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Back, is back- Back Season 2 review

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

After much nagging from my flatmate, this week I watched all of the Channel 4 sort-of-a sitcom Back in one go. I needn’t have resisted; Simon Blackwell’s latest venture is fantastic. This review is focused on the second season, though due to the (terrible pun incoming) back-to-back viewing (I’m so sorry) of both this season and the first, the show is very much fused as a whole in my mind.

Back features the now-classic duo of David Mitchell and Robert Webb portraying its two central characters, Stephen and Andrew respectively. Season 2 begins with Stephen returning from therapy and Andrew tiring of running the family pub, presenting us with a new status quo for their relationship as foster brothers. The recurring characters from the previous season return largely unchanged, though this return is very much a welcome one. One of the most attractive aspects of Back is the well-roundedness of this ensemble, who all feel individual, clearly defined and carefully balanced against each other’s personalities. Cass (Louise Brealey) brings her trademark nervousness, Alison (Olivia Poulet) her matter-of-fact frankness, Ellen (Penny Downie) her ageing-hippie laidback-ness, Julian (John MacMillan) his calming aloofness, Jan and Mike (Jessica Gunning & Oliver Maltman) their irresistible chemistry, and Geoff (Geoffrey McGivern) his chaotic uncle energy. For this reason, it strikes me as difficult to pick a particular standout performance – everybody has their moment. That said, at the start of the series Julian feels a little underused, but this is countered by his increased presence in the season’s latter half.

Aside from the performances, the screenplay is where Back shines. I confess to being a fan of Simon Blackwell’s previous writing work, particularly on BBC’s The Thick Of It, and that show’s DNA feels very present here. The humour isn’t quite as subtle – there isn’t much room for such luxuries in a mere 20-minute episode – but the script is sharp and bleakly funny. Blackwell neatly captures the kind of gallows humour that hangs in the air around a bereavement and the ensuing period, while also being able to handle the more upbeat, oddball jokes as well as the vaguely kitchen-sink material about the both the quirks and the dullness of modern life. I felt Season 1 did this better, with the second outing including occasional forced-feeling references to current events and contemporary meme culture, but overall the quality is consistently high.

I’ve been dancing around the elephant in the room here. As I mentioned, the main duo are played by Mitchell and Webb, who many will remember as the endlessly quotable Mark and Jez in Peep Show. Incidentally, Simon Blackwell wrote several episodes of the show, and is heavily involved with some of Mitchell and Webb’s other projects. So, a question I see popping up a lot in relation to Back is: ‘does it just feel like a rehash of Peep Show?’ My answer would be mostly no. The obvious parallel is that the pair are playing very similar characters – Mitchell the socially awkward, anal and often paranoid one, and Webb the roguish, outgoing one. Comparable too is Geoff, whose often belly-laugh inducing screwball antics, unusual takes and non-sequiturs are reminiscent of a septuagenarian Super Hans. Nevertheless, the show has its own voice; it finds itself being more sentimental and heartfelt than Peep Show ever was, and in terms of visual storytelling Back is much freer from the constraints that the exclusively point-of-view framing placed on Peep Show. For instance, in Back a scene during a pub quiz is shot and edited like a standoff in a spaghetti western for comic effect, a brilliant sequence Peep Show’s setup would have rendered impossible. It’s a small example but it’s representative of the whole – it’s its own show with its own angle.

Back’s second outing is smart, it’s sincere, and most importantly it’s funny. In short, it’s worth the watch. Just don’t keep thinking “it’s Mark and Jez, it’s Mark and Jez” the whole time – it stands on its own two legs.

Image: Chris Bowland via Flickr