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Back review: farewell to Mitchell and Webb’s squirmingly good sitcom-cum-thriller

Deft touch … David Mitchell as an unspooling Stephen in Channel 4’s Back.
Deft touch … David Mitchell as an unspooling Stephen in Back. Photograph: Mark Johnson/Channel 4

Channel 4 likes its comedies to emerge all tangled up in a mess of genres. The dearly departed Fresh Meat was a comedy half-presented as a drama. Flowers was about a suicidal middle-aged man (and his miserable family) who detests the world around him. Catastrophe is often extraordinarily bleak in its sharp jokes about how humans struggle to live together without kind of hating each other sometimes too.

When the first episode of Back (Channel 4) aired, it made sense that this is where it would live. It was a clever amalgamation of quickfire sitcom and a plot that could have been pulled out of a thriller, telling the story of a misfit man and his one-time foster brother, who showed up at “their” father’s funeral, only to start taking over his life, like a Moderately Talented Mr Ripley. With David Mitchell and Robert Webb starring, and Peep Show’s Simon Blackwell writing, it was hard to see where it could go wrong.

It didn’t disappoint; if anything, it was richer than early episodes suggested. That the final instalment of this first series was bookended with revelations that sprang from a concern about hereditary bowel cancer gives some idea of the tone. Over the past six weeks, Stephen (an increasingly frantic Mitchell) has become obsessed with the idea that the perfect Andrew (Webb) is a cuckoo in the nest, and in this finale he went full Carrie Mathison in Homeland, putting pins into a map on the wall of his caravan, insisting that each location came together to spell out a secret word that was the key to the mystery (the word is “kiln”, which is, you must admit, a funny word). With the aid of a lot of single malt whisky and a furtive Pot Noodle in the library, he was determined to prove that Andrew was trying to steal his life – even though Andrew was doing a much better job of living it.

Robert Webb as Andrew and Julie Dray as Juliet in Back
Robert Webb as Andrew and Julie Dray as Juliet. Photograph: Mark Johnson/Channel 4

The silliness of Stephen’s unspooling was delightfully excruciating, although as each plot twist built in yet another layer of embarrassment, I found myself craving the closing credits – not because I wanted Back to end, but because I needed to be put out of my squirming misery. When Stephen’s session with a microfiche ended in the exposing of Andrew’s supposed crime, he did a gloating victory dance that made David Brent’s infamous moves in The Office look gracious and lithe. His competitive streak grew so virulent over the course of the series that insisting he make himself known to a grieving woman as the man who discovered her husband’s hanging body was the least of his misdemeanours; by the end, he was hiring a speechwriter so he could do better than Andrew at his own father’s birthday memorial.

But this is where Back showed what it was made of. Stephen, by now red-eyed and losing his grip, spoke at the party, but didn’t use any of the jokes about his father being fat (he wasn’t), or hating his wife (they got along nicely). He gave a sincere speech about how much he missed him. I held my breath, waiting for the inevitable descent into awfulness, and it didn’t come. Or at least, it didn’t come then. Instead, there was a pub-piano rendition of Rocket Man that both moved the story forward and moved me a little more than I expected it to. Similarly, when at last we got the big reveal about Andrew’s reasons for returning to the place he was happiest, in a flashback, it was genuinely understated and sad. While Back is brutal in places, and some of the lines are thrillingly blunt – Stephen is on anti-anxiety medication, and says: “My GP calls them ‘keep calm and carry on’ pills, because he’s a dreadful fucker” – it has a deft touch where necessary, in small enough doses to make it touching, but never sentimental.

One of the great pleasures of Back, though, has been just how terrible almost everyone in it is, from sleazy uncle Geoff to airy sister Cass. In fact, as the wonderfully inane Cass, Louise Brealey has been in danger of stealing the show at times. The six-month travelling trip that ended in four days with an impromptu marriage to an older man, that was then tossed aside in a simple joke, was all the funnier for how lean it was. “He’s really old, had you noticed?” may not sound like the wittiest line ever written, but it had me guffawing. And that ending really did leave it wide open for a second series, so surely there will be more. Here’s hoping, anyway – we must find out what happened at Sergio’s.

This article titled "Back review: farewell to Mitchell and Webb’s squirmingly good sitcom-cum-thriller" was written by Rebecca Nicholson, for The Guardian on Thursday 12 October 2017 05.00am

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