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The British comedy Peep Show was a very funny show about very sharp pain

"I’ve never been personally that crazy about the name of the Channel 4 sitcom Peep Show," David Mitchell, who is incidentally the star of Peep Show, said in a 2011 YouTube video. "It sounds a bit sexy. Taken along with the late-night slot on Channel 4, the first-time viewer would not be unreasonable to expect titillation."

"Which seems to me to be writing a check with the title," he went on, "that the content — constant footage of two pallid men in their 30s aging in real time — will emphatically fail to honor."

In the end, we got to watch those two men — Mitchell’s Mark Corrigan and his co-star Robert Webb’s Jeremy Usborne — age all the way into their 40s.

After nine seasons, which all told required 12 years under notoriously lax British television production ethic to complete, Peep Show aired its final episode on December 16, 2015. There will be no Christmas special. Peep Show is over. Despite the series' regular lip-sucking-sound grotesquery of kissing and sex shot entirely in the first person, it was unsexy to the end.

I have been watching Peep Show since 2008. In the seven years between then and now, there have been very few weeks in which I have not watched at least one of its 54 episodes, and few months in which I have not rewatched the entire available series. At present, I have only seen the final six episodes once. But by this time next year, it would not be unreasonable to assume I will have seen them each at least a dozen times. I do not decide to rewatch Peep Show. I am in a permanent state of rewatching. It is a process. Like forgiveness. Or sobriety. Or God.

I have been trying to figure out why. I am not an obsessive viewer of anything; I have never seen another television series more than one time through. I’ve rarely even second-screened a single episode of anything, unless, and begrudgingly still, in the service of showing it to someone else. Of the half-dozen movies I call my favorites, I’ve watched only one of them twice. But then one of them I’ve only seen half of.

Why Peep Show?

It's funny, of course.

But lots of things are funny. Fargo was funny. Seinfeld was funny. Failed vice presidential candidate turned Speaker of the House Paul Ryan’s beard is hilarious, and I never want to see that again.

Funny isn't the explanation. What else?

Peep Show is troubling. When Sam Bain, who wrote the series along with Jesse Armstrong, was asked what sociological themes he hoped viewers would take from the series, he answered, "The stubborn persistence of human suffering." It was funny. But it was not a joke.

Is that it? I do like troubling things. But many things are troubling. Like climate change. Or antibiotic resistance. Or Paul Ryan's beard.


It isn’t the combination of the two elements, either. "Dark comedy," once a genuinely subversive kind of humor barely nudging its way into the periphery of the mainstream, has become in this decade the dull intentional standard for any comedy not literally shown on broadcast television and pitched to medical supply companies as a fine opportunity for reaching the catheter demographic. Even children’s shows, to review Cartoon Network's current offerings, are edgy these days.

Peep Show does execute its particular misery more effectively than its competitors. "I’m starting to get this feeling that I’m totally, totally fucked" is more succinct than anything I have ever heard on Parks and Rec. Louis C.K., for all his daring, issue-conscious sad-sackery, has never written a bit wherein a character remains sympathetic while earnestly saying he would rather rape his best friend than make love to him. An episode of Peep Show that ends with, "Did you really have to eat the dog?" "I keep asking myself that. In the moment, it really felt as if I needed to eat it," is at once more twisted and more humane than any juvenile shock on South Park. I empathize with why Jeremy had to eat the dog. I never empathize with Cartman.

Still, at most, this mastery of the form might merit a single repeat viewing on my part — not the persistent, multi-year devotion of a person who routinely refuses to read comic books I'm fairly certain I would like because I suspect they’re taking the inner pain of caped, Randian space magicians too seriously.

Peep Show doesn’t even have too much of a plot. In a time when "novelistic" is more and more the adjective thrown at television programs tuned in to the fact that many people do not actually watch individual episodes on television, Peep Show begins each episode at some indeterminate point following the previous one. Months and years pass between seasons without explicit mention. There are recurring characters, of course, friends and co-workers and love interests (if there is any overarching plot, it might divide the show into Mark’s "Sophie" period and his "Dobby" one), but the stories of the seasons have little connection to one another, except by the excruciating passage of time and a hundred variations on the line, "This is okay. This is just a moment that will haunt me forever."

No. I suspect, at bottom, that my devotion to Peep Show has to do with a gimmick. Which I hate.

For the unfamiliar, Peep Show is filmed entirely in first-person perspective. This can be jarring on first viewing. But more vital and more jarring is this: The viewer of Peep Show hears, throughout every episode, the interior monologues of Mark and Jeremy as they go about accumulating regrets.

