(Channel Four) On the surface, it's easy to describe what makes Peep Show unique. The series follows the lives of Mark and Jeremy – two oddly-matched roommates sharing a London flat – and the conceit is that we frequently see the action from their perspective and hear the thoughts going through their heads in voiceover (Mark: I mean, what's the worst that could happen? She could say no. Actually, that would be terrible. It would destroy me if she said no.; Jeremy: This was definitely a good idea. There's no chance this wasn't a good idea.). What's harder to pinpoint is exactly why Peep Show is one of the best comedy programs in the history of television – because it undoubtedly is.
The central performances from the duo of David Mitchell and Robert Webb (who together also write and perform the stellar sketch show That Mitchell and Webb Look) certainly provide much of Peep Show's magic. The two have an organic chemistry that comes from being friends in real life, so they're completely believable as onscreen friends. Plus, they're both masters of comic timing, knowing how to deliver a line for maximum absurdity.
A great deal of credit must go to the writers, though. Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain have collaborated on multiple projects including That Mitchell and Webb Look, Fresh Meat, The Old Guys, and the films Magicians and Four Lions. Their partnership is clearly one of those rare instances of deep and prolific creative symbiosis.
The writing on Peep Show is beyond clever. It takes ridiculous situations and pushes them into the realm of profound discomfort – comedy's natural extent. However, the writers don't stop there; they keep pushing until the show breaks through into a form of genuine appreciation for the overall foolishness of human life. More often than not, the characters cause each other frustration and grief; but there's always a core of real affection between them. It's not sentimentality, it's just a statement of fact: people need each other, and that's why they put up with each other's never-ending thickheaded nonsense.
The jokes on Peep Show aren't so much jokes as they are fearless observations pulled from the constant stream of selfishness and insecurity that runs through us all. It's a form of radical honesty that may be cringe-inducing to some, but to others will be a cleansing and cathartic experience. The cliché of situational comedy has always been, “These zany characters say what the rest of us are thinking!” but – by offering a window into Mark and Jeremy's heads – Peep Show actually says what people are thinking in all its pathetic, narcissistic glory.
That's not to say that the show is only about people treating each other badly. In fact, because the characters feel so real, you mostly find yourself rooting for them – for the uptight Mark to loosen up and find something that makes him happy, and for the aimless Jeremy to figure out how to become an adult. Neither of these things is likely to happen, but it's a credit to the show that they continue to seem possible, much as the unlikely things we aspire to in real life continue to seem possible.
The show never falls into self-parody; rather, it maintains a fully-rounded view of who these people are. From Mark's erstwhile love-interest Sophie (Olivia Colman) to Jeremy's drug-addled bandmate Super Hans (Matt King), the characters have as much depth as those in most dramas. They may do predictably stupid things that are slightly exaggerated for effect, but they largely come across like people we know – in fact, like people we know all too well: ourselves.
With seven seasons now available, Peep Show is the longest-running sitcom in Channel Four history. Despite relatively low ratings, it has been renewed for an eighth and ninth season due to its sheer quality and loyal audience of DVD-buyers. You can help ensure a future for the show by watching it and adding it to your collection. It's life's folly, inanity, and disappointment raised to high art, and it's sure to delight anyone who finds humanity a little bit laughable.
FOR FANS OF: That Mitchell and Webb Look, Spaced, The Office, Black Books
WHY WE LIKE IT: consistently brilliant writing, fantastically awkward performances from Mitchell and Webb, great supporting cast