I don't seem to watch that much TV these days, though anyone who remembers our moan column TV Bollox will have a good idea why, and there's never a moment when I haven't got at least 20 DVDs sitting on any available flat surface begging for my attention. It's because of this that the talents of comedy performers Robert Webb and David Mitchell passed me by for so long. Their breakthrough sketch show That Mitchell and Webb Look garnered some positive reviews, while their subsequent offbeat situation comedy Peep Show has developed a devoted following. My first exposure to them, though, were their TV ads for Apple. Not, I have to say, an ideal introduction.
OK, let me just get one thing straight. I'm not one of those tiresome Microsoft blowjobbers who go into a psychotic twitch every time they encounter an Apple product or, in particularly extreme cases, just hear the word Apple mentioned in the context of anything but a healthy snack. I, in essence, am an Apple user – I use Apple computers at work, and have owned five of my own over the years, three of which are still with me. I was also the first person in my immediate circle to buy an iPod. And I've been completely happy with every one of them, so I have no axe to grind here, quite the reverse. But I really hate those bloody Apple commercials. Apart from their annoying smugness, they exaggerate and even distort the points on which they trade, and as fellow reviewer Camus remarked to me not so long ago, it's a particularly unpleasant form of advertising that promotes its product solely by attempting to piss on the competition (and just occasionally, as with those notorious Saatchi and Saatchi ads that gave Tony Blair the eyes of a demon, they can spectacularly backfire). Of course it's a little unfair to blame Mitchell and Webb – after all, they didn't write the commercials – but when the first thing you see two acclaimed comedy performers in makes you groan rather than smile, you're not exactly encouraged to hunt out their back catalogue.
But even without the Apple ads there's the issue of what makes us as individuals laugh. Finding two people who are amused by exactly the same things is a task and a half, and more than once in recent years I've watched programmes heartily recommended by friends and have afterwards wondered what the hell they were thinking. I'm not going to name names, but one particular comedian who I have seen described more than once as Britain's funniest man has yet to bring a single smile to these cynical lips, and his very appearance on screen sends me scrabbling for the remote. Lucky I don't watch too much TV, then.
So where should I start with Mitchell and Webb? Their sketch show, That Mitchell and Webb Look? Could do, but I don't have the DVDs yet. OK, Peep Show it is, then. I have to admit to being curious about any programme that has received over two thousand votes on the IMDb and scores 9.5 on the approval meter. Series 1 has been available on disc for some time and you can even buy a box set containing the first three series for a very good price. So I'm going in at series 4. I'm not trying to be different for the sake of it, it's just that sometimes you have to go with how the review discs fall, and I just don't have time to do a three series catch-up. Not yet anyway. You see I've already ordered that box set. Contrary to my distorted expectations, Peep Show made me laugh, out loud, and a lot.
I'll admit I'm a bit of a sucker for the sort of weary cynicism that we British have down to a fine art, and series 4 of Peep Show kicks off in just this manner. As an uncomfortably goateed Mark and his fiancé Sophie browse a department store for a sugar bowl that properly defines their relationship in order to add it to their wedding list, any illusion of a twee pre-marital idyll is shattered when Mark's voice-over steps in and groans "How the fuck did it come to this?" No doubt the remark will have added weight for regular viewers, who saw series 3 end with the couple's engagement.
Series fans will need no introductions at this late stage and newcomers probably should do what I failed to do and start at season 1, but for them here's a brief bit of startup info. Socially inept loan manager Mark (David Mitchell) and idle wannabe musician Jeremy (Robert Webb) met at university and now share a flat. They are bonded by a peculiar friendship, one regularly tested by their mutual disappointment with life, their considerable personality differences and their repeated impatience with each other. Working on the premise that even when we're doing the wrong thing we'll be thinking something worse, the show places us inside the heads of its lead characters, where their thoughts, anxieties and egos are laid bare through voice-over and the action is observed exclusively from the point of view of the characters as they interact with each other.
There are obvious parallels with The Odd Couple (I'd actually be surprised if that wasn't at least an influence) and more than a touch of Men Behaving Badly in Jeremy's sometimes cheerful disregard for the consequences of his impulse-led actions, while the frequent dips into comedy of embarrassment are balanced by a genuine affection for the characters and a sympathy for their fate. There's a perceptiveness to the scripts that absolutely nails that sometimes directionless disappointment with life that most of us have experienced at one point or another, while it would be a dull person who has not at one time shared at least some of the pair's more self-centred musings on those around them. It's been suggested that there's a little bit of Mark and Jeremy in all of us, and that's undoubtedly key to our engagement with characters we'd probably not want to spend time with in the real world. Well that and the sneaking sense of Schadenfreude at watching the pair create and suffer the consequences of their own particular brand of social disaster.
