Self-referential, certainly, and not always productively. But Mitchell and Webb never come across as smug.
Though they haven't achieved the cross-continental success of Ricky Gervais or even Peter Serafinowicz, David Mitchell and Robert Webb are two of Britain's more successful comedians, working as a team in both sketch comedy and a long-running sitcom. BBC America offers a sort of crash course in the duo this spring, semi-belatedly airing seasons three and four of their sitcom Peep Show, alongside the third season of their sketch show, That Mitchell and Webb Look.
Though Peep Show works within the more traditional sitcom format, it's the more revelatory of the two. In an odd but effective gimmick, the entire program is composed of point-of-view shots. Often these belong to roommates Mark (Mitchell) or Jeremy (Webb), but sometimes they show what other characters see. We also hear bits of inner monologue from Mark and Jeremy. Both devices express the uneasy relationship Mark and Jeremy have with the world -- and with each other.
The Mark-Jeremy dynamic will be familiar to anyone who's seen a buddy comedy; Jeremy is the brash but somewhat dimwitted bloke, while the marginally brighter – and gainfully employed – Mark is tentative and neurotic. The first episode of Season Three offers nearly archetypal stories for each of them: Mark delays sex with his sweet, tolerant girlfriend Sophie (Olivia Colman) out of anxiety over a recent mugging, while Jeremy delays a break-up in hopes of capitalizing on a promising threesome.
Although the stories often revolve around sex and/or bad behavior, the show's biggest laughs come less from the occasional gross-out or transgression than glimpses into male insecurity, as when Mark's inner monologue exalts after a minor triumph in the second episode: "I'm just a normal functioning member of the human race and there's no one who can prove otherwise!" Later in the episode, after having a troubled friend committed to a mental health facility, Jeremy starts idly wondering if other problems might be solved by having additional friends committed.
Though each disguises it differently, Mark and Jeremy both tend to live a state of panic. In an amusing running thread throughout the series, the purported heterosexuals both seem prone to friend-crushes on other men, perhaps owing to a fear of women, an admiration of men who appear have their lives together, actual latent homosexuality, or some combination of the three.
That Mitchell and Webb Look
Despite or because of these insecurities, the two friends don't treat each other very well. In the third episode, Jeremy convinces himself he's being quite reasonable when he locks a stricken Mark in his room so he can have a mushroom party at the apartment. It's this low-key contentiousness that drives the show's unsparing sense of humor. For the most part, Peep Show doesn't indulge in nastiness for its own sake; it's not that Mark and (especially) Jeremy are callous and spiteful (though they can be) so much that they appear unable to exert any sense of control over their lives. Hence, hilariously sad boasts, like Jeremy's drunken supermarket pronouncement in the first episode: "Doing the big shop, doing it brilliantly," he says while filling his cart with alcohol, crisps, and dips. There's always a danger of dark sitcoms tipping too far into cruel shock-comedy territory, but for the moment, this one remains more realistically mortifying.
Indeed, like so many sitcoms of the past decade, Peep Show is influenced by Seinfeld. In this case, it's a bit like watching two George Costanzas. By contrast, That Mitchell and Webb Look feels less refined, roughly equivalent to watching a Jerry Seinfeld stand-up routine alongside a sharp, ensemble-enhanced late-period Seinfeld episode.
The first two episodes are rife with observational humor about everyday life, as well as pop-cultural phenomena, like Seinfeld routines crossed with more concise versions of the sketches found on Saturday Night Live: fake commercials, game-show spoofs, and one-joke bits like a pompous brain surgeon at a party, telling others that their work "isn't exactly brain surgery" (he eventually meets a rocket scientist, natch). Far better is an ongoing sketch about a quiz show in a post-apocalyptic world ravaged by an unnamed "event," in which contestants answer cheery questions like, "What was water?"
Sketch shows are, of course, hit and miss by nature. Mitchell and Webb point out as much in a quick bit in the second episode. The actors play themselves going over the sketch order for their next episode, designating the hits and misses, and wondering aloud about why they go to the trouble of writing and filming the misses in the first place. Then they note that some people will find their sketches too self-referential and smug.
Self-referential, certainly, and not always productively. But Mitchell and Webb never come across as smug. Their characters are too flailing, too desperate for some level of confidence. That Mitchell and Webb Look has more than its share of self-referential jokes, but in Peep Show, the characters' ability to calculate their parade of life mistakes brilliantly evokes destructive male self-consciousness.