PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.

Reviews

'Inside No. 9' Is a Bit Like a Box of Chocolates, Albeit One Full of Dark, Bitter Sweets

Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton turn down the grotesque but amp up the insidious mixture of morbid comedy and genuine creepiness for this series of stand-alone tales.


Inside No. 9: Series One

Distributor: BBC
Cast: Reece Shearsmith, Steve Pemberton, Gemma Arterton, Helen McCrory, Katherine Parkinson, Julia Davis, Tamsin Grieg
Network: BBC
UK Release date: 03-24-2014
Amazon

Welcome to No. 9. Depending on which door you open, you’re now in a flat, or a stage dressing room, or an old mansion, or a suburban home. Pleasingly for Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton’s dark anthology series, each door opens onto a strikingly different experience – although this makes it slightly difficult to review as an entire entity. They’re united, as with the pair’s previous work Psychoville, by a mercurial synthesis of morbid comedy, wicked social commentary and a genuine creepiness.

Add a consistently impressive roster of actors, from television regulars like Julia Davis and Katherine Parkinson to unexpected names like Gemma Arterton, and the collection as a whole is a delicious treat. I’m sure Pemberton and Shearsmith wouldn’t be in favour of skirting too close to Forrest Gump territory, but it is a bit like a box of chocolates – albeit one full of dark, bitter sweets.

Inside No.9 is also, naturally,incredibly British, evidenced from the off in opening salvo ‘Sardines’, in which a classic parlour game where humans ape a can of sardines by piling up inside the same hiding place leads to an entire engagement party gathering stuffed up inside a wardrobe. The fashions seem set in the '70s, and the initial courteous interactions between fiancée Rebecca (Katherine Parkinson) and ‘boring’ guest Ian (Tim Key) smack of more refined days, but there’s little question that generations have collided when young Lee (Luke Pasqualino) joins the tin.

Clichés of Britishness in various decades recur throughout the collection, particularly in the genuinely frightening, horror trope-laden closing piece ‘The Harrowing’, where Tabitha (Helen McCrory) expresses confusion about ‘the broadband’ they were offered, and in ‘The Understudy’, where grand Shakespearean actor Nick (Richard Cordery) could be beamed in from the '40s. There’s a genuine affection in how Shearsmith and Pemberton mockingly depict their nation, from the squeaked insistence that Sardines is “such fun” to the greedy panic over a balloon – which holds the dying breath of a famous pop star – in ‘Last Gasp’, easily the most acerbic and most overtly comic of the episodes.

That each episode takes a different approach to the generic elements Shearsmith and Pemberton are exploring here makes for a genuinely unpredictable experience each time out, although they are a bit too enamoured of the split personality trope that Shearsmith so boldly carries off. The pair take exciting creative risks, though. ‘A Quiet Night In’, only the second episode, is done without a single word being uttered, instead riffing on silent comedy as the writers play buffoonish burglars navigating their way through the eerie, chic house of Gerald (Denis Lawson) and trophy wife Sabrina (Oona Chaplin), whose relationship has devolved into physical bickering over the TV remote. As Shearsmith and Pemberton play out the comedy themselves, they leave it to Lawson and Chaplin to draw out a surprisingly dark marital duet, and when the episode devolves into violence, the two generic lines come together in bravura fashion.

There’s no connection between each episode, not even recurring characters, as Shearsmith and Pemberton – appearing in five of the six episodes each – tackle strikingly different characters each time out. The ordering of the episodes does feel a little off thematically, though. ‘Last Gasp’ and ‘The Harrowing’, fourth and sixth respectively, feel rather stranded by virtue of the heavier leans to the comic and horrific in each. ‘Last Gasp’ also feels like a strange diversion in its direct focus on a modern phenomenon, the celebrity scandal, and its avoidance of the creepy undertones present in the rest of the series. It doesn’t quite feel like a Shearsmith and Pemberton production, exacerbated by the fact Shearsmith, the more tactile and outlandish of the pairing, is absent from the proceedings. It’s still a clever little piece, but feels more like something from Charlie Brooker’s scathing Black Mirror.

The variations on character numbers within these single locations – each is confined to the No.9 of the title – provokes for some adept cinematography. In ‘Sardines’, finding angles within the wardrobe that effectively portray the emotional dynamics between the characters in such a tight space. ‘A Quiet Night In’ opens with a glorious long take set to some rousing classical music, elegantly taking in the blue lighting and the open plan layout of the location burglars start sneaking around. ‘The Harrowing’ echoes classics like The Innocents and more vivid modern horror like Pan’s Labyrinth, making a larger location feel as small as the rest through effective use of darkness and sound.

