Fans of Peep Show scanning through their streaming catalogue or late-night cable may be overjoyed to stumble upon Back, which also stars sardonic British comedy duo David Mitchell and Robert Webb. It’s not as surrealist a work as Peep Show, or as comedically and stylistically iconic, but Back—created by Veep’s Simon Blackwell—is still steeped in the minutia of narcissistic neurotics. In that way it shares something similar with Curb Your Enthusiasm, especially in Mitchell’s character Stephen, but the show is so fully British that Curb’s glossy style and celebrity cameos are shockingly bright compared to the rainy days spent wingeing in pubs here.
In very UK TV form, Back ran for six half-hour episodes in 2017, and has only now reemerged for another six-episode second season. The first run found Stephen (Mitchell) stumbling into a midlife crisis: 40-something and recently divorced, Stephen is thrown further off-kilter when his father dies suddenly and leaves him his pub, which he has no experience running. Just as he starts sorting things out, his long-lost “brother” Andrew (Webb) arrives on the scene, looking to reclaim time with Stephen’s mother (Penny Downie) who had briefly fostered him in his youth. Charming, worldly, and everything Stephen was not, Andrew seemed bent on supplanting Stephen’s role within his own family. Except no one could see this besides Stephen; to his sister Cass (Louise Brealey), Uncle Geoff (Geoffrey McGivern) and others, Andrew was not a devious rival but simply a helping hand.
By the end of the first season, Andrew’s machinations sent the spiraling Stephen into a full mental breakdown, which is where Season 2 immediately begins. “Cured” and released from a wellness center, Stephen returns to his family and the town with a (supposedly) newly peaceful countenance and a definite love of soft slippers. Andrew’s motivations remain unclear throughout the new set of episodes, but he seems to have turned his sights onto Alison (Olivia Poulet)—Stephen’s ex-wife who he has gotten to be close friends with again—and her parents, after losing control over Stephen’s family.
With Back, Stephen and Andrew’s rivalry is always simmering in the background while other, more comedy-focused plots play out. The townsfolk, who are always at the local pub, are a collection of various eccentrics who are willfully and jollily ignorant of the world and the way things work. It’s a consternation to Stephen, who sees all things as they are and speaks with a fantastically articulated clarity that has become David Mitchell’s entire brand on and off screen. Back tries a lot of different things in regards to its humor, but only some of it lands—when it does, it’s fantastic. But that kind of rapid-fire comedy crapshoot leads to an uneven viewing experience. And while the show does have a few narrative throughlines, for the most part there are no real consequences to any of the ancillary plots. A man loses all of his money but he’s right back in the pub and no one mentions it; Stephen accosts someone for stealing his “hedge vodka” but the implication of a return of his alcoholism is brushed past (although it did give us the line “I don’t like my brain, I drink so it will be different”); there are some insurance-fraud flippers looking to sink the pub across the street, but that’s abandoned after an episode.
What Back does do very well is just let Mitchell lean into Stephen’s wild-eyed paranoia while Webb placidly stokes the fires. Emotional resonance doesn’t arrive, though, until Alison gets involved late in the season as the only other person who really believes Stephen. But just as things seems to be on the up for him (where even he and Andrew seem to have a brief understanding), the show makes a hard tonal shift during an overstuffed and rushed finale to seemingly set up a potential third season. For a series that languidly drops in various short scenarios and forgets about them just as quickly, the full-tilt finale is a truly bizarre change of pace and something of a disappointment when Stephen’s life felt like it was just on the brink of catharsis. (Also, at this rate, a third season won’t happen until about 2025).
Back is not up to the level of Peep Show or other more recent short, quirky comedies. It’s really more of a collection of ideas than a fully-formed series. But its cozy-caustic style hits just enough to be worth a short binge, if largely to hear Mitchell just create and repeat the phrase “hedge vodka” over and over again.
Back Season 2 premieres Thursday, March 18th as a binge on Sundance Now and AMC+. It will debut Wednesday, March 31 on IFC. The first season is also available for free on AMC+ during the month of March.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
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