It’s been four years since the first season of Back, and while watching the show, it feels like it. The death of Matthew Holness’s pub landlord Laurie has faded into the background, with the ambiguous-history flashbacks to Laurie’s parenting now gone. Everyone seems, if not cosy, then comfortable in their roles in a way which suggests they’ve been there for a long time. Yet in the latter half of this season, we are blithely informed that in-universe, only about nine months has passed.
This is typical of Back’s somewhat confused construction. Too often, it dips its toes into something, some new avenue of potential, then seems to get scared and retreat into its comfort zone. Ironically, its helplessly flawed main characters are a lot like that too, and if that was the point then it would be a more robust production.
Back is one of those shows which, like Killing Eve, is well aware that its greatest asset is the chemistry and interplay between its two leads – and has fallen into the same trap of using that obvious strength incredibly sparingly, lest they run out of material. But Killing Eve was an international game of cat-and-mouse, and had reason and opportunity for its leads to be kept apart, whereas Back is two men in their forties orbiting around the same small village pub.
Granted, keeping the two apart never feels strained, but that’s because Back has already gone to great lengths to make their characters despise one another. So what does feel strained is when they are thrown together with some common purpose, even though these are by nature the best scenes in the whole production.
Back is still attempting to ride the knife-edge of Robert Webb’s Andrew being plausibly deniable in his evil, but while that was just about manageable when he was only doing it to David Mitchell, now he’s doing it to Olivia Poulet’s character as well. This isn’t even a bad thing, as some of his strongest moments come when the mask slips and he’s actively needling people.
But once that’s out in the open, the toothpaste cannot be put back into the tube. It makes no sense for his victims to turn around and trust him all of a sudden, yet this is just what they do when the plot demands it. (At times, it seems Mitchell and Webb are shrugging and reverting to their real-life chumminess.) And while we are told, repeatedly, that he’s some kind of master manipulator, all his most devious moves are located carefully offscreen.
Did the writers worry they weren’t up to actually showing them? You be the judge. However, towards the end of the season, the show itself tries its hand at emotional manipulation with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer to the testicles. Perhaps that’s a harsh judgement, but a little harshness is perhaps called for when they try to actually get us to care about the tedious minor characters.
Most of the supporting cast have about one foible apiece. I hate to compare Back to Mitchell and Webb’s star-making Peep Show, but here they’ve left me little option: Peep Show’s ancillary characters weren’t just fully realised, but also all vicious little bastards in their own way. Back’s wider community are for the most part a source of feedlines.
And if they were just there as props, that would be one thing. But Back will insist on making the wider cast’s B-plots – already distractions from the show’s more interesting leads – major features of each episode, only to then have them resolved in the most perfunctory of ways before being discarded without ceremony.
To use the kind of general-audiences metaphor Back could appreciate, it’s as if they’re ignoring John and Paul to focus on Ringo’s bath night. And the story progression is about the same as what you’d expect there: having entered into a situation where he’s going to plunge into a body of water, Ringo then gets damp. It’s not even going from A to B, it’s content to pretend sticking around at A is a journey in and of itself.
All this in mind, I have no idea why the second season of Back was frantically trying to shove more supporting characters into the mix. They were having enough trouble giving them things to do anyway. Most of them default to just being undressed plot devices for more important characters, and when the show attempts to name one of these tiresome non-entities ‘charismatic Mike’ my notes reflect this in an incredibly rude word.
(Admittedly, the existing supporting cast fare no better. At one point the fey barman, with no warning, suddenly starts talking and acting like a cockney hardman.)
Now, the counterargument would be that these are flawed characters, so by definition they’ll have negative qualities. Perhaps so – but negative qualities needn’t necessarily translate into being grating for the audience. Macbeth was a traitorous mass-murderer, yet nobody criticises that play on the basis that they find him personally annoying. Occasionally Back’s bit players manage a moment of enjoyable nastiness, but usually they’re just taking up space as they lumber in the direction of a telegraphed and overly broad punchline.
So, fine, Back is dragged down by the lead weight of its B-plots. But what about the meat of the thing, the rivalry between Mitchell’s Stephen and Webb’s Andrew? I’ve already said there isn’t enough of it, but what about what we do get?
Some of it’s good. One must grant it that, sometimes it works. Webb using superficial charm to toy with people and Mitchell getting into some monomaniac obsession works for much the same reasons it did in Peep Show (there’s that word again). But too often, our leads are also falling victim to the curses that plague their backup dancers. In particular, one part of the final episode that should have been hefty stuff is wrapped up offscreen and then blithely waved away in about three sentences. And this isn’t the show denying the audience what they think they want, this is the show denying itself the opportunity to do something interesting.
A lot of comedy – and indeed a lot of the comedy of Back – by nature takes you by surprise. As Stewart Lee once phrased it in typically over-analytical style, “our expectations were subverted, from whence the humour arose”. And true enough, spending quarter of an hour setting up a plot only to drop it like hot piss when it threatens to go somewhere isn’t what I was expecting. Unfortunately, that’s more likely to produce a groan than a laugh.
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Occasionally, a joke will actually land. More often the sheer painful effort and all the tacked-on slurry will defuse it before it can start to work.
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