‘Genie in a Bottle’ is a recurring feature where each week a different bottle episode (an episode set entirely in one location, often designed to save money) from a comedy series is examined.
“We’re in the nether zone. Time moves differently in the nether zone.”
When the unassuming Peep Show began in 2003, I’m sure it didn’t anticipate becoming Channel 4’s longest running sitcom, with its ninth season poised to air later this year. The British comedy, created by Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain, hardly seems revolutionary in plot as it follows the trials and tribulations of Mark (David Mitchell) and Jez (Robert Webb), two old – albeit fundamentally different – friends. Where the show does flex its stylistic muscle is in the presentation as all the filming of the series is illustrated through a first-person perspective through our protagonists (the show’s original title was even POV), and even featuring voiceover of their interior monologue. Perhaps even more impressively the show hasn’t shown any hesitation to mix things up with Mark and put his life through the wringer in the process, with each passing season chipping away a little more of him each time. It’s almost comical to see Mark at the start of this series as a single bachelor considering where his character has currently ended up.
“Nether Zone” (which unfortunately isn’t referring to Mark and Jez’s genital regions) focuses on Mark trying to attend his son’s christening. It very much feels like we’ll be getting an installment where Mark and/or Jez end up ruining the ceremony, but the episode takes a welcome turn. Right from the start there’s some very typically Jez behavior, which leads to him staining his pants and inevitably holding Mark up from being able to leave to get to the christening. Once the two of them are ready to go, clean pants seem to be the least of their problems, with them instead trapped inside the “cage” type limbo zone between Zara’s apartment and the freedom that’s outside of her building. A situation of this scale would usually be pretty easy to negotiate out of, but Mark perfectly has previously mentioned that he’s ditched his cell phone due to times being tough and his cup having not runneth over in some time now. He’s even making his own hummus now, so obviously things are dire.
It’s worth mentioning that the very next episode of Peep Show, “Seasonal Beatings,” is also a bottle episode, but “Nether Zone” is the more successful of the two, as well as it working better than the previous season’s bottle episode, “The Party,” as those other installments are tied down in the baggage of ulterior motives and holiday gimmicks. That’s not to say that “Nether Zone” isn’t gimmicky either, but it’s a much more honest episode. Nothing has forced its hand here to get Mark and Jez into this confined situation, with it feeling more like these characters are simply relaxing and trying to find something new out about each other after the series has been going on for so long and it begins to wind down.
While the honesty contained in the episode is strong, it’s likewise great to see how busy the entry manages to be with its stasis. Rather than simply accepting their doomed fate, we see Mark and Jez running through the whole litany of possible options such as calling Zara, attempting the old credit card in the doorway trick, and even calling a locksmith. What helps accentuate all of this is that this isn’t either of their homes, and being out of their element here certainly adds to their predicament. The fact that they’re not even sure of the address that they’re sending the help to is great.
Jez also hasn’t eaten breakfast, so clearly his hunger is another obstacle that needs to be sated. It’s not long until bathroom arrangements are put under the microscope and whether a mailbox slot is a proper glory hole for urine in such troubled times. One of the better set pieces of the episode sees a pizza delivery guy trying to slide pizza slice by slice through the mailbox slot to Jez, with the pieces getting progressively ruined with each passing attempt (and if you were ever wondering how to properly navigate through such a situation, you’ll know how by the time the credits roll).
Once the reality of their situation sinks in, the two of them go about their fate in perfectly Mark and Jez ways – Jez says to not question what is happening, kick back and relax, and let this sort itself out, whereas Mark wants to kick and scream his way to escape, not accepting his situation and thinking their sentence of being in the purgatory-like “nether zone” is utter nonsense. Responsibilities are weighed against laziness in an equation that will never fully balance. In this sense, what Peep Show manages to beautifully do is boil down the essence of its series as a whole into how the bottle episode is navigated.
Mark and Jez’s natural Odd Couple-esque tendencies kick in, and the episode soon becomes less about escaping (although it’s still very much about escaping) and more about watching these two when they’re left to their own devices, and how Mark and Jez inform each other’s behavior. The two of them might as well be in jail together in this episode – their actions would virtually remain the same. It’s baffling when Jez says to Mark that they should turn this situation into an opportunity to get to know each other better. If there were any two people who knew each other too well, it would be these two.
In spite of this, the second half of the episode almost feels like a Q & A with the characters where we see them answering absurd questions and getting into the minutiae that they otherwise wouldn’t have time for. There’s something to be said for a show that can just slow down and have an extended chat with its cast sometimes. Mark and Jez have always remained the core of Peep Show, but as the show has progressed during its nearly decade-long run, this center has wavered and shifted at times. More than anything “Nether Zone” feels like a realignment of sorts, with the show reestablishing its core – for better or worse – in the simplest way possible, a one-on-one conversation.
As the pressure continues to mount, they manage to make their situation approximately better by securing access back into Zara’s apartment, but still being unable to get free from the larger cage that’s imprisoning them. Once inside their predicaments remain just as ridiculous, such as trial and erroring the thousand of possible telephone number combinations to get ahold of Sophie for help. If anything, getting back into Zara’s apartment feels like a lateral move, if not worse, as Zara’s boyfriend visiting forces Jez and Mark to hide, pushing them into the bathroom and giving them even less space than when they were in the nether zone. What’s great about this is while Mark and Jez continue to move, it’s just to various degrees of bottles. The whole episode operates like a Russian nesting doll of bottles, seeing the two of them shuffled amongst enclosures of various sizes, all of them prohibitive.
In the end, Mark literally jumps from a several-story-high window, risking killing himself in the process, establishing the lengths he needs to go to to get out of his current situation. It’s perhaps one of the most extreme resorts that has been taken from any bottle episode we’ve looked at. There’s no lesson learned, or Mark and Jez understanding each other any better to help them reach an escape. They’re just as belligerent by the end, with Mark risking life and limb to get out. He aborts the situation mid-thought (Jez doesn’t even realize he’s jumped initially), and if that isn’t a statement on the true, twisted friendships that are depicted on Peep Show – warts and all – then I don’t know what is. Sometimes you want nothing more than to be locked up with someone, and the next minute you need to throw yourself out a window.