It took the astoundingly funny sitcom Peep Show nearly five seasons to reach commercial success in the U.K., and consequently an even longer time for the buzz to reach stateside. While eager anglophiles turned shows like Little Britain, The Office, and, to a lesser extent, Spaced into certifiable hits in the U.S., Peep Show has been lingering in the background, left to a handful of rabid fans trying to pester an entire nation into believing that this weird little British cult favorite is actually better than the rest.
Having aired the show’s uneven first couple of seasons a few years back, BBC America has started airing season three of Peep Show, with odd-couple roommates Mark and Jeremy (played by comedy team David Mitchell and Robert Webb) trying to pull themselves out of the sad little lives they never intended to make for themselves. Mark is an uptight credit manager at ends with an empty modern world that he sees as hopped up on flashy advertising and recreational drug use. He sticks to a conservative lifestyle, seeking out a livable wage, listening to dry talk radio, and looking for a nice girl to marry, despite, perhaps subconsciously, hating every second of it. Jeremy is the opposite: An aspiring musician lacking talent and addled by punk-rock rhetoric, who lives in the moment, picking up and dropping projects with little regard for anyone but himself. It’s a lifestyle that often leaves him sitting in his half-painted bedroom wondering why he can’t make anything of himself.
On the surface, Peep Show adheres to the longstanding British tradition of cringe humor. While Mark and Jeremy often find themselves in positions that make you want to crawl out of your skin and die, the awkward scenes transcend mere nervous laughter. The key to the show’s success is Mark and Jeremy’s near-constant inner monologues: Chronicling every detail of every poorly considered decision, the pair’s thoughts reveal a state of confusion, sadness, and cynicism with the modern world. They reveal sad, hilarious bits of truth that have crossed everyone’s mind at some point, like feeling guilty for spending a vacation playing video games instead of catching up on the things you’ve put off like reading that pile of books, getting into shape, and learning the clarinet.
In the season’s fourth episode, “Sistering,” Mark takes up jogging for the first time and his rollercoaster of emotions as he sets off are detailed by his thoughts, and should ring familiar to any out-of-shape schmo who thought he could make an athlete of himself within just a few seconds: “Hey! Wow, I’m actually good at this. Maybe I’m a natural. Yeah, I’m a jogger! Of course, there had to be a sport for me. I just never realized. I’m a natural jogger. Feel the legs like two great steam locomotives pumping away. I’m Cram, I’m Ovett, I’m unstoppable. I—Jesus, is that a stitch. Fuck, I think I’m gonna be sick, I’ve got to slow, I need to walk. Oh, I think I’m gonna puke, I’m literally going to die, what an idiotic boob I was back 10 or 11 seconds ago.”
Mitchell and Webb have fantastic comic timing, strengthened by their years working together, and bolstered by a strong supporting cast including Olivia Colman, Matt King, and Paterson Joseph. When the painful awkwardness inevitably rears its head, it never feels forced or unnatural. Mark and Jeremy put themselves in these situations either out of selfishness or actively ignoring their own best interests. And it’s a credit to Mitchell and Webb as actors that they can manage to make these two sad, self-centered sacks so likable and appealing.
The show’s gimmick is that it’s shown through the eyes of the characters via a first-person perspective, often resulting in some jarring movements and camera positions. While it may be off-putting at first, especially in the premiere season, it gives the show a uniquely fluid feel that puts the viewer in Mark and Jeremy’s heads as they make complete asses of themselves. The well-paced, well-written, timely, and intensely amusing Peep Show outlines the struggles we face as we try to shape ourselves into some abstract idea of adulthood.