By letting us eavesdrop on its characters’ inner monologues, it showed us that we’re all idiots on the inside. Petty, vain, furious, paranoid, self-congratulatory yet self-hating at the same time… Just like Mark and Jez, we may pretend to know what we’re doing, but really, we’re all just few inevitable steps away from eating dog meat on a barge.
Series one of E4 gamer flatshare comedy Dead Pixels – created by Jon Brown and executive produced by Bain and Armstrong – was built on a similar truth minus the façade of normality. Its leads were just as entertainingly idiotic as Mark and Jez, but their shared gaming obsession with MMORPG Kingdom Scrolls stripped them of any fitting-in pretence. Meg and Nicky (Alexa Davies and Will Merrick) were largely adjusted to their outsider status; their inner and outer voices one and the same: filthy, funny and quotable.
Dead Pixels series two goes a step further by driving Meg and Nicky deeper into their Kingdom Scrolls obsession while questioning the apparent sorted-ness of flatmate Alison (Charlotte Ritchie). In series one, Alison was the only grown-up in the room, the zoo keeper to Meg and Nicky’s shit-throwing chimps. Is sorted-ness though, all it’s cracked up to be? Maybe, says this show, a healthy diet, proper hygiene and holidays in Greece aren’t the markers of maturity and wisdom we’ve been led to believe. It nimbly suggests that in leading a ‘normal’ life, Alison is simply invested in a different sort of game, one that also involves amassing XP and attempting to level up. Ritchie’s far too good a comic to waste on tut-tutting, so it’s satisfying to see the cracks start to appear.
If Peep Show exploded the myth of the functional, healthy minded grown-up, then its natural successor Dead Pixels has taken up the exploded bits of that myth, stapled them into a ceremonial headdress and mounted a throne of glorious weirdness. Take, for instance, Meg’s attempt to seduce a visiting plumber this series through the medium of a six-egg breakfast. It’s a beautiful bit of character work from Davies, whose Meg is simultaneously confident and squirming, a proper oddball with bewitching self-belief. (It’s easy to see why Davies was cast in the Mamma Mia! sequel as a young Julie Walters; she’s a young Julie Walters.)
Or see Nicky, acknowledging the absurdity of his new loot crate addiction, attempting to hawk a bag of used neckties to fund his habit. As Nicky, Merrick is simultaneously detached and unhinged, a motor-mouth tube of self-aware sarcasm teetering on the edge of a breakdown. Supremely entertaining weirdos, the both of them.
As ever with sitcom, series two is an even more comfortable place to be than series one. It’s bigger, and not because Alison succeeds in her goal of luring Meg and Nicky away from their screens and into the outside world. The online element opens up the globe for players to join from all hemispheres, and a couple of well-chosen guest characters turn up to show a broader spectrum of the gaming community, warts and all.
The guest stars join returning cast-members Sargon Yelda, who plays criminally inattentive father, husband and airline pilot Usman; and David Mumeni, who plays endearingly naïve Russel, a sort of Labrador retriever with opposable thumbs. Russel’s responsible for more than his share of laughs this time around as his home life goes through some drastic changes.
The world of the game has changed too, unhappily for Meg and Nicky. Increased accessibility and microtransactions have brought Kingdom Scrolls into the mainstream and changed the player demographic – a development that prompts a not insignificant existential crisis. Meg and Nicky may exist in the real world where they have jobs, a flat and even partners, but they live in the game. What to do when your life is hijacked by a corporation greedy for new users?
The in-game animated sequences continue to look great and provide plenty of their own laughs, particularly in a plot thread about a humiliating trolling campaign. The main joy though, is the show’s facility and craft with language. There’s satisfying attention to detail both in gamer and norm terminology (little things like Alison adding an ‘s’ to XP to mark her as an outsider) and the dialogue leans on originality and wit rather than gross-out crudeness.
Meg being Meg, there is crudeness, but her character shows more vulnerability this time around, she’s less splenetic and, struggle though it is, has accepted the need to make the odd concession to life outside the game. Her lengthy rants are peppered with memorable turns of phrase, and delivered with zing by Davies, who’s undoubtedly the star here.
Most satisfying is the light touch of Meg and Nicky’s will-they-won’t-they relationship, which never overshadows whatever central nonsense either is involved in. Dead Pixels is also pleasingly non-judgmental about their choices. Yes, they’re both letting the real world pass them by, and yes, their exercise-free lifestyle may leave them feeling breathy in the shower, but really, what makes anybody else’s lives more ‘real’ than theirs? If ours isn’t an age for escapism, then what is?
Dead Pixels series 2 starts on Tuesday January 26th at 10pm on E4 and All4
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