"Back," a British comedy making its way to America on Thursday by way of the streaming channel Sundance Now, reunites the team of David Mitchell and Robert Webb ("Peep Show," "That Mitchell and Webb Look") with each other and with creator Simon Blackwell, who wrote for "Peep Show."
Some readers will have begun celebrating on the basis of that sentence alone. It may help domestic viewers to learn that Blackwell co-wrote "In the Loop" with Armando Iannucci and won two Emmys for his work on Iannucci's "Veep." A picture may be emerging of the sort of dark, odd, character-rich comedy that "Back" deals in as well.
Blackwell's comedies live in the modern world where lessons are not learned nor hugs exchanged. But they are not without heart. One roots for the people of "Back," neither heroes nor antiheroes — call them a-heroic, perhaps — fearfully grappling with life at middle age and beyond, picking up crumbs of happiness as they may.
"Peep Show," in which Mitchell and Webb played difficult roommates — and whose nine seasons are available here on Hulu — ended with these thought-balloon voice-overs.
Jeremy (Webb): "We do love each other really."
Mark (Mitchell): "I simply must get rid of him."
This is very much the foundation of "Back."
As in "Peep Show," Mitchell — brow perpetually furrowed, mouth turned down, eyes sad or sadly hopeful — is the more tightly wound, dyspeptic character; Webb is the apparently easier, more fluid one. Mitchell plays Stephen, the son of a just-deceased publican; Webb is the self-proclaimed foster brother Andrew (one of many, many foster siblings and therefore easy to misplace) who turns up for the funeral.
When Andrew arrives, charming and self-assured, claiming to have been everywhere and done everything, he is greeted warmly by everyone but Stephen, who senses a threat to his place in the family and the family business. (There is some textual support for this: We see, in our introduction to Andrew, that he cannot actually speak Basque or administer CPR, though he is keen to have a go.)
Stephen by contrast is pedantically concerned with "reality" in a way that brings him no relief. Three stars out of five are the most he believes possible in his life; even his memories are gray and depressing. When Andrew, who has plans, suggests the John Barleycorn could look more "authentic," Stephen objects that "it already does because it is an authentic country pub…. Something actually being authentic is more authentic than something fake that looks authentic."
Mitchell and Webb, who have been a team more than two decades, are wonderful together, but they are just the heart of a crack, cracked ensemble, who embody a certain sort of eccentric British family familiar to readers of Austen, Waugh, Wodehouse and Gibbons.
Stephen has a woolly-headed sister, Cass (Louise Brealey), who fancies herself an artist and dreams of travel, and a mother, Ellen (Penny Downie, who played Gertrude in David Tennant's 2009 "Hamlet"), a serial seeker after spiritual enlightenment, with the ephemeral befuddlement of a female Bill Nighy. Geoffrey McGivern (Ford Prefect in the original radio production of "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," some will be excited to learn) is Uncle Geoff; Olivia Poulet is Stephen's still-beloved ex-wife, Alison.
Is Andrew who says he is, or a con man with a knack for rewriting other people's memories, or some combination of the two? Is the fact that he presents himself in contradictory ways to different people a sign of manipulative cunning, or of a deep need to be loved? That the drama in the comedy revolves around the fate of a mediocre country pub and a people of almost no means whatever, only complicates matters.
Blackwood maintains the ambiguity, which is both more threatening and funnier than any definitive answer could be. That a second season has been ordered suggests this will not be a problem soon.
Where: Sundance Now
When: Any time, starting Thursday