“On The Pull” (season one, episode three; originally aired 10/3/2003)
Have you ever seen the story that ran in the debut issue of the Dennis The Menace comic book series from the 1950s? I have, because Fawcett reprinted it once, complete with annotations, commenting on how it might look a little different from the Dennis The Menace fans had grown used to. It was different, in a couple of important ways. First, whoever did the coloring did Dennis’ cowlick wrong, so that, instead of a solid mass of yellow hair with a couple of lines drawn across it, it appeared to be two weird, parallel hunks of hair with his forehead visible between them; and, secondly, Dennis, while out being a scamp, foiled some armed robbers who were trying to hold up a bank. The editorial that came with the reprint acknowledged that this was a little wilder than things ever got in the newspaper strip, where Hank Ketcham was running the store, and assured readers that from that point on, the publisher was vigilant about not running stories in which Dennis’ mischievous antics might have led to him getting his head blown off. I assume that whoever wrote that first issue was thrashed to within an inch of his life and then assigned to Millie The Model for the rest of his existence, which I hope was at least better than whatever they did to the colorist who fucked up Dennis’ cowlick.
The third episode of Peep Show isn’t quite as jarring as that, and Mark’s hair looks fine, but he does go to a club—or at least a bowling alley—and enjoys recreational pharmaceuticals with a much younger woman, which is right there on the brink of being Out Of Character. On the other hand, the first few scenes here, which show just the degree to which Mark has to dragged, kicking and whinging, in the direction of fun, may be as fully in-character as he will ever be. Jez has interrupted Mark’s shopping to inform him that they’ve both been “invited to a very wicked party,” which Jez sees as his chance to make his move on their slinky neighbor, Toni. Mark agrees to be hauled along, though his prediction that nothing that is not painful can result from this makes for an eloquent and convincing argument for cocooning. “How much pain can I experience,” he wonders, “at home with spaghetti carbonara and Das Boot?”
For me, this episode never gets better (because Mark never gets more purely Mark) than the scene at the party when he retreats to the bathroom and idly makes himself feel better by itemizing the contents of the host’s medicine cabinet: “A fellow migraine sufferer,” he thinks, approvingly, taking great satisfaction in the discovery that someone in close proximity to him has psoriasis. “Everyone at this party isn’t as young, fit, and single as they’re making out. We’re all falling apart, piece by piece.” But eventually, he attracts the approving eye of young Valerie, an inevitable turn of events—if only because it wouldn’t be a party if the gods did not conspire to deflate Jez’s fantasy that it’s he who is catnip to the ladies. With Toni along for the ride, they all repair to Laser Bowl, with Mark high as a kite on his newfound irresponsibility: “I’ve been initiated! I am a drug user. Fuck the police!” Jez, meanwhile, concentrates on disgusting Toni with his fervent embrace of the buffet. “It’s ‘eat as much as you can eat,’” he says defensively. “No,” she sneers, “It’s ‘eat as much as you like.’ There’s no competitive element.”
Things take a turn for the weird when Mark and his new friend run into Sophie, who is out on a date with Mark’s hated rival, Jeff, the walking smirk. Mark is mortified, but after it becomes clear that Sophie is a little jealous to see him with another girl, and the girl is happy to fawn over Mark while needling Jeff, Mark has to admit that “For the worst thing that could possibly happen, this is actually going extremely well.” All in all, Mark basically comes to the end of this half hour with most of his dignity intact and a minimum of fresh scarring. Not so Jez, who Toni drags home to her apartment and makes out with violently, all in the hope of stopping the heart of her ex-husband, who is on the premises, dividing up their shit.
Both flat mates end up having sex, but it’s Jez who has to endure being straddled by a beautiful woman while she screams, not at him, “You can be as loud as you like! This is great! I’m having great sex!!” (“Yeah, yeah,” mutters the ex-husband from the next room, presumably while deciding what number to write down on the scoring card he’ll be holding up when they’re done.) The last act is a landmark moment for Peep Show, because it’s the moment when the show first establishes that there is no such thing as good sex in its universe. When people are crawling on top of each other, the camera never backs down from its trademark close-P.O.V. angle, a surefire visual strategy for making sexual intercourse look like something no sane person would ever want to go through.
“Mark Makes A Friend” (season one, episode four; originally aired 10/10/2003)
This episode introduces Paterson Joseph as Alan Johnson, a loan manager at Mark’s office who is fated to become his boss and one of the great terrors of his existence. But at first, Mark sees him as role model, and develops a massive man-crush on him. Mark goes so far as to try to dress like Johnson and to grow a remarkably unflattering imitation of Johnson’s mustache. He will even go so far as to jump at the chance to drive Johnson’s flashy new car, attempting to impress Sophie in the process, despite the fact that Mark doesn’t know how to drive and is not naturally gifted at it. The car is damaged; Sophie remains unimpressed, though her feelings for Mark are not without that ultimate aphrodisiac: pity.
In the end, Johnson is so cool that he blows off the damage done to the car, which outrages Jez, who had hoped that this might become a wedge between Johnson and Mark. (It was Jez who urged Mark to summon the courage to take the wheel, assuring him, “All you have to do is believe.”) Jez is always threatened by any man who seems to be important to Mark, though I can’t remember Mark ever having similar feelings about any of Jez’s bromances, including the great love of Jez’s life, Super Hans. Jez begins this episode regaining consciousness after a drug binge—“You passed out,” Super Hans tells him. “Thought the table was being ironic”—with a nagging feeling of having done something terrible. What happened?” he asks Super Hans. “That’ll probably become clear later,” comes the reply. “Like the French Revolution.”
For a time, Jez thinks the “bad thing” that happened was destroying Mark’s laptop by playing with it in the bathtub. (The computer contained an early draft of the magnum opus that Mark will be working on throughout the series, Business Secrets Of The Pharaohs.) But, in fact, the “bad thing” is exactly what you first imagined it might be, you dirty-minded thing, you. While Jez is wrestling with his unacknowledged, unacknowledgable, painfully repressed homoerotic urges, Mark, having thought about how crazy he is about Johnson and done the math, is watching gay porn, trying to decide if he’s prepared to make that leap: “Watch without prejudice. I’m just testing the waters. I’m a sexual scientist.” His trump card: “It was very popular with the Romans, and they got a lot done!” Peep Show has one hero who knows himself as well as he knows ancient Sumerian, and another whose conscious mind ate his subconscious for breakfast years ago. Whichever way you’re living your own life, totally clueless or hyper-self-aware, it’ll dispel any idea you might have that the grass is greener on the other side.