Anthology shows usually have some sort of hook or identifying gimmick to thematically connect their seemingly random stories.
A Tales From the Crypt episode is probably going to get around to murder, mayhem, or monsters. That mystified guy in that Twilight Zone episode is going to get a lesson in morality any minute now. Right around the same time that new technology in a Black Mirror installment goes rogue.
Inside No. 9, the darkly comic British anthology series, tells each of its stories in single locations. On top of that, Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton create a staggering sense of dread that powers each episode. You’ll fear for when the shoe is finally going to drop.
If you’ve never checked in with Inside No. 9 before, we’ve prepared a handy guide of the series’ most essential episodes. Plus, we even get co-creator Reece Shearsmith’s opinion and what he thinks is the most essential Inside No. 9.
“A Quiet Night In” (Season 1, Episode 2)
It only took Inside No. 9 two episodes to attempt an “all silent” entry of their show, but boy do they stick the landing on it. The series frames the episode around two cat burglars who are trying to steal a priceless piece of art from a couple’s home. Naturally, staying quiet is optimal. The show uses the dialogue-free entry to exhibit incredible movement work between Shearsmith and Pemberton while also delivering a fitting ode to comedy of the silent film era.
All of the wordless work is a brilliant sight to behold, but even if the episode was full of wordplay it’d still be a stand-out installment due to the gripping crime scene that slowly plays out. There’s still a beyond clever finish to cap the whole thing off, too. Inside No. 9 has many talents but showing what they can do when stripped of their smart, comedic dialogue has been one of their most successful experiments yet.
“The 12 Days of Christine” (Season 2, Episode 2)
“The 12 Days of Christine” is a true marvel of storytelling that really needs to be watched more than once to be fully appreciated (this applies to most episodes of the show, but is especially the case here).
The episode chronicles the sad story of a woman’s life spiraling out of control. The audience is left to watch her struggle to pick up the pieces. It’s an emotionally entry, but what makes this installment really special is the way that the show plays with chronology and linear storytelling.
“The 12 Days of Christine” is aptly told through 12 separate holidays from Christine’s life, all which hold some sort of significance. It’s fun to get lost along with Christine as you try to figure out when exactly these events are playing out and what’s the full story. “The 12 Days of Christine” presents a deeply emotional story in a very inventive way.
“Cold Comfort” (Season 2, Episode 4)
All you need to do is look at any frame from this episode to see what a technical feat/headache it is. “Cold Comfort” takes place at a crisis support hotline with the entire installment playing out as if it’s on a CCTV feed.
Four camera images are running at all times, which makes this episode such an achievement in focus and detail. It’s the sort of thing that Hitchcock would have squealed over. “Cold Comfort” demands a lot from its audience, but while it’s choreographing this camerawork, it’s also weaving a tragic story about mental illness and helplessness. The episode continues to play with what’s really going on and who’s in control, with the stylistic presentation style once more perfectly encapsulating the crux of the story. “Cold Comfort” is another episode that ends with a real bang and acts as a testament to how this show can have you going from laughs to gasps within seconds.
“The Riddle of the Sphinx” (Season 3, Episode 3)
“Why can’t people just say what they mean?” muses Shearsmith’s character from this purposefully ornate, verbose episode of Inside No. 9. The whole episode sickly plays out like some Machiavellian Rube Goldberg machine that somehow revolves around cryptic crosswords, of all things.
Things begin with a simple enough scheme that uses crossword puzzles as a clever framework to parse out revenge. It’s a delight to watch Pemberton breeze through such complicated puzzles with such a clear love for the form. It’s not long before things begin to get out of hand in what’s without a doubt the most impressively plotted episode of the series to date. It also goes out on a note that makes South Park’s “Scott Tenorman Must Die” look like an episode of Dora the Explorer. When it wants to, this show has real bite.
“Tom & Gerri” (Season 1, Episode 3)
“Tom & Gerri” is a whopping story that nicely snowballs and shows how something so innocent can become so rotten. The story begins with remarkably low stakes where a lost wallet is returned to a struggling author courtesy of a homeless man. As kindness is repaid, this vagrant gradually inserts himself into the other individual’s life with fascinating results. Watching the scales of the universe shift in and out of balance is the true joy of this entry. It packs a tremendous amount into such a short length of time.
Shearsmith himself also points out that he has a strong affection for the episode, saying, “’Tom & Gerri’ actually was a stage play that Steve and I wrote years ago, much paired down to accommodate half an hour. It brutally and I think with deeply funny observation, explores where ‘trying to do the right thing’ gets you.”
