I’m moving away from my usual reviews to write about Back, David Mitchell and Robert Webb’s newest show currently airing on Channel 4 (although there’s only one episode left). The six-part series tells the story of Stephen, played by Mitchell, who returns to his childhood home following the death of his father. He returns to help his mother and sister run the family pub. At his father’s graveside, Andrew, played by Webb, shows up and claims to have been one of the many children that Stephen’s parents fostered over the years, although Stephen has no recollection of him. Andrew seems to have done it all and is extremely charming which immediately rubs the pessimistic Stephen up the wrong way. Mitchell’s character becomes increasingly suspicious of Andrew’s motive for returning and his intentions as he moves closer to the family. Is Andrew just after money? Is he trying to ruin the family? Is he in some way trying to save the family and the family business?
Or, and stay with me here, is Andrew in fact part of Stephen’s subconscious? Andrew seems to be everything Stephen wants to be: witty, charming, successful, and always full of inventive ideas to drum up new business for the pub. I think the writers perhaps expect us to think this. In Episode 5, Stephen professes to Andrew that he’s not mad and, without giving anything away, there’s a conversation between the two about their bodies getting mixed up. I think there are lots of nods to the Fight Club effect (i.e.-the two main characters are in fact one person) but we’ll find out if this is the case next week.
Back reunites Mitchell and Webb with Peep Show writer Simon Blackwell, and, for fans of Peep Show, I think this is very important. Although Back isn’t told through first-person perspective and we don’t hear the characters’ thoughts, Mitchell’s character often talks to himself when no one else is listening, letting us inside his head in a way. On top of this, Stephen is a very similar character to Mark, identical almost, so we immediately relate Mitchell’s character to Mark. Yet, we never hear Andrew’s thoughts or get any insight into his character and, for a fan of Peep Show, this is very unsettling. In a very smart way, Back plays on the audience’s familiarity with Mark and Jez and automatically makes us distrust Webb’s character. Of course, the writers know this and are obviously playing with the audience’s expectations of Mitchell and Webb but it demonstrates the prominence of their star personas and how pervasive Peep Show is in our minds and the writers’ minds.
So until the last episode in a few days, we’ll be asking ourselves, why are Stephen and Andrew’s recollections of their childhood so different? Were they even together? Is Stephen also a foster child? Is Andrew really Andrew?
And the real head scratcher: what really happened to Smelly Ellis?