The Genius of Peep Show

So much of human interaction is hidden behind the scenes, outside of the normal mode of communication of language. The true meaning of most conversations exists outside of the “script” of what is said, and instead can be more fully understood as a complex combination of words, thoughts, emotions and judgment. The words we say are maybe only 10% of the total package, the vast majority of meaning and truth exists only in our minds, almost always unknown by the other half in our conversations.

“Peep Show” is one of my favorite television shows, and, to be somewhat snobby and arty about the whole thing, the fact that it realizes what I mentioned in the previous paragraph is revolutionary for the sitcom format. Starring David Mitchell and Robert Webb as London based slackers Mark and Jeremy, “Peep Show” has, at first glance, what appears to be a stereotypical sitcom set up: two very different personalities end up as friends and go through their days experiencing the wide variety of adventures that life has to offer. Dating, working, eating, traveling, shopping, dancing: Peep Show scathingly covers them all, true to its traditional sitcom roots.

The difference comes from the central conceit of how the show is presented. Shot in a POV (point of view) format, the show films itself from the perspective of each of the characters (and occasionally someone else who is near them). Each shot is seen from the eyes of one of the characters in the scene, cutting back and forth between them as the conversations progress. The resulting composition is a very personal experience. Frequently, shots consist of characters looking directly at the camera, their faces filling the entire frame. There are no wide shots, establishing shots require that the character is doing something to establish location. Cutting is fast and furious, shots don’t linger any longer than the words that are said.

However, despite this unique filming style, the true genius of the show can be found in how it presents the world as being shot from the different character POVs. In addition to seeing what Mark and Jeremy see, the show also puts the viewer directly into their brains by allowing us to hear their thoughts. In addition to the spoken dialogue, the show presents each characters thoughts as voice over. As they endure mundane conversations with co-workers, we are allowed to hear their true thoughts in parallel to the spoken dialogue.

Needless to say, this format is revolutionary in how it changes the landscape for adding jokes into a sitcom. The creators of Peep Show, Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong, have essentially doubled the amount of setup that can be used to create jokes too fit various situations. The characters verbally assault each other as in every sitcom, but the darker and more brutal jokes can be brought out as voice over. The genius of this is the fact that these jokes do not affect character relationships. In a traditional sitcom these inner machinations, when verbalized, would distract from the main narrative. Characters would be forced to argue about their opinions and they’d have to deal with the fact that other characters seriously doubt in their opinions and ideas. Peep Show nimbly avoids this pitfall: we’re allowed to laugh at the hysterical inner monologues and maintain a cohesive and uninterrupted narrative.

Despite a somewhat rough first season in which the direction was overly interested in the POV filming (obsessively documenting the buttering of toast, for example), the show quickly found its footing in season two. Season long arcs became commonplace. Promotions, relationships, vacations and family are beautifully examined in each six episode season. Minor characters are particularly outstanding, with absolutely perfecting casting. In particular, Jeremy’s friend and band mate Super Hans and Mark’s intense and dramatic boss Johnson are hilarious. They’re the sort of characters that fans petition to be spun off into their own series, not realizing that the reason they work is due to the perfect balancing of their appearances and how they juxtapose the main characters.

Sitcoms that break the mold are generally not as popular as those that whole heartedly embrace the foundations laid down by those before them. At the time of this writing, Big Bang Theory is one of the most popular sitcoms on American television. Avoiding any criticism of that program (other than saying that it, you know, sucks), it is definitely a disadvantage for shows that try something new to generate network support and maintain a sizable audience.

Peep Show is great television. It is side splittingly funny. It is well acted. It is endlessly rewatchable. It has a great name. It’s got it all. When it was briefly removed from Netflix, I even considered buying the overpriced DVDs on Amazon. That’s what the show does to me, it makes me consider buying DVDs in 2014.

But beyond all that, it has a quality that I consider to be a key point in determining if I like a show or not: I’m hesitant to tell others about it. In some weird, narcissistic way, I want to keep all of the goodness to myself. I don’t want other people laughing at the jokes I consider to be lesser. I don’t want to hear about how a Super Hans spin off would be even better than the original show. And above all, I don’t want to hear people say that they don’t think the show is funny. That would wound me deeply. And that’s the catch-22 of great television. Maybe that’s the reason great shows are canceled early: everyone who likes them can’t stand to tell anyone else about them.

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