Review: Wicked And Witty INSIDE NO.9 Brings Innovation to Television Comedy

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Review: Wicked And Witty INSIDE NO.9 Brings Innovation to Television Comedy
The apocalyptic prophecies about the impending doom of television did not materialise and serialized (television) fiction blossoms thanks to alternative distribution channels. Apart from the technological upgrade to hybrid television and the enhancement of consumer´s interactivity and transmediality, the classic formats are reinvigorated in the light of current tug-of-war game of luring and stealing consumers at a furious pace and incremental content expansion. In the turbulent times of change, the value of true creative luminaries in the medium have turned them into certified household names among audiences. 

Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton are such luminaries of British comedy and confirmed their creative powers with the cult dark comedy series The League of Gentlemen. Since parting ways with Mark Gatiss, the creative juices kept flowing and materialized into Psychoville. While keeping the darker comedy poetics as the base of their cult, they managed to elude any one-trick-pony self-imprisonment or self-recycling. The latest outing from the gentleman duo, comedy-drama anthology Inside No. 9 does not seal their status in the contemporary British television canon, it actually somewhat elevates it closer to pioneering ranks. 

The anthology, now rushing to its second series finale, is composed of six episodes, each a self-contained story. Dramaturgically well-crafted plotlines boasting surprising twists and turns are mainly character-driven, usually with the central duo in leads. With Pemberton and Shearsmith penning, acting and from the second series on also directing, Inside No. 9 is the product of auteur television, though kudos goes to David Kerr, Guillem Morales, Dan Zeff in the rotating directors chair, and to art direction, production design, makeup and others for the compelling synergy in the final product. However, Inside No. 9 will be for the purposes of this review referred as Pemberton and Shearsmith´s show onwards. 

After so many scriptwriting credits, neither Shearsmith nor Pemberton seem to suffer from burnout syndrome or cannibalizing tendencies and several episodes show new highs of comedic television. The opening episode of the first season, 'Sardines', using the infantile game as a narrative device for excavation of old wrongdoings, doesn´t prove more than experienced and firm hand at screenwriting and Shearsmith and Pemberton´s unrestrained register of cabaret performances.  Each episode occurs in a single closed space marked by the number 9. This spatial minimalism foregrounds the writing and acting elements as fundamentals.

Following the first episode, the duo appears to endorse the working standard their fans have come to expect. However, the breakthrough arrives in the second episode, 'A Quiet Night In'.
A home invasion formula with two cat burglars turns into the finest 29-minutes that may have been emanated from a TV screen in all of 2014. The amazingly well-penned plot relies solely on physical performance, as almost no line is spoken throughout the entire episode. Pemberton and Shearsmith transposed silent films tropes (Oona Chaplin, granddaughter of Charlie Chaplin, stars in the episode) unto the television format. Calling the episode the television event of the year wouldn´t be overrating the duo´s efforts, as pointing towards the progressive development on small screens conducted by two venerable talents light years ahead of the sexist and rather primitive Benny Hill antics. Though the singularity of the series pinnacle, 'A Quiet Nigh In' was not matched in following episodes, the motley of wonderfully deranged characters, dark comedy and superb storytelling did not lower the bar disappointing levels. In 'Tom& Gerri' (episode 3), the authors dusted off a schizo-paranoic template, yet still managed to surprise, while 'Last Gasp' (episode 4) pokes fun at celebrity death culture and the last episode, 'The Harrowing', brings comic elements to Lovercraftian territory. 

The return back on screens in March provoked mixed feelings on whether both gentlemen would be capable of maintaining the rather high standard set after the first season in such a short timespan for creative refreshment. 'La Couchette', the opening episode, was closer to 'Sardines' than any other episode, though the gratuitous toilet humour painted darker expectations of what´s to come and concerns about the direction and show´s future when the duo stuck hands into the gross-out comedy bag straight away. 

The creators play a game with viewers, intentionally misleading them, planting the scatological insertion as a ruse. The second episode, '12 Days of Christine', exploded on screen with a massive bang. Powerful immersive drama repressing the comic element to the necessary minimum, The League of Gentlemen alumni repeat the mastery of 'Quiet Night In' albeit in different territory and through other formal means. The closely-knitted snapshots from the life of Christine joined by jump cuts created a seamless episode steering towards an unforeseeable cathartic finale.

With comic antics toned down, the melancholia emerges and brushes shoulders with existentialism as Christine (brought to life in a stellar performance by Sheridan Smith) confusingly glides through life in a cocoon of self-doubt. Another pinnacle in the same show by the same folks proves that 'A Quiet Night In' was not just an outcome of whimsical coincidence. The symbiosis of collective work pays off most visibly in '12 Days of Christine', boldly exceeding the standards of the television format despite the show´s overall minimalism. The episode yields the aesthetics of cinema, one of the reasons standing behind the great (exporting) success of Scandinavian crime series, and the writers constructed a television counterpart to so-called puzzle films, very cleverly scattering the clues which viewers can appreciate in hindsight.

Television production has been repeatedly accused of being merely a cloning machine, an assembly-line of repetition with no innovation. Inside No. 9 demonstrates the dormant potential of opening doors that have been so long hidden for unknown reasons. The fourth episode of the second season, 'Cold Comfort', is shot in the fashion of CCTV system set in the offices of a help support line pushing the formal envelope again further dividing the screen into four panels. The bigger one records newcomer Andy in his cubicle as he strives to help confused callers while the three small ones monitor open space, Andy´s boss´ office and a hallway.

Though the majority of the magic of episode stems from superb writing, the formal aspect breathes in the needed air of novelty. Shearsmith and Pemberton did big steps in liberating the television production from the formulaic shackles entering a new dimension of innovative approach. Hopefully, the trend will evolve into much bigger affairs, beyond Shearsmith and Pemberton's zone.

It may seem as unjust deification and adoration of two well-established actor-writers, however their names have been already etched in the pantheon of television comedy next to Chris Morris, Charlie Brooker, Graham Lineham, and naturally the scriptwriting god of television comedy, David Renwick. The reason why the superlatives are legit in the case of Shearsmith and Pemberton's latest endeavour, and why the innovative value of Inside No. 9 is even more precious, is the fact that they are working from the TV comedy niche, yet their work reaches far beyond those borders. They have managed to overcome the limitations and formulas so rampant in the medium, and emerged with a breakthrough work. 

And it´s still a completely different kind of work compared to Morris´ political (provocative) stunts over the decades, or Brooker´s techno-social satires on Black Mirror. The mercurial nature of episodes with a constantly changing ratio of drama and comedy, no hesitation to dip into serious matters and being still ahead of viewers expectations while eschewing the worn-out clichés among the already established dark brand of humour and most notably the fearlessness to experiment and focus on form are the massive building bricks of the series success. 

Season One of Inside no. 9 is available on DVD. The second season runs on BBC2 and the region 2 DVD can be already pre-ordered

Watch the episode 'Cold Comfort', below.
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anthologyBBCdark comedyInside No.9Reece ShersmithseriesSteve PembertonTVUK