Like any other most recent output from an established comedy duo or writing team, it’s impossible not to see back the latest series from stars David Mitchell and Robert Webb without a consideration of the titanic work they’ve done in the past. Written by long time collaborator and “Veep” writer Simon Blackwell, “Back” is a fainter echo of their work on the legendary “Peep Show” and their sketch shows across different media. Bringing some of that previous sensibility to a more conventional comedy may not be the most satisfying use of their talents, but this is still a twisted dark family comedy that’s worth a shot for die-hards.
“Back” tells the simple, spiraling story of Stephen (Mitchell), a man dealing with the aftermath of his father’s death. The family-owned John Barleycorn pub is set to come under his control, right as he’s starting to be OK with being friendly with his ex-wife Alison (Olivia Poulet). When a distant person from his past reemerges in the form of his long-departed foster brother Andrew (Webb), what little semblance of control he had in a time of grief evaporates in the face of this new charismatic Prodigal Son.
One particular strength of the show comes in how it juts against some of Mitchell and Webb’s previous work. It’s a delight to see Webb (whose Jez character on “Peep Show” was somewhere south of “uncultured”) revel in being a suave paragon of out-of-town sophistication for everyone in Stephen’s family and his corner of Stroud. The ambiguous nature of Andrew’s interest in his old family is the engine behind most of the comedy from Stephen’s side too, as he wavers between distrust and begrudging acceptance of this new inheritance challenger.
Even though the show occasionally hops back into the past to investigate some stories about Andrew’s time living with the family, “Back” avoids spending too much time on catch-up, instead thrusting Andrew back into everyone’s good graces. Bypassing the usual orientation of Stephen and his family, immediately dealing with the post-funeral whiplash is an effective way to get the audience inside Stephen’s mind (and fuels a handful of priceless exasperated reactions).
For times when the two men do talk about their brief childhood experiences under the same roof, Blackwell and director Ben Palmer plug Andrew and Stephen’s adult selves into these flashbacks. The different lighting and their respective anecdotes showcase how their ways of remembering things are literally colored differently. It’s a neat visual idea, but like the rest of any visual flourishes here, they’re more interesting than insightful.
The Mitchell/Webb/Blackwell trio has excelled in finding hilarious moments in the everyday absurdity, so it’s a little disappointing whenever the wackier parts of “Back” tack on a few extra layers to an already fraught situation (one particular pub-related incident with ketchup seems like a comedic bridge too far). The best moments at the Barleycorn are when the various side characters, including Stephen’s uncle Geoff (Geoffrey McGivern) and sister Cass (Louise Brealey) stay somewhere south of off the handle.
But as the easy truce between the two brothers begins to curdle, Stephen’s obsessive nature becomes the real selling point here. Hearing Mitchell really dig into some nihilistic phrases (“As long as we keep the feeling at bay, we’re doing our job”) and take his search for answers to a decidedly more manic place is its own viewing reward. There’s a sense of cosmic fatalism that shrouds all of Stephen’s efforts to establish a new life for himself, be it in his makeshift trailer or traveling with an adorable rescue dog in tow. Whenever a glimmer of hope peeks through, this is a group that knows how to take that brief glimpse of happiness and mangle it into a vicious, bleak punchline.
If there’s one thing that “Peep Show” did exceedingly well, it was maintain the precarious balance between hilarity and tragedy. The smaller devastating moments here don’t cut with quite the same precision, but for those worrying that a more conventional camera setup means the absence of a deep, underlying darkness, have no fear. When old wounds bubble to the surface, there’s something hypnotic about watching Stephen’s inability to escape a cycle of self-destruction and enabling his sworn enemies.
Even at six episodes, with a few harmless misadventures in between Andrew’s arrival and the season’s eventual fate, “Back” feels a little stretched thin. But again, as with so many other debut seasons of new shows these days, it arrives at an endpoint that signals a much better, more exciting show on the horizon. Put Mitchell and Webb on screen together and some kind of magic is going to happen. So far, there’s not as much here as you might hope, but you’re definitely not going to feel like you wasted your time.
“Back” Season 1 is now available to stream on Sundance Now.