'Back to Life': TV Review

Courtesy of Luke Varley/SHOWTIME
Do not miss it.
11/10/2019

A truly wonderful gem on Showtime mines big laughs and surprising melancholy from one woman's journey to pick up the pieces of her life.

There is magnificent economy in Back to Life, a BBC-produced series that Showtime is airing in the U.S., a series that will get headlines because it has the same producers as Fleabag (no, not Phoebe Waller-Bridge) and probably because it also has an extremely talented writer and star at its center (Daisy Haggard, Episodes).

There is darkness and laughter here, just as there was in Fleabag and, if you must know, a similar melancholy-filled mystery to it, though Back to Life isn't built to brilliantly spring a reveal on you at the end. It's just a wonderfully nuanced story that's both extremely funny and tragically sad, but never leans too hard in either direction to get a reaction. It just exists and, after six episodes, it ends — and when it does you get the full appreciation of how exceptional it is.

Haggard and Laura Solon wrote all six episodes, and there's just so many little details that matter in the story of Miri Matteson (Haggard), who returns from an 18-year prison sentence to her small coastal town in Hythe, Kent, now 36. The beauty — and much of the humor — in the story comes from Miri being so optimistic about life. She's relentlessly positive and nice and she never once has to remind anyone that she's paid her debt to society. The past is, in fact, so distant that Miri has moved almost naively beyond it — but the town hasn't, and Back to Life deftly weaves their bitter memories and fears into their present-day interactions with Miri. It's an audacious idea and it takes a pitch-perfect performance from Haggard to pull it off. If she's too upbeat, it's silly; if she's too downbeat, there's no humor.

Waiting at home are her mother, Caroline (Geraldine James), and father, Oscar (Richard Durden), whose lives have also been derailed by her prison sentence. Looking at the posters in her room — Prince, George Michael, David Bowie, all musical heroes who died when she was away — is just one example of the life not led and the years lost. Other times it's all played for humor — whether it be cellphone obsessions or all the little jokes about her past. "Google it — just do NOT Google yourself," her mother says. Or when her father says, after one of the many flare-ups with the locals, "You've done nothing wrong … recently."

Haggard and Solon do an excellent job with the mystery of the crime, giving emotional resonance to Miri's present life and leavening the comedy. But Back to Life is about trying to move forward and not look back in a small town that won't forget. That sounds bleak and foreboding when really the series is both hilarious and clever. There are a number of excellent supporting roles (Adeel Akhtar as a kind neighbor, Jo Martin as Miri's self-centered parole officer, etc.) and efficient, cinematic directing from Christopher Sweeney.

Back to Life is a real, unexpected gem of a series and one of the better surprises of 2019.

Cast: Daisy Haggard, Geraldine James, Richard Durden, Adeel Akhtar, Jo Martin, Jamie Michie, Christine Bottomley, Liam Williams
Creators: Daisy Haggard, Laura Solon
Premieres: Sunday, 10 p.m. ET/PT (Showtime)