Some thoughts on Peep Show
Around 2004, I bought a cheap region free dvd player for $30 so I could watch all the deranged comedies a British pal of mine brought back from home. This was during the brief golden age that produced a wave of super high concept niche shows like The Mighty Boosh, Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, and Nathan Barley. I loved all of them. Around the same time the first season of Peep Show aired. Compared to everything else I was watching, it seemed fairly conventional, your basic odd couple comedy, a chronicle of male depravity, but with one minor twist: it was all done through POV shots, and you got to hear the interior thoughts of the protagonists, Mark and Jez. I thoroughly enjoyed the first season, but didn’t pursue it afterward. That strange little golden age passed and for many years I was content with all the good stuff happening here.
Then Netflix streaming happened, and all seven seasons of Peep Show were suddenly available. Now old and broken, I rewatched the first season in a trance (“How thick is wall?”), finally appreciating its genius, and like Paul on the road to Damascus etc etc. Soon I was a proper Peep Show degenerate, blazing my way through all seven seasons in a few days, and then starting over. I’ll go cold turkey for a while, but then I’ll want to watch a certain episode, say the one where Mark pretends to be a university student (“just another moment that will haunt me for the rest of my life”), and I’ll have to watch them all, again. It’s a sad existence, in a way, but in another way I don’t care. Now, as I prepare to watch the final season, a few stray and probably unoriginal thoughts:
At some point, while chasing the dragon, I unlocked the show’s central narrative conceit: Mark and Jez ALWAYS get what they want, and when they do, it’s fucking horrible. Mark’s pursuit of Sophie is the prime example, of course, but it happens throughout, in ways big and small. Getting what you want is a form of hell, and Peep Show is nothing if not a complete and terrifying vision of hell, the Inferno set in Croydon. In the original, Virgil makes clear to Dante that all the souls in Hell remain there by choice. They can’t let go of whatever vice or mad desire put them there in the first place, and so they spend eternity walking in circles, making the same mistake over and over. And it’s not just Mark and Jez. One of my favorite aspects of the show is the way secondary characters always come back. They all exist in the same hell and they can’t escape each other. It’s wonderful!
Super Hans is the finest character in the history of television. He’s drawn with total precision, and yet he always remains a mystery. We only get to see him in glimpses, and each one feels like a privilege. This is how he seduces us. Super Hans is the ultimate bounder, and like Grimes in Decline & Fall, he seems to be “of the immortals.” He existed before us, and he will exist after us. Each day he dives headlong into the dark waters of creation and has himself a nice old wallow. His language is rich and insouciant, a crack-addled patois that rivals the grandeur of Falstaff. I’ve spent a lot of time imagining a show that just follows him around, but it would be impossible, like staring into the sun.
When I told my British pal that I was making my way through Peep Show, he asked if I had “seen it yet.” I said, “Seen what?” He said, “The episode?” I said, “What episode?” And he said, “You’ll know it when you see it.” At this point I was in Season 3 and every episode seemed like it could be the notorious land mine that was supposedly waiting for me. But I kept going, making my way into Season 4, and there I finally came to the episode, and there was no mistaking it. To my unending horror and delight, it surpassed my expectations. It’s probably the most twisted thing I’ve ever seen on television, and it seemed there was no way these characters could get any lower. And yet somehow, the next episode is even worse/better! You know which episode I’m talking about.
Context and Exposition (glorious lack of)
I could go on and on about the writing on Peep Show, but the thing I admire most is the way the writers trust the viewer. From the first scene, they drop us into a world without context or exposition, and let the characters develop before our eyes. Every new scene feels organic because we’re dropped right into the middle of it, and yet there’s never a sense of dislocation, or a sense that we need more information. We get the slightest hints of Mark and Jez’s past, and it’s more than enough. By the time Mark’s dad shows up in Season 7, for the worst Christmas dinner ever, we already know all about him, and he’s only been mentioned in passing a few times. In Season 1, we get one stray reference to “Big Suze,” and then she shows up at the top of Season 3, without further context or explanation and yet fully integrated into the world. This kind of efficiency is miraculous.
I worked for a couple years as a plumbing supplies salesman. In Season 8, the writers, trying to find a new low for Mark, some terminus of humiliation and despair, make him a plumbing supplies salesman.
Bah…that’s probably enough. I’m certain there are analyses out there even more thorough and pointless than my own. Peep Show makes me laugh — that’s the main thing — and though it depicts the worst people on earth, or in Croydon, at least, it is redeemed by some deeply buried appreciation of human flaw and how we’re all struggling and trapped inside ourselves. OK…off to watch Season 9.