It's all about bouncing back

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Why I Love the Peep Show

The subject of the Rabbit's fascination and adoration for this week is Channel 4's amazing BAFTA award winner, "Peep Show" starring England's popular comedy duo David Mitchell and Robert Webb.

I realize that, relative to my best Britcom buddies, I'm a bit late to the party on this one, but since the show is still on the air in England (Channel 4 has just commissioned season six) and it hasn't had much U.S. exposure yet (only Season One has aired to date on BBC America)I hereby dub this post both "timely" and "relevant."

"Peep" is a sitcom featuring two former college buds, about three years out, sharing a flat in south London. Mark, played to alarming perfection by David Mitchell, is a well-intentioned introverted bumbler who responds to the stress of modern life by "doing what's expected" of him -- which amounts to listening to Radio 4 and working as an office drone loan manager. (Mitchell's naturally unthreatening appearance -- featuring wide-eyed expressions that simultaneously signal naivety and unending fear -- draws an impressive amount of sympathy for Mark's daily trials). Mark's friend and housemate, Jeremy, is a painfully immature and irresponsible musician who has no idea that his desire to avoid a real job will forever outweigh his creative talents. (Robert Webb is so strong in this role that he has apparently been alarmed at how many viewers assume that his portrayal of Jeremy must reflect his own personality. During a post-BAFTA interview a somewhat exasperated Webb blurted "I hope I'm not quite as stupid, dishonourable, deluded, selfish, feckless and thick as Jeremy." I certainly couldn't develop a more apt string of adjectives to describe his character. Webb obviously knows Jeremy well).

Overall, therefore, the premise is certainly nothing new. (The show's producers, for example, have compared the simple "odd couple" setup to "Spaced". In the States, you could just compare it to -- well -- "The Odd Couple."). As in most shows of the genre, Marc and Jeremy superficially have little in common, but they retain a functional friendship that each can fall back on during the inevitable failures that result from their daily interactions with the prickly and overwhelming "real world". So, if based on such an ordinary premise, what makes the show special and what causes it to continually garner such impressive reviews?

One unique twist is that the events of the two main characters' lives are seen almost exclusively from their own points of view and those of other characters they interact with. The camera's viewpoint is generally tightly focused on the face of the character being addressed, giving each scene an uncomfortable intimacy. The show also deepens our connection to the characters and their motives by using voiceovers to share aloud the inner thoughts of the two protagonists. Frequently, the writers use this device highlight how far Mark and Jeremy's thought range from the actions they are actually willing to take. The show's chief writers Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain explained that their use of first-person perspective was influenced by a Channel 4 documentary series "Being Caprice". "Caprice the model had a camera on her sunglasses and it was like a POV shooting style, which I guess was nicked from Being John Malkovich,’explains Sam. "So it’s a third-hand steal, really. We thought it would be great for comedy, hearing someone else’s thoughts. The voices give you a whole other dimension in terms of jokes".

Even the clever point of view arrangement, however, is in no way sufficient to explain why the show is so charming, magnificent and repeatedly honored. (The Guardian recently referred to it as the best television show of the decade. And yes, they are including "The Office". It's a tough call, but I'm starting to agree). The real strength and joy comes from the quality of the show's writing and it's amazing lead performers. The writing uses such clever phraseology that Peep is the most readily quotable show since Python. (In fact, Channel 4 maintains a web page of favored Peep Quotes from each season and there is even a popular Facebook page called "Peep Show Quotes.") It's fairly rare, however, to find perfect dialouge so lovingly delivered. In the great tradition of John Cleese and Larry David, Mitchell and Webb manage the nearly impossible with ease: they draw sympathy and genuine affection for two otherwise completely unlikeable characters. It's such an impressive feat that I never tire of watching it and, frankly, it has really drawn me in. It took a few episodes, but now I am fully addicted. It's so intimate that it brings back youthful memories of watching my own friends endure the pains of growing up. I absolutely and honestly cannot wait to find out what whether Marc and Jeremy will ever find a way to cope, adapt and find happiness in the world. That is a rare and treasured feeling.

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