Mitchell and Webb ex­cel in this ex­cru­ci­at­ing sit­com-cum-thriller

The Guardian - G2 - - Television - By Re­becca Ni­chol­son

Chan­nel 4 likes its come­dies to emerge all tan­gled up in a mess of gen­res. The dearly de­parted Fresh Meat was a com­edy half-pre­sented as a drama. Flow­ers was about a sui­ci­dal mid­dle-aged man (and his mis­er­able fam­ily) who de­tests the world around him. Catas­tro­phe is of­ten ex­traor­di­nar­ily bleak in its sharp jokes about how hu­mans strug­gle to live to­gether with­out kind of hat­ing each other some­times too.

When the first episode of Back (Chan­nel 4) aired, it made sense that this is where it would live. It was a clever amal­ga­ma­tion of quick­fire sit­com and a plot that could have been pulled out of a thriller, telling the story of a mis­fit man and his one-time fos­ter brother, who showed up at “their” fa­ther’s fu­neral, only to start tak­ing over his life, like a Mod­er­ately Tal­ented Mr Ri­p­ley. With David Mitchell and Robert Webb starring, and Peep Show’s Si­mon Black­well writ­ing, it was hard to see where it could go wrong.

It didn’t dis­ap­point; if any­thing, it was richer than early episodes suggested. That the fi­nal in­stal­ment of this first se­ries was book­ended with rev­e­la­tions that sprang from a con­cern about hered­i­tary bowel cancer gives some idea of the tone. Over the past six weeks, Stephen (an in­creas­ingly fran­tic Mitchell) has be­come ob­sessed with the idea that the per­fect An­drew (Webb) is a cuckoo in the nest, and in this fi­nale he went full Car­rie Mathi­son in Home­land, putting pins into a map on the wall of his car­a­van, in­sist­ing that each lo­ca­tion came to­gether to spell out a se­cret word that was the key to the mys­tery (the word is “kiln”, which is, you must ad­mit, a funny word). With the aid of a lot of sin­gle malt whisky and a furtive Pot Noo­dle in the li­brary, he was de­ter­mined to prove that An­drew was try­ing to steal his life – even though An­drew was do­ing a much bet­ter job of liv­ing it.

The silli­ness of Stephen’s un­spool­ing was de­light­fully ex­cru­ci­at­ing, al­though as each plot twist built in yet another layer of em­bar­rass­ment, I found my­self crav­ing the clos­ing cred­its – not be­cause I wanted Back to end, but be­cause I needed to be put out of my squirm­ing mis­ery. When Stephen’s ses­sion with a mi­cro­fiche ended in the ex­pos­ing of An­drew’s sup­posed crime, he did a gloat­ing vic­tory dance that made David Brent’s in­fa­mous moves in The Of­fice look gra­cious and lithe. His com­pet­i­tive streak grew so vir­u­lent over the course of the se­ries that in­sist­ing he make him­self known to a griev­ing woman as the man who dis­cov­ered her hus­band’s hang­ing body was the least of his mis­de­meanours; by the end, he was hir­ing a speech­writer so he could do bet­ter than An­drew at Deft touch … David Mitchell as an un­spool­ing Stephen in C4’s Back

his own fa­ther’s birth­day memo­rial.

But this is where Back showed what it was made of. Stephen, by now red-eyed and los­ing his grip, spoke at the party, but didn’t use any of the jokes about his fa­ther be­ing fat (he wasn’t), or hat­ing his wife (they got along nicely). He gave a sin­cere speech about how much he missed him. I held my breath, wait­ing for the in­evitable de­scent into aw­ful­ness, and it didn’t come. Or at least, it didn’t come then. In­stead, there was a pub-pi­ano ren­di­tion of Rocket Man that both moved the story for­ward and moved me a lit­tle more than I ex­pected it to. Sim­i­larly, when at last we got the big re­veal about An­drew’s rea­sons for re­turn­ing to the place he was hap­pi­est, in a flash­back, it was gen­uinely un­der­stated and sad. While Back is bru­tal in places, and some of the lines are thrillingly blunt – Stephen is on anti-anx­i­ety med­i­ca­tion, and says: “My GP calls them ‘keep calm and carry on’ pills, be­cause he’s a dread­ful fucker”

– it has a deft touch where nec­es­sary, in small enough doses to make it touch­ing, but never sen­ti­men­tal.

One of the great plea­sures of Back, though, has been just how ter­ri­ble al­most ev­ery­one in it is, from sleazy un­cle Ge­off to airy sis­ter Cass. In fact, as the won­der­fully inane Cass, Louise Brealey has been in dan­ger of steal­ing the show at times. The six-month trav­el­ling trip that ended in four days with an im­promptu mar­riage to an older man, that was then tossed aside in a sim­ple joke, was all the fun­nier for how lean it was. “He’s re­ally old, had you no­ticed?” may not sound like the wit­ti­est line ever writ­ten, but it had me guf­faw­ing. And that end­ing re­ally did leave it wide open for a sec­ond se­ries, so surely there will be more. Here’s hop­ing, any­way – we must find out what hap­pened at Ser­gio’s.

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