Is Peep Show Britain's funniest TV comedy?


Slightly infuriatingly, it might well be.

by Gregory Wakeman in TV & Movies

Peep Show's Jeremy (left) and Mark (right)
Peep Show's Jeremy (left) and Mark (right)

Peep Show should never have been the success it was. It started as a fad, a programme that seemingly only revolved around its use of point-of-view shots, was threatened with cancellation for several seasons due to insufficient ratings, and its main characters are so utterly loathsome that you can feel your stomach churn with nausea whilst watching them.

However, Peep Show also rose from these various potential ashes, to become one of the greatest British sitcoms during its run from 2003 to 2015 when it aired on Channel 4, and the channel's longest-running sitcom of all time. In 2019, four years after its final episode, Peep Show was also recognised as the 13th greatest British sitcom, in a poll for the Radio Times.

And there is a reason for that recognition on the part of viewers. For decades, Great Britain has produced a cavalcade of great sitcoms, each of which has helped to propel its stars, writers and directors into the upper echelons of the television and film industries at home and abroad. But, Peep Show's longevity and critical plaudits separated it from all the other acclaimed shows that have filled the UK's television schedules and streaming services over the years.

Perhaps more importantly, Peep Show also consistently made us laugh before it disappeared from view on network television, like a polar bear playing hide and seek in Antarctica.

Throughout its nine seasons, Peep Show may not have generated as many episodes as American hits such as Seinfeld and Friends (which ran for 180 and 236 instalments respectively), though that doesn't matter, particularly in the context of the British production landscape, nine seasons amounts to achievement in itself (especially when you take into account that on its initial run it was not exactly a huge ratings hit for Channel 4).

Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant's widely lauded series', Extras and The Office each only lasted for 13 episodes before their creators decided to not risk ruining these shows in favour of preserving their legacy. However, Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong, the writers of Peep Show, developed a closer relationship between the Peep Show characters and their audience through the show's much longer run. Peep Show also evolved and grew into its own unique devices over its long run, to not only become the most idiosyncratic and quirky sitcom on the small screen but also the freshest, bravest and most confident too.

Don't believe me? Then take a look at two of Peep Show's most celebrated highlights in Season 4's Holiday and Marriage episodes.

In the latter, Jeremy accidentally kills a potential suitor's dog, looks to burn its carcass, and then eats its remains once he is on the verge of being discovered.

Marriage, on the other hand, sees Mark looking to escape his nuptials to Sophie on their wedding day in increasingly extreme ways. He finally decides to hide out with Jeremy in the rafters of the church where the wedding is supposed to take place, where his best man proceeds to urinate in his trousers, before Mark is finally discovered, and has to tearfully go through with the ceremony after all.

His new wife then abandons him minutes later.

More than just a character study

These episodes are so wonderful partly because of the writing of Bain and Armstrong, who know the characters of Mark and Jeremy so intimately, down to inner monologues and secret desires. Their close working relationship with Robert Webb and David Mitchell also allowed the foursome to become closely entwined to the point that you simply cannot imagine any other actors playing the roles of Jeremy and Mark.

The unique viewpoint of the show also gives viewers access to the inner workings of the characters that other comedy shows cannot come close to replicating, though it is Mark and Jeremy's throwaway lines that are ultimately the key to the show's success. They proclaim thoughts and views that we may have had ourselves, but would never utter because of our fear of embarrassment if doing so. So, lines such as, "He's normally back by now. Maybe he's dead? Oh, there he is, he's not dead after all.", "Just stay mute Mark - you're a social freak. Remain in your compound", and "Do me? Are they going to rape me? Or kill me? If they rape and kill me I hope they kill me first, I sort of win," could hardly be uttered in other sitcoms, no matter how hard they may try to shock.

Throughout Peep Show, Bain and Armstrong stick to the sitcom conventions, even down to the use of Peep Show's theme song and score, but they also challenge the genre's traditional topics, such as marriage, relationships and friendships with simple stories that are based in a kind of reality, even if it is one which has been heightened by the writers to an almost surreal degree. So, whilst recurring characters such as Super Hans, Big Suze, Johnson, Dobby, Jeff and Sophie populate the Peep Show world (each as idiosyncratic as the El-Dude brothers), their influences usually provoke a response from the show's two main protagonists, partly because each possesses an allure that Mark and Jeremy pine for, but can never come close to challenging.

It is, however, Mark and Jeremy's odd-couple relationship that is the core of the show and the reason for its success. Both characters believe that they are better than one another for different reasons, but there is love and dependence between the duo that is both sweet and toxic at the same time. They are, ultimately, trying to get away from the other, and believe they will, though, of course, they never do. Meanwhile, the longer they are stuck with one another, the more desperate, drastic and funnier they become.

It's a parallel universe of a kind, whether we like what it shows us or not.

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