Back is the latest show to star David Mitchell and Robert Webb, the stars of Peep Show. In many ways, Back is a reprisal of their odd couple dynamic – Mitchell plays a buttoned-up creep who relates to the world through metaphors about global tyranny; Webb plays a laid-back and beloved flirt who struggles with long-term planning. However, in Back, their dynamic has matured as comedy teams are rarely allowed to do. They’re still two men making rash, ill-advised decisions, but now they’re in their forties. The series creates space to let their insecurities breathe, and the characters can be more honest about their shortcomings. The show, created and written by Simon Blackwell (credited on four episodes of Peep Show), is not yet as laugh-out-loud funny as Peep Show at its most uncomfortable, but it is a show that addresses contemporary masculinity in a way that feels like a natural evolution of Mitchell and Webb’s previous work.
Back begins with a death, that of beloved publican and foster father Laurie, played in flashbacks by Matthew Holness. His only biological son, Stephen (Mitchell), has already taken over the day-to-day operations of the John Barleycorn, the family’s run-down country pub. Laurie’s death is a catalyst for self-reckoning for most of his bereaved: Laurie’s wife Ellen (Penny Downie) is returning to religion and their biological daughter Cass (Louise Brealey) is rekindling her dreams of traveling. Stephen, however, is settling into the disappointing rest of his life – half-heartedly managing the pub and pining after his ex-wife, Alison (Olivia Poulet). But when Andrew (Webb), a former foster child who lived with the family for five months 30 years ago returns, lives are sent into some disarray, and Stephen finds himself fighting for a life he’s not even sure he wants.
One of the series’s most striking devices is its flashbacks. Stephen and Andrew remember their childhood radically differently, and when returning to these memories, Mitchell and Webb occasionally play their characters as adolescent (along with Sebastian Patterson and Caius Luckyn-Malone, respectively). Peep Show told the entire story through its characters’ eyes (a conceit that took some getting used to before the comedy stopped making me slightly seasick), and Back’s unreliable flashback device is somewhat similar: these flashbacks are an opportunity to see these events the way they’re remembered by different people. On Back, there is no fixed objective reality.
This subjectivity contributes substantially to Stephen and Andrew’s dynamic. While Back is still a two-hander starring longtime partners, it is, for the most part, Stephen’s show. He wonders constantly about Andrew, who shows so much affection for a family with whom he stayed only briefly. We know almost nothing about Andrew’s life in the present other than what he describes. What little of it we see typically involves scamming strangers, but never for money. Andrew appears willing to tell any lie to make someone like him. Stephen’s increasingly unhinged belief that Andrew may be a grifter trying to take over a failing country pub is somewhat plausible, or at least difficult to prove either way.
Andrew’s effect on the family is massive. He is a charming man, skilled at getting his way by making someone else think they’ve won. Women pine after him, even as he stays somewhat distant. As one person notes, “He’s glib, but he has an aura.” The stories of his life are exciting and inspiring, which doesn’t necessarily make them believable. But to the country people at the John Barleycorn, he’s a cosmopolitan sophisticate whose approval all desperately seek.
To Andrew, the John Barleycorn represents the time he was happiest in his life. The incompatible memories of his and Stephen’s childhood play out through this lens. Andrew was in and out of foster care all of his childhood, so the warmth of this family created his best childhood memories. Stephen had a different experience. Even specific moments that Andrew recalls fondly are uncomfortable and painful for Stephen. To Andrew, their father was a friendly and thoughtful island in a sea of abusive homes; to Stephen, Laurie was mostly just a publican who lived nearby.
The artificial intimacy of a bar setting deeply informs the entire family dynamic. Customers filter in and out of the bar, and having a pleasant experience there for a few hours every now and then makes them family. Stephen feels that his household had a similar model. With foster children moving through regularly, Laurie was a publican at home, too, making brief connections with everyone but never giving Stephen the attention he craved. Now, looking back on those memories through Andrew’s eyes, Stephen is baffled that anyone could remember Laurie as a protective, paternal presence in their life.
Back’s creator and writer, Simon Blackwell, worked extensively on The Thick of It and Veep, and some of that atmosphere – intrigue mixed with monotony – makes its way onto Back. The characters lead relatively sedate and simple lives (few seem to make any profit from their work whatsoever), all of which is upended more by Andrew’s arrival than by Laurie’s departure. Everyone would have been quietly content to allow Stephen to take over the John Barleycorn and run it at a loss forever; worldly Andrew pushes them to dream bigger. Stephen’s obsession with Andrew and his belief that Andrew is a con artist trying to steal his life (“No offense, Stephen, but who would want to steal YOUR life?”) pushes him to dig deeper into Andrew’s past, turning up evidence to suggest that Andrew has intentions on the pub.
Whether that’s true or not remains to be seen. The season ends on something of a cliffhanger. While future seasons may explicate it further, it’s largely besides the point. Whatever motivated Andrew’s return, the heart of the series lies with Mitchell and Webb’s textured performances as maturing, anxious people dealing with childhood trauma they don’t yet know how to articulate. The two take a road trip in the season’s fourth episode that provides some of Back’s strongest material. Stephen and Andrew begin to bond, and one may wonder if their closeness is a result of Andrew manipulating Stephen. That manipulation may be Andrew angling for a bigger piece of the John Barleycorn, or it may just be the only way he knows how to make people like him. That Webb can play that ambiguity so well is to his credit, and to Blackwell’s for seeing how far this duo can go.
Back premiered on Channel 4 in September and debuts on Sundance Now on November 16th.
Harry Waksberg is a writer and lazeabout in Riverside, California. He is the writer of the webseries Doing Good.