tv review

Back to Life’s Homecoming Tale Finds the Sweet Spot Between Melancholy and Comedy

In Back to Life, Daisy Haggard plays Miri Matteson, who returns to her coastal English hometown after spending 18 years in prison. Photo: Luke Varley/SHOWTIME

It’s tempting to compare Back to Life to Fleabag. Several of its producers also served as producers on Fleabag. The BBC series, which is getting a run on Showtime that starts Sunday, focuses on a woman, played by series creator and co-writer Daisy Haggard, contending with the mistakes of her past while trying to get her present life in order. At one point, a fox even plays a crucial role in the plot.

But while the wry-meets-melancholy vibe of Back to Life may be of a piece with Fleabag, too, Haggard’s series is both darker and lighter than the one that sprang from the mind of Phoebe Waller-Bridge. In other words, as desperate as we all may be to find “the next Fleabag,” and as much as the two shows have in common on the surface, Back to Life possesses its own, distinct personality, one that’s worth spending six episodes to get to know.

Haggard, a familiar face to fans of Episodes, among other things, plays Miri Matteson, who, in the first episode, returns to Hythe, her coastal English hometown, after spending 18 years in prison, a sentence served for allegedly violently killing someone. That information — and the fact that Miri is ostracized by the community for being a murderer — doesn’t match up at all with the kind of person Miri seems to be: kind, soft-spoken, frequently awkward. Could she really have killed someone?

Back to Life deliberately lets that question percolate, slowly dispensing the details of what Miri did, and did not do, over the course of the season. It’s not a spoiler to say that some of the backstory behind the crime turns out to be news even to Miri. The mystery surrounding that turning point in her life is definitely one of the elements that tugs you into becoming invested in the whole season — but it’s not the only thing.

As Miri, Haggard, who co-wrote the series with Laura Solon (Hot in Cleveland, Office Christmas Party), is an instantly empathetic figure. Forced to live at home with her parents and struggling for acceptance, every attempt she makes at normalcy — getting a job, developing a rapport with her next-door neighbor Billy (Adeel Akhtar), even trimming her bangs — turns into another existential fender bender. It’s heartbreaking how difficult it is for her to simply be accepted. But it’s also amusing. At any point when Back to Life might appear to be turning too heavy, it lightens the mood with some new catastrophe or a well-placed bit of humor. After an especially rough patch for Miri, her extremely low-key parole officer, Janice (Jo Martin), offers this bit of solace: “This too shall pass. Well, probably. Hopefully.”

The series doesn’t limit itself to getting inside Miri’s head. Her conviction and nearly two-decade absence had a huge impact on her mom, Caroline (Geraldine James), and her father, Oscar (Richard Durden), as well as their marriage, and we witness the degree to which their connection has degraded to polite pleasantries. Miri’s high-school best friend Mandy (Christine Bottomley) also tries to reconnect with Miri with mixed success, while a mysterious stranger (Frank Feys) seems to be stalking both Mandy and Miri for reasons neither can immediately ascertain.

That description may make Back to Life sound overstuffed, especially for a six-part series whose episodes are each 25 minutes or less. It never feels that way though. Its choices are always economical. Each scene makes a point, then moves on to the next. Miri learned from her prison sentence that time is precious, and Back to Life treats time the same way.

The series is very smart in the way it highlights how long Miri has been away, making note of it without dwelling on it too much. When Caroline freaks out because she’s left her cell phone at home, Miri makes a casual remark about how weirdly fixated everyone is on their phones. It’s something that absolutely would seem strange to someone who’s been locked up for 18 years. When Mandy mentions the grotesque horror movie The Human Centipede, Miri acts like she knows the reference. But then she starts discussing Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar and it’s clear that Miri has absolutely no idea what Mandy is talking about, which, given the nature of the events in The Human Centipede, is probably a blessing.

Miri has missed a lot, and when she finally realizes just how deep her misfortune runs, it is a terrible blow. And yet Back to Life remains, at heart, an optimistic show. It acknowledges in brutal ways that when years are taken from you, you can’t get them back. But it also shows us how lucky Miri is because she’s still got time and freedom ahead of her.

Back to Life Finds the Sweet Spot Between Woe and Comedy