'Back': TV Review

Back Still - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Sundance TV
Brilliant creative team, excellent series.

An exceptionally funny new British series for the Sundance Now streaming service is further proof of the Peak TV theory.

There's a moment on the new British comedy Back — well, there are loads of them really, but this one in particular was something else — when it was difficult to finish the scene, because actual tears of laughter were welling up, and a head bobbing from laughter and eyes blurred with tears can't properly focus on what's coming next.

Back is one of the funniest and most intriguingly different comedies in a long time, and if you don't live in the U.K., you can find it Thursday on Sundance Now, the streaming service of Sundance TV and one more reason you should look into the ever-burgeoning streaming services out in the ether and perhaps even cut the cord.

But that's a separate story.

Back was created and written by the brilliant Simon Blackwell, a two-time Emmy winner and Oscar nominee (Veep, In the Loop, Thick of It, Peep Show), and stars the also-brilliant David Mitchell and Robert Webb (Peep Show, That Mitchell and Webb Look). That's a lot of brilliance before a single frame is seen, so you might as well add Sundance Now to your streaming options (because there will undoubtedly be a second season) and, of course, it really pays off as you start watching.

If you've already seen Peep Show or Mitchell and Webb, then you probably don't need to be sold on the impeccable comic timing and, perhaps more importantly, unbelievable chemistry between Mitchell and Webb, but Back drops most of the heavy lifting on the duo and they don't disappoint. (As a bonus, there's a fantastic ensemble cast.)

The series revolves around Stephen (Mitchell), an only son who will get to take over the rural pub that his just-deceased father used to own and run. Stephen is keen to make something of the pub since he didn't really make much of a short-lived career as a lawyer — and not much of his marriage, either.

Stephen and his demanding, pipe-smoking father, Laurie, were not close. "When's the last time you told your dad you loved him?" asks Uncle Geoff (Geoff McGivern). To which Stephen replies: "I don't think I ever did. It never came up." Uncle Geoff and Stephen's mom Ellen (Penny Downie) urge him to go say a final word to his father at the mortuary, for closure. "To me, the fact that he's already dead has a large element of closure to it," Stephen says.

Into this rural world comes Andrew (Webb), one of the many kids that Laurie and Ellen fostered through the years. Andrew was only with the family for five months, but has taken to calling Laurie "Dad" at the funeral and beyond. Everyone seems to love the charming Andrew, including Stephen's sister Cass (Louise Brealey). But Stephen really suffered in those fostering years and mostly detested everybody else. He can't even recall Andrew. Yet Stephen has an immediate — and growing — suspicion that Andrew is working a scam and is bad news all around.

Even though Back smartly and hilariously plays with this conceit of not knowing if Andrew is the devil or just a really nice guy who came back to relive the best five months of his early life, the audience is led to believe pretty firmly it's the former.

The wonderful chemistry and comic timing between Mitchell and Webb very quickly draws viewers into the world that Blackwell has created. Mitchell makes Stephen a disillusioned, sad-sack complainer, and Webb infuses Andrew with glib positivity and worldliness. Cass is clearly smitten with her once-temporary brother (Brealey is superb at making Cass overly excited about things she doesn't understand or has never done). Ellen also buys every word he's selling, but she's easily led (the show hilariously references her getting into virtually every fad, self-help or otherwise, and Downie's subtle comedic efforts are a thing of beauty: "I'm hugely into Jesus now. I think he's brilliant"). And McGivern exults in a raucously filthy performance, the gems from which can not be printed.

But it's Blackwell's intelligent and searing writing — which also has quite a bit of emotional nuance — that makes Back much more than mere joke creation for its own sake. And it's Mitchell and Webb who make it all come to life, with Mitchell's virtuoso performance as the increasingly paranoid Stephen shining through all six episodes. "As long as we keep the feelings away, we've done our job," he says about the role of the pub. As he tracks Andrew's deceptions, Stephen gets more and more frantically worked up. His ex-wife warns him about his high blood pressure and Stephen replies, "Maybe it's a good thing — the blood, coursing around, taking vital nutrients very quickly and under enormous pressure to where they're needed." Blackwell has plenty of raging monologues of bitterness that Mitchell has to spout, and he does each one with laughter-provoking aplomb. Webb is given a more subtle combination of telling people things that are mostly mean but sound like helpful life advice and periodically glancing at Stephen with that look that suggests his silver devil's tongue has just finished off his "brother."

Interestingly, Showtime just imported another British comedy, Ill Behavior, from Peep Show writer Sam Bain, who got a lot of miles out of Mitchell and Webb. But it never manages to have much cohesion or believability, while the world of Back is immediately recognizable and relatable and the performances inside of it transform the series into a terrific piece of television.

Cast: David Mitchell, Robert Webb, Louise Brealey, Geoff McGivern, Penny Downie
Created and written by: Simon Blackwell
Directed by: Ben Palmer
Premieres: Thursday (Sundance Now)