Fans of the comedy duo made up of David Mitchell and Robert Webb will certainly be pleased to see that they have a new show on Sundance Now, the dark comedy Back. And, while the series isn't as unfailingly funny as their previous comedy, Peep Show, it's still a weird ride that's worth checking out.
Back focuses on Stephen (Mitchell) trying to regain control of his slightly shitty life by taking over his father's pub after he dies. Unfortunately, his plan is made more difficult when one of his former foster brothers, Andrew (Webb), shows up and quickly gains the trust and admiration of Stephen's mom, Ellen (Penny Downie), sister Cass (Louise Brealey) and uncle Geoff (Geoffrey McGivern). The show follows Stephen's increasingly crazed attempts to convince his family that Andrew isn't as great as they think he is, while he also tries to wrestle control of the family pub away from him.
From the beginning of the six-episode season of Back, which was created and written by Academy Award nominated screenwriter Simon Blackwell (In the Loop, Veep, The Thick of It), it's pretty clear that fans of Mitchell and Webb will be treated to the twosome filling some rather familiar roles. Stephen returned home to the small town of Stroud after a failed career as a lawyer in London, and also later found himself with a failed marriage to Alison (Olivia Poulet), a woman he still loves and who serves as his only real confidant when Andrew comes back into town. Stephen's life has clearly not gone the way he planned, and he sees the loss of his father as an opportunity to become more assertive and finally get somewhere in life by taking over the pub.
Meanwhile, Andrew is Stephen's polar opposite. He's charming, competent, creative, gregarious, adventurous, successful and well-liked by pretty much everyone who meets him. It's those traits that lead to Andrew quickly becoming the one Stephen's family looks to for guidance, not just with regards to the pub, but with their lives as well, even though Stephen voices serious doubts about many of the claims Andrew makes in regards to his life since he left their home over 30 years ago.
Anyone who watched Peep Show, which ran from 2003 through 2015, will notice obvious shades of Mitchell and Webb's characters (Mark and Jez, respectively) from that show. And, while it might feel a bit like Back is treading some old ground with respect to the lead characters, the setup and particular trials that Stephen is faced with are distinct enough that the series does feel like its own animal.
Unlike on Peep Show, which was generally filled with each lead making outrageously bad decisions and seeing the consequences of those decisions quickly and in spectacular fashion, Back chooses to give audiences more of a slow burn in terms of how Stephen deals with being pushed aside by his own family and how Andrew takes advantage of his popularity. But, while Back is seldom laugh-out-loud funny (at least until you get to the last couple of episodes), it does manage to meld comedy, character study and a bit of a mystery into a cohesive whole that is oddly fun to watch.
A lot of the joy to be found in Back is in the performances. Mitchell is great as the downtrodden, always-suffering Stephen, who grows more and more single-minded in his attempts to expose what he sees as Andrew's obvious faults, while Webb is perfectly smug and knowing as someone who's good at driving Stephen crazy while simultaneously appearing as a beacon of hope to everyone else around him. Downie, Brealey and McGivern round out the family dynamic nicely by being utterly clueless to what's going on, mostly because of their own issues and the need to have someone take charge who at least acts as though he has all the answers. Meanwhile, Poulet is great as Stephen's ex-wife and only confidant in his efforts to take down Andrew. She's nice to a fault, and while she helps Stephen research Andrew's background, she's also not afraid to suggest he might be taking things a bit too far at certain points.
Anyone missing the biting humor of Peep Show, or anyone who's simply looking to delve into a quick comedy that deals with an odd power struggle should be pleasantly surprised by Back. You can check the show out when it debuts on Sundance Now on November 16.
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