“The Devil of Christmas” (Season 3, Episode 1)
Set in Austra in 1977, “The Devil of Christmas” is exactly the sort of wicked holiday special that you would expect from Inside No. 9. The series tackles the ever-popular lore of Krampus, yet the series finds quite a bit of new territory to explore with the beast. This episode is also aided by its impressive structure, which is presented as an audio commentary on this lost Krampus production from the ‘70s.
That in itself is an ambitious idea to pull off, but somehow the concept gets even crazier with one of the most satisfying reveals that the series has ever done. Whether it’s the impressive dual narrative going on, the unusual take on a Christmas story, or the insane ending that it concludes with, there’s a lot to love in “The Devil of Christmas.”
“The Bill” (Season 3, Episode 3)
Many episodes of Inside No. 9 feel theatrical in nature due to their single location set-ups, but “The Bill” would work as a piece of theatre make a damn good one, too.
“The Bill” sees a group of friends out for dinner and when the bill arrives they begin arguing over who is going to pay. That’s it. This is the brilliant sort of idea that when things get going you’re like, “Oh, this isn’t going to be the whole episode, is it?”
But then not long after you’re cheering, “Oh God, I can’t believe this is the whole episode!” It’s like “The Chinese Restaurant” on Seinfeld. This episode takes its time and let’s you slowly care for each of the characters in a very intimate way. It feels like you’re stuck footing this bill with them. Problems begin with a mere bill, but it’s truly impossible to predict where “The Bill” is going to end up. In any other anthology series this would be their tightest script, but with Inside No. 9 it’s just one of many excellent options.
“Sardines” (Season 1, Episode 1)
Inside No. 9’s first episode doesn’t hold anything back by setting the entire thing in a wardrobe. Many entries of the series can have a claustrophobic feeling due to the show’s bottle episode nature, but none are as confining as what’s going on here. That’s also why it’s such a fun outing.
In the episode, the hide-and-seek-esque game of Sardines is played and people get crammed in a closet.
Miraculously, the episode finds a way to make such an introverted act interesting, while also telling a full story full of scandalous secrets.
Shearsmith considers this one the stronger installments, saying: “’Sardines’ deftly introduces 12 characters one by one – over the space of half an hour, gives them all a moment and packs an emotional punch, whilst never leaving the confines of a wardrobe. Who attempts that?!”
“Empty Orchestra” (Season 3, Episode 4)
In one of the more brilliant location decisions for the series, “Empty Orchestra” is set within a karaoke booth as a group from work attempt to blow off some steam. However, when news arises that someone from the group is getting fired and the answer is within the room, the night takes a more heated turn.
The big thing about “Empty Orchestra” is that music is playing throughout the entire episode. Not only that, but the songs cleverly reflect the story and tone of the entry as it moves along, something that was surely maddening to achieve.
A lot of fun stuff is done with the songs, but the episode also involves a deaf character, which makes this music-heavy installment successful on a whole other level. The episode juxtaposes these elements together to great effect while also crafting a growing sense of tension through the plotting. So many episodes of Inside No. 9 can end on down notes, but “Empty Orchestra” is actually one of the more uplifting entries. For that reason and many more, this is one of the show’s most important episodes.
“The Trial of Elizabeth Gadge” (Season 2, Episode 3)
When touching on an episode that seemed emblematic of the series, Shearsmith expressed support for a title that we’ve already singled out here:
“I think the segment that most people seem to regard as THE stand out episode of Inside No. 9 is probably ‘The 12 Days of Christine.’ Weirdly I think despite the fact people expect us to wrong foot you somehow with some (hopefully) satisfying or surprising U-turn or ‘twist’; this episode caught people off guard because we did something I think no one thought we were in the business of delivering – which was an immensely moving story that touched people very deeply and makes most who watch it cry their eyes out. We always knew it was a good story – but its nuts and bolts are as old as the hills.”
However, Shearsmith singles out another entry when it comes to his own preferential pick. “My personal favorite is our 17th century witch hunt, ‘The Trial of Elizabeth Gadge’ which is SO absurd and yet chillingly authentic with its period language and obsession with imps, devils and fur covered fiends with long cold teets.”
Shearsmith adds, “If you haven’t yet explored it – I’m sure eventually, you’ll find an episode you like. Or if you’re very generous – maybe two.”