Rarely do I laugh at people peeing themselves, which is why I’m confident that Peep Show is one of the best TV programs currently on the air. (Should I be laughing more frequently at people pissing themselves? Dear Christopher Hitchens: Is this why women aren’t funny?)
In any case, I’m here to bring you this urgent message: Rush to Hulu and watch Peep Show. Look forward to the urine-soaked morning suit in the last episode of season four.
A British comedy that began airing in 2003, Peep Show chronicles the quotidian exploits of two youngish roommates, Mark and Jeremy (David Mitchell and Robert Webb), who share a depressing flat in the glamourless London suburb of Croydon. An established comedic duo who also serve as part of the writing team, Mitchell and Webb are known mainly for their sterling sketch comedy, both in radio and on TV form (see the Mitchell and Webb Situation and That Mitchell and Webb Look, in which you’ll find things like this, this, and this). They’re like a more polite version of Little Britain, with less drag and more homeless detectives.
In the un-glossy world of Peep Show, Mitchell and Webb lay down their sketch comedy personae in favor of deeper characters. Mark is a loan manager, history buff, tight-arse, and world-class paranoiac, while Jeremy is a shiftless musician, would-be lady-killer, perpetual adolescent, and magic mushroom connoisseur. Mark and Jeremy are the sort of friends who are much more like family than chums. You know how it goes: you make a new friend and you get along, but by the time you discover that you’re deeply incompatible on several essential levels, you’ve already gotten hopelessly attached and will spend the rest of your life explaining them to your normal friends.
The pursuit of women is, unsurprisingly, central to Mark and Jeremy’s experience. Mark pines mainly after a work colleague, Sophie (played by frequent Mitchell & Webb collaborator Olivia Colman), while Jeremy, meanwhile, is busy seducing everyone and anyone, including his next door neighbor, his agent, a born-again Christian, Mark’s sister, and the gorgeous Big Suze (Sophie Winkleman). Nothing particularly outlandish or strange happens to anyone, but the show’s writers (Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain, plus others) are gloriously capable of highlighting the absurdity and piquance and heartbreakingness of the everyday. The weekly grocery trip? Very complicated. Watching the music video of Enya’s “Orinoko Flow”? Possibly transcendent.
Sure, Peep Show is about work and love and money and immaturity and drinking and the horror of cleaning up vomit. But it’s mostly about staring into the abyss of life’s nothingness and giggling at how silly everything looks in light of one’s own inescapable futility. Sound depressing? Perhaps.
A book I was once press-ganged into reading, titled Brit-Think, Ameri-Think, tells us that the fundamental difference between American and British sensibilities is that Yanks operate on the assumption that life is basically fine, whereas Brits hold exactly the opposite view. Though Brit-Think, Ameri-Think is otherwise an indefensible waste of innocent trees, I believe this particular point is quite accurate. So if you’re someone who suspects that life is probably not completely fine, then Peep Show is likely to bring you as much joy as it did me.
If British comedy has a fault, I would argue that it’s a lack of real interiority. For all that their shows are (to speak broadly) refreshingly witty, quick, smart, and gut-roilingly funny, they often rely on hugely unsound plots and patchy characters in order to be so. (I submit Black Books, the IT Crowd, and Green Wing as evidence). But Peep Show, in keeping with its title, quite literally takes interiority as its premise; the viewer often hears Jeremy’s and Mark’s internal monologues, and most of the camera angles are aligned with the sightlines of individual characters. Which is to say that if Jeremy is in a pub with his friend, Super Hans, then what you see is what Jeremy sees — a shaky eye-level view of a coked-up Super Hans cowering in a stall in the men’s room — and what you hear are Jeremy’s thoughts. The actors often strap cameras to their heads in order to get this first-person perspective, which results in amateurish close-ups of sweaty brows and orthodonture-free teeth. It’s gross and charming. And considering that Peep Show is all about life’s grossness and charm, it’s perfect.
Though Peep Show also incorporates a number of standard filmic techniques, which make the unusual angles and internal monologues quite easy to get used to, the interiority is key. We hear, for instance, what Mark’s friends say, what Mark thinks about what his friends say, and what Mark decides to say in return. There’s often, obviously, a huge space between what one’s brain thinks and what one’s mouth is permitted to say, and that middle space is where Peep Show lives and thrives. I thought about reproducing some of their dialogue in order to explain its allure (Mark, for instance, refers to premature ejaculation as “doing a Chesil Beach”), but it’s all in the delivery, so you really, dear Reader, just have to watch.
NB: Although Peep Show is currently between its sixth and seventh seasons, Hulu only provides seasons one through five, thanks to the upsetting and mysterious time lag between UK shows’ airings and their US release. And note that Brits tend to use the word ‘season’ lightly — A ‘season’ of Peep Show consists of six half-hour episodes.