Hail, Croydon's kings of comedy: 'Peep Show' is back for series eight
The mismatched housemates return tonight. Hugh Montgomery looks at the rise of two sitcom losers
Sunday 25 November 2012
You only have to witness the weekly, Sunday night Twitter feeding frenzy to know that, when it comes to TV, the day of rest is anything but. From Homeland and Downton Abbey to The X Factor results, schedulers serve up the most overblown dramas with the most outrageous twists, in the hope of dictating watercooler conversation for the week ahead. In such octane-fuelled company, a ready-meal-fuelled sitcom about a pair of mismatched Croydon housemates might seem out of place. But, then, the rise of Peep Show, which returns tonight, is as remarkable as its premise is mundane.
The sitcom's redeployment from Fridays to Sundays is a marker of its flagship status at an otherwise at-sea Channel 4. But it wasn't always this way. When it started in 2003, it was acclaimed for reinvigorating a classic Odd Couple comic scenario. But critical fervour didn't translate into ratings and, through the first few series, cancellation loomed. What earned it a reprieve was its reportedly stonking DVD sales – anecdotally verified by the fact that you couldn't go to a house party in the mid Noughties without someone slurring verbatim the musings of its two lead characters, David Mitchell's anally retentive loan manager, Mark, and Robert Webb's feckless musician Jez.
And so, vociferous cult following in place, it's now back for an eighth series, a rare achievement for a show with no metaphorical "journeys", kangaroo gonads or Gregg Wallace. It also flies in the face of the received British sitcom wisdom that less is more. How, then, to account for its staying power? Well, there's the brilliantly bilious writing, obviously. But also the perversely satisfying fact that the more that its thirty-something man-children experience – marriage, parenthood, attempted sectioning, etc – the more they stay the same. Really, is there any funnier, more nightmarish representation of our cultural drive towards perpetual adolescence? Well, Top Gear aside.
The irony is that such sad-sack roles have propelled its lead duo into the charmed ranks of the comedy elite. Long assumed to be interchangeable with his nerdy on-screen persona, Mitchell is now talked up as a national treasure-in-waiting, while his recent wedding to Victoria Coren attracted the fawning attention of the gossip rags. Meanwhile, Webb's populist cachet was confirmed in 2009 with his victory in the BBC's reality dancing contest Let's Dance for Comic Relief.
As for its writers, Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong, they have subsequently applied their trenchant talents to Fresh Meat, a junior Peep Show set in a university house-share. Not that they're about to give up on its parent. "It takes self-awareness to know when you're past your peak. We'll probably lack that, like everyone else... And crank them out until [audiences] are bored with them," joked Armstrong some time back, when I interviewed him for Peep Show's fifth series. So might we get to see Mark and Jez grow old together? It would certainly beat Last of the Summer Wine.
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