Inside No.9 feels more grounded than Shearsmith and Pemberton’s more grotesque work in The League of Gentlemen and Psychoville, peppered with more pointed social observation rather than the caricatured lampooning they’ve made their trademark. This means, happily, that it remains unpredictable and surprising throughout, delivering delicious little twists on standard formulas and narratives without settling into any sort of format. Moreover, they largely deliver, thanks to their own sharp, tactile writing style and a plethora of game performances from an impeccably cast set of actors.

Extras consist merely of a photo gallery and Inside ‘Inside No.9’, a brief documentary where Shearsmith, Pemberton and director David Kerr talk about the resurrection of the weekly play format and the process of bringing the project to the screen.

8

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Jefferson Starship Soar Again with 'Mother of the Sun'

Rock goddess Cathy Richardson speaks out about honoring the legacy of Paul Kantner, songwriting with Grace Slick for the Jefferson Starship's new album, and rocking the vote to dump Trump.

Books

Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll (excerpt)

Ikette Claudia Lennear, rumored to be the inspiration for Mick Jagger's "Brown Sugar", often felt disconnect between her identity as an African American woman and her engagement with rock. Enjoy this excerpt of cultural anthropologist Maureen Mahon's Black Diamond Queens, courtesy of Duke University Press.

Maureen Mahon
Music

Ane Brun's 'After the Great Storm' Features Some of Her Best Songs

The irresolution and unease that pervade Ane Brun's After the Great Storm perfectly mirror the anxiety and social isolation that have engulfed this post-pandemic era.

Music

'Long Hot Summers' Is a Lavish, Long-Overdue Boxed Set from the Style Council

Paul Weller's misunderstood, underappreciated '80s soul-pop outfit the Style Council are the subject of a multi-disc collection that's perfect for the uninitiated and a great nostalgia trip for those who heard it all the first time.

Music

ABBA's 'Super Trouper' at 40

ABBA's winning – if slightly uneven – seventh album Super Trouper is reissued on 45rpm vinyl for its birthday.

Music

The Mountain Goats Find New Sonic Inspiration on 'Getting Into Knives'

John Darnielle explores new sounds on his 19th studio album as the Mountain Goats—and creates his best record in years with Getting Into Knives.

Music

The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 60-41

PopMatters' coverage of the 2000s' best recordings continues with selections spanning Swedish progressive metal to minimalist electrosoul.

Books

Is Carl Neville's 'Eminent Domain' Worth the Effort?

In Carl Neville's latest novel, Eminent Domain, he creates complexities and then shatters them into tiny narrative bits arrayed along a non-linear timeline.

Film

Horrors in the Closet: Horrifying Heteronormative Scapegoating

The artificial connection between homosexuality and communism created the popular myth of evil and undetectable gay subversives living inside 1950s American society. Film both reflected and refracted the homophobia.

Music

Johnny Nash Refused to Remember His Place

Johnny Nash, part rock era crooner, part Motown, and part reggae, was too polite for the more militant wing of the Civil Rights movement, but he also suffered at the hands of a racist music industry that wouldn't market him as a Black heartthrob. Through it all he was himself, as he continuously refused to "remember his place".

Music

John Hollenbeck Completes a Trilogy with 'Songs You Like a Lot'

The third (and final?) collaboration between a brilliant jazz composer/arranger, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckman, and the post-1950 American pop song. So great that it shivers with joy.

Music

The Return of the Rentals After Six Years Away

The Rentals release a space-themed album, Q36, with one absolute gem of a song.

Music

Matthew Murphy's Post-Wombats Project Sounds a Lot Like the Wombats (And It's a Good Thing)

While UK anxiety-pop auteurs the Wombats are currently hibernating, frontman Matthew "Murph" Murphy goes it alone with a new band, a mess of deprecating new earworms, and revived energy.

Music

The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 80-61

In this next segment of PopMatters' look back on the music of the 2000s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.

Music

In the Tempest's Eye: An Interview with Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood's 2010 debut put them on the map, but their critical sizzle soon faded. After a 2017 comeback of sorts, the group's new record finds them expanding their sonic by revisiting their hometown with a surprising degree of reverence.

Music

Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.

Books

Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.

Music

'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.