It’s a somewhat iffy prospect to bring back two comedic actors who worked well together previously for a new sitcom. There’s every chance it’ll fall into the same rhythms and feel derivative. Back is a new sitcom that relies on the evergreen chemistry of David Mitchell and Robert Webb, and while the two have a dynamic similar to the one they had in Peep Show, this is a sitcom going for something quite different.
A big part of why the show works is its creator, Simon Blackwell, who’s written for Veep, The Thick of It, and, indeed, Peep Show. He’s a comedy alum with more than one modern classic on his CV and his storied sitcom experience is felt in Back, which, in its pilot episode, deftly introduces its setting, conflict, and cast of characters, all the while firing out punchy one-liners.
The series follows Stephen (Mitchell), a failed lawyer meant to take over the family business, a pub, following the death of his father, Laurie. However, a major hiccup enters his life in the form of Andrew (Webb), who was very briefly a foster child (one of many) in Stephen’s childhood home.
Again, there is undoubtedly a familiarity to the roles Mitchell and Webb occupy in Back. Stephen, like Peep Show’s Mark, is uptight, early in the episode rejecting weed offered to him by his mother. Andrew, like Jez before him, has a charm that seems to work on everyone, especially the ladies. Plus, he’s a compulsive, sociopathic liar and the bane of Stephen’s existence.
However, it’d be odd if Back didn’t make use of what we all know already works when David Mitchell and Robert Webb get together. I mean, would anybody buy a series where Mitchell is the crazy party guy and Webb the stuffed shirt? And what differentiates these characters is that, unlike in Peep Show, where they had a long history together, here they’re effectively two strangers getting to know each other as the viewer does. Furthermore, Stephen is more immediately capable of expressing himself than Mark ever was and, contrary to Jez’s dopiness, Andrew is a calculating, potentially diabolical conman.
It’s impressive how much setup is packed into the first episode without it turning into a nonsensical mess (seriously, sitcom plotting is a lot harder than it looks and I’ve seen television pilots that devolved into madness by the end). In addition to all the story going on in the present, the show periodically flashes back to Stephen’s childhood to provide background on his strained relationship with his father, played by the wonderful Matthew Holness (Garth Marenghi himself in Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace). The flashback device is used inventively as, between cuts, the child actor playing Stephen is regularly swapped for David Mitchell and, at other times, the child actor replaces Mitchell in the present day scenes. It’s a cool and surreal, yet simple, visual trick that communicates a lot.
Admittedly, I didn’t find the premiere episode of Back wildly funny. I chuckled at times and, at others, acknowledged the cleverness of the gags but didn’t laugh out loud. But with all the establishing of setting, characters, and conflict that has to take place in the very first episode of a series, I don’t expect it to totally bowl me over from the outset. (I hated the entire first series of Peep Show until I watched the second and third and then went back for a rewatch.)
Besides, again, the first episode still manages a lot in a short amount of time and it all unfolds so briskly and engagingly that, when the credits rolled, I found myself surprised it was already over. My only real problem with the first episode of Back was I still feel in the dark about Andrew’s hidden, real motivations (though he claims he has none) for reinserting himself into Stephen and his family’s lives. However, I assume the series will reveal this more as it progresses, and I’m certainly intrigued enough to continue watching.
Back premieres on Thursday, November 16th on Sundance Now.