Blackadder represented the creative energy we all had back in the ‘80s,” Rowan Atkinson told Radio Times this week. “To try to replicate that 30 years on wouldn’t be easy.” True, watching a 65-year-old Edmund gawping at a thingy-shaped turnip while wearing plastic breasts as earmuffs would look hopelessly unimaginative in 2021, but a comedy team can certainly mature with its audience. Take Back, David Mitchell and Robert Webb’s more life-worn follow up to Peep Show: if Mark had bought a rural pub and become a functioning alcoholic and Jez had gone travelling in Tibet to find himself, they wouldn’t be too far removed from neurotic landlord Stephen (Mitchell) and his over-assured long-lost foster brother Andrew (Webb). They’re more likely to make sour wisecracks about cancer scares and insurance claims than find themselves eating barbecued dog leg and shagging any camera with a pulse, but the antagonistic brotherhood forged in Peep Show undoubtedly endures in this middle-aged successor, out to argue that life unwinds at forty.
2017’s excellent first series (the pandemic and life-saving heart surgery for Webb helped delay this second) rattled along on an engrossing premise. Andrew – confident, popular, quite possibly Satan in disguise – returns to his childhood foster home and sets about, by accident or design, stealing Stephen’s comfortably unsuccessful life from under him. It was a neat, almost cult-horror sort of storyline which season two ill-advisedly discards. With Stephen returning from psychiatric treatment to find Andrew growing bored with the life he stole from him, the menace and malevolence which previously simmered beneath Webb’s character largely fizzles out here, even as he casts around for outlying characters to suck dry, settling on Stephen’s ex-wife Alison and her ever-pliable parents. Instead, it’s Mitchell’s turn to shine – as Stephen gradually descends into paranoia and conspiracy, series two almost works as his comedic Lear.
It’s an unbalanced world the rival pair inhabit. They’re surrounded by characters either brilliantly cartoonish (Geoffrey McGivern’s filter-free barfly Geoff; Louise Brealey’s eternal flighty teenager Cass) or frustratingly bland (barkeeping couple Mike and Jen are instantly forgettable even while you’re still watching them), and deliver comedy capable of shifting from the relatably gentle to the shockingly brutal quicker than Gavin & Stacey or even After Life: the mileage writer Simon Blackwell gets out of various cancers was clearly clocked up on the way home from the Ricky Gervais School Of Comic Morbidity. The perfect set-up for guest figures such as Anthony Head (as Stephen’s potential real dad Charismatic Mike) to sweep into and steal with Flasheartian panache, but also for Mitchell and Webb to bestride with wordless chemistry alone. The real joy of Back is seeing the two of them in the same frame once more, their underlying interplay in full, fabulous flight, undimmed by health crises or creeping years.
With moments of real pathos sprinkled sparingly throughout, Back season 2 works as a rich and engaging satire on the small-town middle-aged dream, and the chasm at the core of Brexit Britain. It’s more wry drama than quickfire gagfest, but it’s still capable of snapping a belly laugh out of you with a vicious one-liner, finely observed life lesson or surprise c-bombardment when it wants to. Welcome back.