Many of the great British comedy series of the recent past have been characterised by their brevity – at least in terms of their runs. Nathan Barley and Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace limited themselves to six episodes each, Brass Eye to only one more and Monkey Dust, which ran for three seasons, to 18 – not that many in the great scheme of things. These were all visionary creations, to be enjoyed thereafter in their complete glory, not as ongoing bland cash cows drip fed to braying masses. That, my friends, was a job for the Yanks – let them churn out their Friends and their Frasiers, and of course the odd gem (Arrested Development, Curb Your Enthusiasm etc.). Let them do it because our MOR mainstream comedies are even worse – Americans aren’t responsible for Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Never Ending Pain, or The Vicar of Please Shut the Fuck Up and Die.
Now, Peep Show has always been a challenge to this dichotomy of restrained vision and relentless horse shit. It’s been here for donkey’s and is, or was in the beginning at least, an amazingly fresh proposition which – more importantly than anything – was backed by exceptional writing. Mark and Jeremy were startlingly relatable. We all think awful things, and we all do our best to PR our way out of the awful things we do. None of us are fully Mark’s harrumphing ego or Jeremy’s shameless id (well I hope not, because then you’re a dick), but how often have you seen something on Peep Show that has reminded you of someone you know, if not yourself (in terms of the adjectival scale, despite living a slightly more Jeremy-esque life, I’m a Mark inside).
Now, you may have noticed my initial list of great British comedies all share something of an outsider status – perhaps necessarily, as they are rather Mary Whitehouse baiting. Sure they’re all massively acclaimed, but they’ve not reached national institution level like the ‘orrible vicar (oh, how I loathe her) or the vastly overrated Royle Family. Peep Show can no longer claim this outsider status, but this is not something that should ever be begrudged it. It would be churlish to overvalue obscurity, which I admit is easy to do, and besides, its success is deserved. It has been such a massive success because it was immensely well put together, funny and, at a certain level, spoke to us of ourselves – it is very much a time capsule of early 21st century Britain.
I’ve carefully stuck to the past tense here. This is because, for me, Peep Show hasn’t been what it was for a while. I know it’s easy to claim ‘things were better then’, but it genuinely feels like it has come off the boil. This can happen when things go on too long – check the third series of The Mighty Boosh, trying too hard to cash in on its own myth; a tedious self-referential simulacrum rather than the vibrant countercultural thrill of the first two seasons. Now Peep Show’s fall from grace hasn’t been so abrupt. It’s just that it gradually started to become more and more implausible. Once we’d have laughed at Mark wanting to be Johnson’s Camilla, or pretending to be Columbo when stalking a shop assistant, but soon we had the pair killing and eating a beloved dog, and setting barns alight with drunken country gents. It’s not that it’s no longer funny – its ability to induce cringes is nothing short of majestic – but it hasn’t feel vital or properly important since the third season really (also: they’ll never top “poor me…poor me…pour me another drink”).
So, where we at? Series 7 eh? The increasingly awful (in a scripted way) Sophie is giving birth to Mark’s child – the culmination of a long drip fed soap opera style plot. The episode is relatively tame, and goes easy on the ridiculousness. Do I like it more as a result? No, it feels a bit dull actually. The wordy type jokes are telegraphed and not actually that funny, and without the overblown madness either laughs are in short supply. The episode’s big set piece – that of Mark going to KFC and an arcade rather than sticking around for the birth – just doesn’t give me that tingly feeling of awfulness that it should. Underwhelmed. Peep Show, I love you, and I’m very happy that a relatively sophisticated comedy that stands for me and my friends has found such success, but, well, it’s not me, it’s you…