Sometimes, revelations can creep up and completely donkey-punch you straight in the brain. For example, you’re playing Guitar Hero, frenzied fingers becoming at one with the funny shapes moving down the screen as the sound of Silversun Pickups spills out of your TV speakers. You’re heading on course for a perfect score, when suddenly your brain switches to ‘default’, where it’s confused by the concept of playing a videogame using a guitar-shaped controller, bewildered by what the funny shapes could possibly mean, and flummoxed by the very concept of ‘colours’. By the time you’ve composed yourself and worked out which button is ‘red’ (and what ‘red’ is), the crowd are booing, and your subconscious is softly weeping at the fact this actually matters to you.
Similarly, and this might not surprise anyone after that first paragraph, there’s the notion of watching an episode of Peep Show only for it to suddenly hit you. Shit, you’re somehow both Mark and Jeremy, the heroes (and rarely has the word been used so inaccurately) of Peep Show. You display the general levels of spoddiness, self-doubt and raw sex appeal in David Mitchell’s Mark, and the dress sense, intelligence and work ethic in Robert Webb’s Jeremy. And by ‘you’, we mean ‘us’. If we were the sort of blog that used emoticons, we’d use a sad smiley face right here (and then we’d fret about whether people understood we’re actually being ‘ironic’ here).
It’s a mystifying beast, is Peep Show. It’s a sitcom it seems everyone we know watches, yet until the most recent series it failed to get more than 1.5 million viewers per episode. Indeed, it wasn’t until the sixth series that the programme appeared in Channel Four’s weekly top thirty ratings for the second time ever (in that time, the execrable Bo Selecta! made the top thirty ratings on ten occasions). It’s not just lacklustre ratings that make it such a welcome surprise Peep Show has lasted so long, but also the high-concept approach of every single shot being filmed from a character’s point-of-view. Given the fact the programme was getting recommissioned at all, we can’t imagine that many people would object if this had been phased out with each passing series – after all, it necessitates filming each scene more than once, from each character’s POV – but it has been a constant throughout every one of the 36 episodes to date.
Similarly, there’s the way the viewer can hear the thoughts of Mark and Jeremy throughout the series, but only from Mark and Jeremy. Other shows (by which we mean Scrubs, and JD’s internal monologue) played with the format a little, meaning we’d sometimes be let in on the thoughts of others, but in Peep Show, the concept is utterly rigid, and we’d say, all the better for it.
The same applies to the plotting. At the start of each episode, you just know everything is going to work out badly for the central pairing. Peep Show is an hugely bleak show – each opportunity for happiness is dangled in front of the El Dude brothers, only for their poor handling of minor external factors to ensure that they’ll remain miserable, unfulfilled, and stuck together at the end. And yet, you can’t really feel Mark and Jeremy are being treated cruelly by the writers – each of them are usually painfully responsible for their own downfalls, even to the extreme that when Sophie agrees to marry Mark, he realises that he doesn’t love her after all, but will have to go through with it, out of politeness. Really, what could be more perfectly British than that?
Indeed, as the band (who we’re sure would be Mark’s favourite) They Might Be Giants wonderfully put it: “Nobody ever gets what they want, and that is beautiful. Everybody dies frustrated and sad, and that is beautiful.” Possibly you could claim Peep Show is merely pathos by numbers, but who cares? Peep Show is brilliant, and in an age where any half-decent British sitcom ends after the second series because the writers claim they want it to go down in history like Fawlty Towers did (i.e. they’ve run out of ideas), it’s great to have a brilliant sitcom able to go on for so long. Some may feel the standard of the show has dropped over the last few series, but we’d disagree, saying recent episodes like ‘The Party’, ‘Jeremy at JLB’ or ‘Burgling’ are up there with the finest of the early years.
All in all, not bad work for a show originally conceived as a combination of Beavis and Butt-head, and the largely-forgotten Nation217/Paramount/Channel Four show Flipside TV. Yes, really.