Perhaps the biggest draw for shows like Inside No. 9, which has just wrapped up its eighth season, is that, as an anthology, each episode allows it the chance to do something completely different. Over the course of its run, the creative duo behind the show, Reece Shearsmith, and Steve Pemberton, have tackled a range of genres, from psychological horror to silent comedy, to more mundane, kitchen sink dramas – all while retaining their own distinctive style and limiting each piece to a single confined setting.
This of course all allows for a great deal of experimentation and variety in its storytelling. However, it also means that any episode lives or dies on the strength of the concept underlying it. This is a show where we only ever spend a limited time with its characters and settings, meaning that if there isn’t a really strong idea behind any given episode, there’s little else really that it has to work with. Only so often can it repeat the same formulas, and consequently, recent seasons have tended to feel a lot more inconsistent in their output.
This is apparent throughout much of the newest run of Inside No. 9, which kicked off with a festive ghost story at Christmastime, before continuing on with the rest of its run over the past five weeks. Much of it feels a bit more by the numbers than past episodes, with several episodes having a lot less going on than in the best which the show’s had to offer.
The third episode, for example, centers around an intensely superstitious man becoming increasingly high-strung and irate as he has to deal with numerous potential causes of bad luck. This works well enough as a farce, and no one plays this kind of uptight, grumpy character better than Shearsmith. But it doesn’t do much to develop this any further, to the point where anyone can see the final few gags coming from a mile off.
Often, these kinds of twists, which have defined this show throughout its run, also tend to feel like they’re done simply for the sake of having one in there. Much of the joy of this show comes from how it presents viewers with a starting point that seems thoroughly normal and mundane, then challenges them to see where it’s going to turn this all on its head.
With some of these newer episodes, however, there’s too little setup done beforehand for it to feel at all natural. The final episode, ‘The Last Weekend’, is perhaps the most egregious one here, starting out with what appears to be a slice-of-life, character-focused examination of a couple who’ve been together for nine years, and all the problems and insecurities that can come with this.
This then completely switches gears after the halfway point however, to morph into something that’s much more horror-orientated, to the point where you could completely rewrite the first half and have it work just as well. There are two really good ideas in there, but it ends up feeling as if they’ve artificially been squashed together, rather than being fleshed out individually.
All this isn’t to say there aren’t still some real gems in this latest season though, in those instances where the writers have clearly had a really strong idea to work off. The fourth episode, ‘Love Is A Stranger’, shows how much can be done with the limited settings that the show uses, as it depicts a number of successive, online dates.
Like shows such as Black Mirror, Inside No. 9 expertly plays upon the darkest and most uncomfortable aspects of this side of modern life, highlighting the frustrations, awkwardness, and potential dangers that can come with it. One unbearably cringe-inducing date follows another, with Claire Rushbrook, who plays the main character Vicky, really selling the tragedy and vulnerability of this woman trying desperately, it seems, to forge any kind of connection with those on the other end of each video call.
The stand out of the season, meanwhile, has to be episode five, ‘3 by 3’, which attempts to pull the same trick as the shows previous ‘live’ special ‘Dead Line’, in fooling you into thinking you’re watching something else entirely, before pulling the rug out from under your feet. With another, completely fictional episode having been promoted beforehand, if you’d tuned in to watch the broadcast live you’d have instead found yourself watching what appears to be some standard, generic game show, with Lee Mack as host, featuring contestants facing numerous rounds of trivia.
From the direction and the sound design to the naff one-liners, this episode perfectly recreates the look and the feel of these kinds of shows, only slowly, and subtly, weaving in hints that something isn’t quite right. It’s an episode that rewards a close watch, and is the best example in this season of the show getting viewers to engage, and to look for where the twist is, rather than throwing something in there that feels completely out of left field.
All in all, Inside No. 9 absolutely remains an enjoyable watch, with Shearsmith and Pemberton being as reliable as ever when it comes to the kind of dark comedy they’re most known for. But much of it nevertheless fails to rival their best work, and can sometimes feel like a retreading of old ground. Various episodes feel a lot more forgettable than others – however, it will remain one to watch for those with strong central concepts behind them.
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It may be that the duo behind Inside No.9 have already gone through their best ideas for this show, with some episodes of this run being far less consistent than others, but for all this, it remains one to watch, with some brilliantly executed moments in there.
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