While the “mockumentary” format has been around since at least the 1960s, it didn’t take over our TV screens until the original, British version of The Office proved how well the technique suited the sitcom. After the American version of the series employed the same conceit—namely, that a documentary crew is shooting the footage we see, including one-on-one interviews that provide an excuse for Shakespeare-like asides—several more shows (Parks and Recreation, Modern Family, et al) adopted it as well. But with a twist: These later shows don’t even acknowledge the theoretical existence of a documentary crew; they simply assume audiences will accept the characters’ direct address as a standard formal element of sitcom structure. We ignore the absurdity of, say, Leslie Knope bearing her feelings to what, within the show’s acknowledged reality, must simply be empty space. We have learned to accept this contrivance. In other words, the formal innovation of The Office—which drew, of course, on things like Eric Idle’s The Rutles and the films of Christopher Guest—proved so useful that it became something like a formal rule for television comedy.
Will the formal innovation of Peep Show ever become similarly ubiquitous? It’s certainly worthy of copying, but 10 years (nearly to the day) since the British sitcom premiered, no major series has tried to imitate the trick that creators Sam Bain, Jesse Armstrong and Andrew O’Connor, along with stars David Mitchell (no, not the one who wrote Cloud Atlas) and Robert Webb use to such consistently hilarious effect. The setup of Peep Show is familiar to the point of cliché: It chronicles the misadventures of two mismatched young men, the uptight and somewhat paranoid history buff Mark (Mitchell) and his selfish slacker of a best friend and roommate, Jeremy (called “Jez” for short, and played by Webb). But what elevates it—besides the excellent writing and the terrific performances by Mitchell, Webb, and their supporting cast—is a simple but very effective narrative twist: The show alternates between the first-person perspectives of its two lead characters, Mark and Jeremy, and when we’re inhabiting Mark or Jeremy’s point of view, we can also hear their thoughts in voiceover.
Constant access to Mark and Jeremy’s inner monologues—their fears, their rationalizations, their judgments of themselves and others—creates wickedly satirical contrasts with what they actually observe and say. It’s a perfect skewering of the million tiny lies we all tell ourselves and others daily to reconcile how we perceive ourselves with how we perceive the world. And it’s an amazing device for televised comedy, as even ordinary dialogue is turned into a series of self-effacing jokes.
The technique can be a bit disorienting at first, especially in the initial season, when the creators were still tinkering with their filming and editing techniques. Even so, the best gateway episode for Peep Show comes relatively early in the series’ run: “On the Pull,” the third installment of Season 1, gracefully sets up the characters, relationships, and general tone of the show’s humor for any viewer who has is new to them.
In “On the Pull,” Jeremy convinces Mark to abandon his boring night in and come to a party. (“I am doing excellent shopping,” we have just heard Mark think to himself, satisfied with his strategy of buying groceries while everyone else is out having fun on Friday night.) Mark surprises himself by hitting it off with a young Goth girl and taking her with Jez and their neighbor Toni for some fun at the Lazerbowl. Mark’s constant struggle to reconcile his feverish social anxiety with his desire to be liked and respected comes to a head in the Lazerbowl bathroom: “This is it, this is literally it,” Mark thinks, “this is the sort of thing people do when they’re having a good time.”
Soon enough, Sophie, Mark’s coworker and the target of his ineffectual infatuation (who is played by Olivia Colman, star of Broadchurch), arrives on a date with Jeff, his office nemesis. Mark goes into damage-control mode, not wanting to harm his reputation by actually enjoying his time with the rebellious Goth girl. Meanwhile, Jez finds himself a sexual pawn in Toni’s deteriorating relationship with her husband. Both the roommate’s selfish pursuits eventually sabotage their own happiness. (This is a pattern that will recur in later episodes.)
Subsequent seasons depict Mark and Jez’s increasing co-dependence, as well as their willingness to actively harm or exploit the other for personal gain. (A particularly good Season 3 episode, “Shrooming,” features Jez drugging and locking a sick Mark in his own room in order to host a drug party in their apartment with hopes of seducing a crush.) But “On the Pull” establishes their personalities and their eccentric decision-making styles—and it’s full of the quotable one-liners that fans can and will spend hours shooting back and forth at each other. (“Maybe I can just get really into Peter Gabriel and go mental and marry her and cut off from society and just have lots of sex and agree with her the whole time about everything,” Jez muses at one point, deciding whether or not to compromise his musical taste for his date.)
Two attempts to create an American version of Peep Show have failed to make it past a pilot. Which highligyhts just how singular the talent is on the original. The cast is populated with brilliant comic portrayals of charismatic drug addicts, alpha-male corporate types, and loveable nerds, all of whom serve as foils for our protagonists’ fears and machinations. Mitchell and Webb—who, in addition to being the “I’m a PC and I’m a Mac” guys in England, star in a simultaneously running and often equally funny sketch comedy show—are indelible as Mark and Jez; almost every one of their lines is cringe-comedy gold. (Peep Show is, if you ask me, the apex of the comedy-of-humiliation also seen on The Office and Curb Your Enthusiasm.)
All eight seasons of Peep Show are streaming on Netflix. A ninth series, which may be the show’s last, is in production now, most likely for a 2014 premiere. You’ve got at least a few months to catch up.
Check out the Gateway Episodes for The Sopranos, Mad Men, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and more.
Correction, Sept. 25, 2013: This post misidentified the creators of Peep Show. It was created by Sam Bain, Jesse Armstrong and Andrew O’Connor. David Mitchell and Robert Webb star as well as contribute additional writing.