Sympathy isn’t easily offered to anyone in “Back to Life.” With thorny, tangled webs of broken childhoods and tragic misunderstandings, it’s a comedy that has plenty of justified, pent-up anger flowing in plenty of different directions. Keeping it all balanced on a show that still functions in a genre seemingly all its own is a balancing act that held together over its first season and maintains throughout Season 2 (premiering Monday on Showtime after airing in the UK in late summer).
Many stories are quick to get a “dark comedy” label simply because their characters joke about the underbelly of human nature or embrace concepts of mortality in a far more head-on way than expected. Through the experiences of Miri Matteson (played by series co-writer Daisy Haggard) in “Back to Life,” those are daily confrontations. Still something of a town pariah after an 18-year prison sentence in connection with the death of her childhood friend, Miri’s gradual reintroduction to life in her family’s seaside Kent town comes with metaphorical training wheels. (More literally, since she was sent away to serve her sentence before she could get her drivers’ license, Miri’s still relying on “borrowing” her friend’s daughter’s bike to get around.)
In Season 2, she’s not the only Matteson to face public scrutiny. Messy fallout from revelations about infidelity has left Miri’s mother Caroline (Geraldine James) with her own fraught reputation in the eyes of her neighbors, putting a major strain on a family already nearing its breaking point. The sense of stability that Caroline gets from the effigy of Miri that she’s taken in and fashioned into a kind of surrogate daughter isn’t just a bit of Nora Durst cosplay; it’s a bulwark of emotional stability against the lingering guilt she feels toward her husband Oscar (an absolutely sublime Richard Durden).
There’s turmoil at home, but Miri continues to find safe harbor with Billy (Adeel Akhtar), the next-door neighbor who’s become something more than a well-meaning friend. Their specific form of flirtation is awkward in all the ways you’d expect between two people emerging from chapters in their lives marked by regret and uncertainty. In another of the show’s delicate emotional juggling displays, “Back to Life” draws plenty of charm in seeing them grow closer to each other, all with the tiniest acknowledgment that this might not be the healthiest potential relationship, however sweet they are toward one another.
The characters in “Back to Life” don’t often get the chance to explicitly talk about trauma, but it’s undeniable that Miri and the central people in her life are all dealing with it, each in their own way. Season 2 finds Miri living out a companion piece of sorts to “Pen15”: crimping her hair, tending to a Tamagotchi, and toting around a Nokia brick with that standard ringtone. But it’s not that she wants to relive her childhood — these are just the tools at her disposal that bring her the most comfort.
Oscar and Caroline are on a repressed domestic roller coaster, trading vicious barbs one moment while taking steps toward reconciliation in the next. In the first season, the tumult between Miri’s parents seemed like an obligatory extra layer of conflict to balance out their daughter’s misfortunes. Here, dealing with the aftermath of an emotionally fraught affair, Haggard and co-writer Laura Solon let them be more than just the grieving parents, giving them a bit of autonomy outside of their infamous daughter and each other. Oscar’s one-man environmental crusade and Caroline’s run-ins with other Hythe residents have their own absurdities, some delivered as little matter-of-fact deadpan punchlines and others presented as fate-confronting tragedies in miniature. In the process, their tentative marriage moves beyond the expected rhythms of a couple arguing about indiscretions into something that sometimes even feels playful.
All of the Mattesons desperately want to shake off their unwitting celebrity, particularly in the way Miri’s past continues to cloud her relationship with old friend Mandy (Christine Bottomley) and leads to passing comments at everything from simple errands to job interviews. In the same way, there are times when “Back to Life” works as a finely calibrated, delayed, coming-of-age story, all while dealing with that same sort of intrusion. Before long, it’s embodied in one particular person from everyone’s shared past — the show would have had plenty to draw on without it, but the way that “Back to Life” treats that sudden arrival as an inevitability keeps it from feeling like the show is reaching for a shock to the town tantamount to what led to Season 1.
That everyday source of tension comes from Miri’s desperation for something close to a routine. That ever-elusive idea of an everyday normal comes across with each new interaction. She has angsty shouting matches with her parents, becomes the architect of a very odd living arrangement, tries to be a stable girlfriend after absorbing the sum total of her dating experience from a few teenage flings, and wades her way through regular check-ins with her parole officer (Jo Martin, making the most of her free rein to give the biggest comedic performance in the show). She’s a different Miri with each of these people, and “Back to Life” takes its time to show her figuring out which one of them is going to end up sticking.
It’s a tiny moment in the scheme of a six-episode season that runs the gamut from gentleness to genuine menace, but at the end of Season 2’s second episode, we follow Miri on a bike ride home. Season director Ella Jones captures her sense of happiness after a rare bit of good luck, jump-cutting between different shades of a smile under the same streetlit glow. It’s a reprieve that’s never going to last that long, but it’s more than just a setup for the other shoe that’s never too far away from dropping.
Even in the tiny successes and the fleeting moments of romance, that undercurrent of sadness never fully subsides. We see parents wrestling unspeakable loss and the horrors of decades past being dropped on people’s doorstep. In most cases, the only thing that these characters can do is reach for a joke as a blade to cut through that haze. “Back to Life” manages to make room for more laughs than that, and its ability to let all of this live side by side helps make it unlike pretty much anything else on TV.
“Back to Life” premiers Monday, September 13 at 10 p.m. ET on Showtime. New episodes will be released weekly.