It’s no surprise that for the past decade film and television have been accepting superheroes with open arms into their increasingly eclectic programming landscape. Wise-cracking webslingers or misfit warriors with plans to protect the galaxy are all well and good, but television is also becoming superheroic in the stylistic sense; a style of television that can push the medium beyond its potential, blow up the form in exciting ways, and pull off ambitious experiments that just can’t be done in more conventional, serialized television. Anthology series are experiencing a renaissance at the moment, but for all the transformative, challenging programs out there like Black Mirror, there’s an even more impressive series that’s hoping to grab your attention.
And once Inside No. 9 gets ahold of you, it’s never going to let go.
While Inside No. 9 is already preparing its fourth season, it’s entirely possible that it’s a program that you’ve never even heard of before. Sometimes series that are the crown jewels of the UK will end up making it overseas or arriving on some popular streaming service, but there’s still a good deal of programming that remains tucked away unless you know what to look for. Thankfully, services like BritBox make it possible to access the deepest nooks and crannies of British television so that something like Inside No. 9 can become available.
Like the majority of anthology programs out there, Inside No. 9 is governed by a remarkably simple premise. Every episode is set within a new “number nine.” That’s it. Other anthology series might gravitate towards loose concepts like “horror,” “romance,” or even “technology,” but Inside No. 9 disguises each episode as a genuine mystery to unravel. The series also limits itself by having each entry take place entirely within one location—whether that’s an apartment building, ski chalet, karaoke booth, or even a bureau. In this sense, not only is Inside No. 9 challenging itself by a continually roving anthology format, but it means that every installment is essentially a “bottle episode,” a feat which isn’t always easy to successfully pull off.
Those that are big fans of the theater are likely going to adore Inside No. 9, with every episode more or less functioning as a stage play thanks to its claustrophobic, self-contained structure each week. Bottle episodes still might be a relative rarity within television, but a recent influx of films along the likes of The Room, 10 Cloverfield Lane, Free Fire, It Comes at Night, and the upcoming Murder on the Orient Express suggest that there is definitely a resurgence of self-contained stories that are more minimalist in nature. Inside No. 9 is able to tap into that energy and deliver it on a week-to-week basis. When comparing Inside No. 9 to something like Black Mirror, it’s easy to see how the latter tends to focus more on story and concept rather than style, whereas Inside No. 9 prioritizes aesthetic and technique, but never at the expense of the story. If anything, the series somehow finds opportunities where ambitious structural deviations actually strengthen the premise at hand.
Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton, the people responsible for Inside No. 9, came into the program hot off the heels of their previous series, Psychoville, a darkly comic subversion of horror tropes where both Shearsmith and Pemberton were each playing upwards of five distinct characters. The brilliance of these two, as well as confirming their status as chameleons, was previously seen in their disturbing sketch series, The League of Gentlemen, which broke boundaries by having the duo portray over 30 separate characters apiece, introducing nightmare fuel like Papa Lazarou to audiences, but also by efficiently transforming itself in its final season from random sketch comedy into a serialized sitcom. Imagine how Kroll Show seamlessly combined sketch comedy with sitcom serialization or how Saturday Night Live would semi-regularly spin-off its more popular characters into feature films. Shearsmith and Pemberton were already playing with all of this, making them uniquely qualified to approach anthology television in a radical new way. The duo had already pulled off an impressive single-take episode of Psychoville that acted as a stunning tribute to Hitchcock’s Rope. The pair were now ready to get even crazier. In many ways Inside No. 9 feels like the perfect synthesis of Shearsmith and Pemberton’s previous work.
Are you a fan of Black Mirror or American Horror Story? You’ll like Inside No. 9.
Basically, if you’re a fan of Black Mirror and the increasing trend towards anthology shows, you’re going to enjoy Inside No. 9. Not just because it’s expertly plotted and as pitch black a comedy as you can get, but that the series also goes above and beyond in order to impress its audience in some aesthetically astounding way. Sure, Black Mirror has made you drop your jaw in fascination, but has it ever done an episode that was entirely devoid of dialogue? What about an entry that’s filmed entirely on a bunch of stationary CCTV security cameras? Or an entry that’s presented as an audio commentary that’s being recorded on a lost piece of footage? Inside No. 9 truly pushes the boundaries in ways that other series don’t even dream of. Black Mirror might have a world leader copulating with a farm animal, but Inside No. 9 is going to blow your mind in even crazier ways.
Inside No. 9 also regularly pulls off the sorts of feats that have made audiences collectively go nuts on other shows. For instance, last year people praised BoJack Horseman’s silent installment, “Fish Out of Water,” as one of the best pieces of television that year. Inside No. 9 pulls off the same incredible task in their season two episode, “A Quiet Night In,” where two cat burglars attempt to rob someone’s home. Even more obscure anthology series like Tim and Eric’s Bedtime Stories or Netflix’s Easy that connect the best when they’re doing tone poems of sorts get outperformed here, too.
Inside No. 9 offers up bigger twists than Black Mirror and while it might be inherently lacking the scope of some season-long anthology programs like American Crime Story or Channel Zero, its ability to move on and not hammer an idea into the ground is deeply helpful. That being said, if the series ever decided to return to one of its respective “number nines,” albeit from a different character or vantage point, there’s no reason why the same excitement that’s generated from American Horror Story returning to established continuity couldn’t be done here. The thing is, Inside No. 9 seems less interested in retreading ground than American Horror Story does.
Are you a fan of offbeat prestige TV like Legion or Twin Peaks? You’ll love Inside No. 9.
All of this is merely scratching the surface of how fearless this show is. Inside No. 9’s pilot episode hits the ground running with the entire thing taking place within, of all things, a bureau. Meanwhile, other installments deal with heady ideas like a Macbeth parable that’s told in five acts and mirrors the structure of Shakespeare’s classic. Or episodes dealing with topics like the ownership of someone’s “last breath of air,” or a murder mystery set within a train car that makes it impossible to not think of Agatha Christie’s classic Murder on the Orient Express. Other ripe topics for episodes include things like witch trials, a séance, or how something as low key as people arguing over the bill for dinner can turn into an incredibly suspenseful, surprising piece on morality and manipulation.
One ambitious episode splits a woman’s life into 12 holidays and pivotal life events, weaving a story through the gaps in time. You almost don’t realize that the challenging structure is in place before the episode is well into its story. It’s the sort of bewildering narrative work that is currently being played with in show’s like Noah Hawley’s Legion or David Lynch’s revival of Twin Peaks.
In what’s perhaps the series’ most impressive accomplishment to date, there’s an episode all about the complicated nature of cryptic crosswords and puzzle solving. The episode incorporates the audience into the process just as vigorously as if they were actually trying to complete a brain teaser for 25 minutes. If you miss even one sentence of this thing, you’ll be consumed by the avalanche of clues that the episode throws at you. It’s exhausting in the way that all great television is. If all of that wasn’t enough, the episodes featured crossword was actually published in The Guardian on the day that the episode aired in the UK. The level of commitment involved for something like that is just bonkers.
Next season the series is setting its sights on doing an episode entirely in iambic pentameter, (remember when Moonlighting did this in the ’80s?). Those are the sorts of risks Inside No. 9 shoots for instead of stunt casting or crazy special effects. Inside No. 9 has already nicely found a cult audience. The laughs are too good and the dark twists are too devastating for something like this to go ignored. Let its alluring premise pull you in, but then know that there’s no turning back. Once you see the world through the warped peephole of room number nine your expectations for television will never be the same…