‘Structurally Sound’ is a recurring feature where each week a different structurally unusual, rule-breaking anomaly of an episode from a comedy series is examined.
“For 57 years I’ve been listening to other people’s problems and I finally wanted someone to listen to mine.”
Inside No. 9 is one of the best shows that you’ve never heard of.
Admittedly, it’s an export from the UK that isn’t readily streaming on our side of the pond (but is all available on YouTube and elsewhere on the interwebs). That being said, that hardly kept the masses from finding out about Black Mirror and greedily demanding more until it was rebranded as a “Netflix Original.” Interestingly enough, Inside No. 9 bears a number of similarities to Black Mirror, most significantly that it is also an anthology show with a whole new cast and premise each episode. Inside No. 9 goes one step further – and earns its name in the process – by having every installment also be a bottle episode. Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton, the two constants throughout the series, always try to push the limits and challenge the medium, but “Cold Comfort” from their second season is particularly creative by telling its story entirely through static CCTV cameras.
In a premise that will always be fascinating to me, “Cold Comfort” takes place within a call center helpline where operators are inundated with calls. There’s a lot of potential in that slow build of a concept, especially when you have a conversation happening and you’re only seeing half of it taking place. The episode places us with Andy (Steve Pemberton) who’s new at the job, being coached through the process by his supervisor, George (Reece Shearsmith). Andy’s activities are all captured through a stationary CCTV camera, just as someone who actually has this job would be. Four static camera set-ups are present at all times, all presenting somewhat complimentary angles, which help compose this intricate story.
Shearsmith and Pemberton use this seemingly simplistic structure to their advantage, taking every element that they’re playing with and making the most out of them. For instance, the use of a ringing phone becomes increasingly powerful as the episode progresses. At other times certain screens will freeze on images while others keeping running live, making a real art piece out of the structural device and truly using this artifice to its max potential.
As Andy simply tries to do his job of taking calls and helping those in need, he finds himself the victim of some sort of manipulation or prank where he’s continually losing power. The unusual form that the episode plays with amps this aspect up too, with elements like the prevalent ring of the phone becoming downright haunting by the episode’s end. On the other side of things, when Andy is on the phone, the calls’ emptiness and echo-y quality become increasingly effective at conveying isolation and getting lost in how helpless we can be in life. While the episode never ditches its stylistic device or leave its “bottle,” it does allow time jumps that chronicle a larger span of Andy’s time at the call center. Seeing Andy through a greater length of time – the calls wearing him down – lends a Shining-like quality to Andy’s mental state.
All of this helps contribute to the idea that this episode is all about wanting to help and connect with people, making them feel less lonely in the process, while the structure is designed to isolate people and keep them restrained to their own screen. The format is about removing privacy and watching everything rather than implicitly trusting someone, so to see that these screens are actually being used to obfuscate the truth and create a false reality is really inspired. “Cold Comfort” also says much on the idea that as close or connected as you can be with someone, it can just as easily all be a fabrication. This is an episode about feeling helpless, even though CCTV and these helplines are designed to aid us. A lot of people have compared “Cold Comfort” to an equally ambitious episode from Inside No. 9’s first season, “A Quiet Night In,” an offering that’s completely silent. “Cold Comfort” is actually more like the polar opposite of the silent episode, with this being all about listening.
A premise like this naturally turns into one that’s about intimacy, which can just as easily morph into a game of manipulation when personal details are on the line. As Andy works his job he’s plagued by a caller named “Chloe” who repeatedly makes it seem as if her life is in danger. Pemberton’s performance as he bonds with the voice on the phone becomes all the more crushing with some exquisite slow-burn storytelling. There’s a bit where Chloe asks Andy to sing to her “Shine” by Take That, which is not only incredible due to the lyrics and mindfuckery of it all, but also with how it comes back in the episode’s conclusion. The episode plays well with the binary between the two of them as Andy gives up everything (even his name, which takes some time getting out of him), with Chloe completely toying with him in return. He doesn’t get a single shred of honesty from her. Meanwhile the other “real” calls that are coming through to Andy are all individuals that need help but can’t properly receive it due to how Chloe has infected Andy. No one is able to feel safe in this environment anymore, least of all Andy.
One of “Cold Comfort’s” greatest strengths is its ability to create a real sense of dread with its setup as you learn how the four cameras connect to each other, figuring out the dead zones that are present, and learning how to process four screens of information at once. The heavy stylization meant that filming of the entry was especially painstaking. Scenes had to be an exact length and sync-up in subtle ways. Impressively, this episode would act as both Shearsmith and Pemberton’s directorial debut, which makes this experiment even more of a feat. The duo thought that the fixed cameras would facilitate an easier filming process, but it in fact led to production being more of a meticulous nightmare. Actions on one screen would need to correspond to complimentary actions from another angle on one of the other cameras. The episode’s structure also meant that super-long takes were needed for scenes, which inherently makes filming more stressful. On top of that, the episode was filmed in a style where Pemberton and Shearsmith’s conversations on the phone are happening in real-time, rather than being done later through ADR. The two even go as far as merging Shearsmith’s voice with an actress’ to create “Chloe,” hiding the truth and keeping lines increasingly blurred.
When the episode finally reveals its grand twist at the end behind Chloe’s real identity, it’s yet another moment that fully uses the construct around it. Seeds planted throughout the whole thing are observable if you don’t get lost in the artifice like Andy does. The episode’s final shot is truly a chilling one and a beat that’s a culmination of all of the growing dread throughout the episode. It’s a harsh moment that’s meant to leave you in shock over the credits. Take That, indeed.
Inside No. 9 remains a masterpiece of nearly flawless capsules that all play with format and rules in different, boundary-pushing ways. With a third season on the horizon I can only imagine what sort of lines they’ll cross next. Meanwhile, next time someone’s throwing a Black Mirror viewing party, slip in some episodes of Inside No. 9 and see if anybody minds.