Peep Show

Ordinarily I can’t stand this kind of cheap stunt — it feels a bit too much like throwing Smell-o-Vision at an ill-conceived but already wildly over-budget kid’s show. However, in Peep Show, it works. It works not only by delivering many of the series' best standalone jokes, but also by bringing its audience into collaboration with its protagonists.

Many TV shows, especially TV shows about unhappy loners, attempt this by signaling: You’re meant to relate to the character who’s a bit misunderstood, a bit frustrated, just like you! But none manage it in the way allowed by direct access to the thoughts of the main characters and fulfilled by the meticulous choice and execution of those thoughts. Their eyes are your eyes. Their pain is your pain. If one objective of narrative art is to draw the viewer into conspiracy with the desires of its characters, then Peep Show succeeds in a manner rivaled only by pornography.

The gimmick has another effect. If the show draws us into collusion with Mark and Jeremy by giving us access to their thoughts, it also excludes us from the thoughts of everybody else. This is fine in most other shows, where the motives of secondary characters are either portrayed in separate scenes or otherwise as mysterious to us as those of the theoretically more relatable protagonists, but in Peep Show the total silence of other minds breeds suspicion. We are accustomed to knowing precisely where Mark and Jeremy are coming from. We know their motives, their secret plans and thoughts. We do not know the same of anybody else. Thus everyone becomes suspicious. Enemies, of course; rival co-workers, certainly. But even love interests and friends, while apparently on our side, can never quite be trusted. Everyone is at least slightly dangerous. Everyone is potentially duplicitous.

"Is she thinking about her ex?" we hear Mark think, in an episode where he has finally, after several seasons, secured a relationship with a woman he actually likes and who by all appearances is genuinely into him. "Bet she bloody is. When she goes quiet, is she always thinking about him?"

He asks her. She demurs.

"It’s impossible to know what’s going on her head," he thinks. "And if I ask her, she doesn’t necessarily have to tell the truth."

He ruins the relationship within eight episodes.

Peep Show, if you aren’t familiar and haven’t already surmised, is about pain. Not grand pain, or the pain felt by great heroes or villains, but the ordinary kind: the slow, stubborn persistence of middling luck and compromise. The mundane frustration of making the same mistakes you’ve never learned from.

Professional criticism of bleak comedy has a habit of finding something redemptive in this kind of mire: Perhaps failed love affirms friendship, or failed dreams provide a view of what’s important. But there is no such thing to be found in Peep Show. Mark and Jeremy aren’t friends and flatmates because that’s really what’s important in this life. They are friends and flatmates because their attempts to escape one another have failed. Nobody else will have them. They may love each other, each in their own dried-up, desiccated way, but they’re desperate.

Peep Show

That desperation is fueled by Mark and Jeremy's paranoia, and while not all of us are so excessively doomed by it, their casual insecurity and the potential for stupid pain that follows it is an undercurrent of human life, one not captured in quite this way before. For a time, when I was younger and before I found Peep Show, I wondered if I’d never seen this particular kind of fear depicted in popular culture because it wasn't terribly common. As Mark thinks in season one, episode one: "Maybe he doesn’t mind. Maybe nobody minds things as much as me."

I was wrong. Of course. The narcissism that says my vague, foreboding teenage dread is unique in human history is, if anything, a very common feature of teenage life. I am not the only one who minds things. I am not the only one who sometimes overreacts to my uncertainty regarding the intentions of others.

But still — can you really know that? Perhaps you and I shared the same small, juvenile anxieties, but maybe it's fashionable aloofness and duplicity all around. I've been to university to study the problem of other minds. How can we know them? But how can we know them really? The consensus is: We're fucked.

Except, sometimes, with art. In the history of our societies, art has been, in its best moments, a transom for relation between isolated selves. We are, each of us, anchored to our own thoughts and our own bodies. But when we look at the same painting, or read the same novel, we are sometimes able to find one another in a parallel apprehension of beauty. We cannot speak in one another’s hearts, but our hearts can apprehend each other through the mutual recognition of some artist’s truth.

Peep Show was the longest-running sitcom in British history. It became a cult phenomenon when it arrived in the United States. Many people, it seems, have heard the inner thoughts of two pallid men, not special in their suffering, but constantly just a bit humiliated, unable to feel certain that they know the first thing about anybody, and recognized themselves in it. Then recognized it in each other.

That is high art.

It is also very funny.