But key to the success of the show has to be the performances of David Mitchell and Robert Webb, and if you were as irritated at the Apple ads as I was then you could be in for a similarly nice surprise. Mitchell's uneasy, fish-eyed uncertainty as Mark contrasts nicely with Webb's grinning, self-centred enthusiasm, while both can become amusingly animated when annoyed or frustrated, usually at each other's actions. Peep Show really does live through its characters, which although inevitably exaggerated from real life are still strangely believable and recognisable, in part because even the show's most negative observations have a foundation in truth. The modern comic fashion for postmodernist referencing is kept refreshingly to a minimum, while the scripts have a lovely way with even coarser language – "I'm a motherfucker," Jeremy cheerful muses after sleeping with Sophie's mum (deliciously played by Cheryl Campbell), "that's literally what I am." The occasional stomps through the taste barrier (dog lovers beware, there's a running gag in episode 5 you may have just a little trouble with) feel so organic to the characters and storylines that there's never the sense they are being included for their outrage value.
There's a story arc to series 4 that follows Mark's apprehensions about his engagement to Sophie through to their wedding day, and it's to the credit of writers Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain that the uncertainty about whether he'll go through with it is maintained right up to the end of the final episode. The journey there sees Jeremy working in a particularly personal capacity for one of his musical heroes and hopelessly pursuing a former girlfriend, while Mark attends a school reunion and is given responsibility at work that he just can't cope with. Particularly well done are the bookend episodes, with the weekend spent at Sophie's parents' house in episode 1 nicely capturing the horrible awkwardness that can accompany such encounters, while the final build-up to the wedding really communicates Mark's inner turmoil in a way that prompts empathy when you should want to slap some sense into him. As the two hide in the church from the arriving wedding party, their relationship seems strangely well defined by Mark's failure even to go with his coin-toss approach to decision-making and Jeremy's inability to urinate, despite his desparation, until Mark gives the OK for him to do so.
None of which would count for crap if the show were not funny, of course, but it is. It really is. I know I'm talking subjectively here and that the IMDb rating counts for little, even with me, although their sizeable page of quotes from the show should at least give newcomers a flavour of what they're in for (since posting this review this page has been removed – quite why is beyond me). I can't compare series 4 with its predecessors yet because at the time of writing I haven't yet seen them, but I'm looking forward to doing so. I'd suggest newcomers start at the beginning moving on to this release – the supporting characters will clearly make more sense that way – but series fans should grab it with both hands.
Shot on high band video and filtered in post production for a film look – a process common with modern TV – the anamorphic 16:9 transfer is of the expected standard. Contrast and sharpness are very good and the colour appears to be fine, but it's becoming increasingly hard to find a TV series or film that hasn't been creatively graded in some manner.
The Dolby stereo 2.0 soundtrack scores on clarity and dynamic range, which is all that's really required for such a show.
Four of the six episodes have filmmaker commentaries – do they really need them? The participants vary. Writers Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain provide some interesting background on episode 1, detailing the writing process, changes that were made from the original script and reveal that the shooting party scene was based on a real incident. They are joined by script editor Iain Morris on episode 6 and cover similar but equally amiable ground. Another true story inspiration is identified by Morris and series producer Phil Clarke in the commentary on episode 4 – they also echo the writers' concern that Mark's attitude to Sophie would make the character unsympathetic, discuss the episode structure, and wonder just how gay Jeremy actually is. The fly in the commentary ointment is episode 5, helmed by director Becky Martin and producer Robert Popper. Martin does provide a few enlightening comments, but they almost get lost under Popper's irritating prattle, the sort of would-be funnyman stuff you'll hear at parties when the dick of the room is trying to impress the giggly girl, a role Martin mysteriously comes close to playing. The two obviously know their jobs – the results speak for themselves – but Martin unexpectedly nails it when she says of the listening audience "I bet at this moment they wish that someone else was doing this DVD commentary."
Deleted Scenes (3:24 total)
5 deleted scenes, located alongside the episodes from which they were cut. All are brief and rather funny, while the picture and sound quality will give the technically minded an idea of how the footage looks before it's been run through the film filter.
Barn Burning (5:35)
Behind the scenes on the barn burning sequence, including recollections of the event by Mitchell and Webb.
A Peep Behind the Scenes (5:50)
Mitchell and Webb touch on acting to camera, while director Martin and producer Popper chip in when discussing the problems with snow and night location shooting, interviews that are laced with behind-the-scenes footage.
The Best of Peep Show Series 1-4 (14:21)
Stars and crew select their favourite ten moments from the four series, though half are from this one. Aimed at those who've watched all four, it also acts as an effective sampler for us idiots who came to the show back to front.
A Peep at Mark and Jeremy (19:09)
Series producer Phil Clarke and script editor Phil Morris take an engaging look back at the development of the two characters over the four series. Another useful one for us newbies.
I'm kicking myself for not catching this earlier, but were it not for the series 4 review disc I might not have seen it at all, so better late and backwards than never. If you've got the first three series then get the fourth, as it delivers repeatedly on comedy and memorable character moments, and there are a fair few extras to bump up the value. Newcomers should try to get their hands on series 1 first and work their way through. Despite the acclaim of those who have seen it, Peep Show has not found the audience it could, and that deserves to change.