The preparations for Mark and Sophie’s wedding form the major storyline running through Peep Show’s fourth season. In a conventional sitcom—the U.S. version ofThe Office, say—welding two of the main characters together in holy matrimony might serve as an official announcement that the creative team has run out of ideas for keeping the show fresh and funny. Rather than breaking a sweat trying to come up with some new ones, the writers of this theoretical sitcom are instead offering to make a deal with the ’shippers in the audience: This is no longer a comedy but an opportunity to check in once a week on your favorite made-up people, to watch them build a life together and grow, and anything that happens that makes you laugh is gravy. If you’re nice about it, maybe there’ll be a baby, and then nothing on the show will ever make you laugh again, ever. It’ll be as if your TV set is lactating.
For Peep Show, a wedding is a challenge presented, a threat to the show’s bracingly unsentimental tone, to be met with ever-escalating levels of cruel wit and vicious sarcasm, the likes of which had not been seen on TV since that one summer evening in 1993 when Christopher Hitchens had his own show on Comedy Central. (“It’s heroin for news junkies,” Hitch promised in the commercials. I was watching a lot of Comedy Central in the early ’90s, mainly because Comedy Central was airing a lot of Mystery Science Theater 3000 in the early ’90s, and I’m pretty sure that I spent more time watching commercials for Hitchens’ show than the show itself spent on the air.)
“Sophie’s Parents” (season four, episode one; originally aired 4/13/2007)
The first scene of Mark and Sophie together in a store immediately establishes the nature of their post-engagement relationship and how Mark feels about it. He is wearing a stylish beard that belongs on his face about as much as the Grand Prix from Cannes belongs on Uwe Boll’s mantelpiece, and Sophie is trying to help him pick out clothes for his “new look,” including a T-shirt decorated with the face of Chairman Mao. “I’m getting married,” Mark thinks as they embrace, “to a woman I may not love, and I’ve got stupid, fashionable hair all over my face.” Sophie, he reflects, is “dragging me into the 21st century, with its meaningless logos and ironic veneration of tyrants.”
She also drags him, with Jez in tow, out to the family farm, where her father is waiting to stick a gun in his mitts and lead him on a patrol of the grounds, and her mum compliments Mark on his beard: “It makes you look handsome, like a policeman!” There’s also an aimless younger brother, so adrift that he sees Jez, the aspiring musician with no career who lives in the big city, as hero-worship material. “I’m just the toy they brought along for the weirdo to chew on,” pouts Jez. He has the right idea, but he’s not quite there: It’s Sophie’s mum who is looking for a new toy, and the two of them fall into compromising positions together while everyone else is out of the house. “It’s almost like a moral decision,” thinks Jez, “except not really, since probably no one will find out.”
The real comedy bonanza of the episode is dad, who starts out grumpy about this fellow sniffing around his daughter, but soon reveals that he’s actually stone miserable about his own life. “If there’s one littler bit of doubt,” he tells Mark during their man-to-man chat, “well, after 30 years… just don’t get older, that’s all I have to say.” (Squatting in a barn, he mutters, “It’s full of crap no one has any use for. Maybe that’s why I feel so at home here.”) Something about this near-suicidal old duffer’s despair makes Mark himself feel almost at home, and he gets so comfortable that he happens to mention, within earshot, that he doesn’t love Sophie. His prospective father-in-law orders him to tell her the truth.
Again, in an ordinary sitcom this would lead to the moment when Mark looks into Sophie’s eyes and realizes that he is indeed in love with her and had just been experiencing an attack of cold feet. Here, he re-commits to the marriage not when he’s looking into the eyes of his beloved but at their wedding gift from the family—Sophie’s grandmother’s cottage, a charming little place that Mark excitedly sums up as “prime real estate,” a windfall that might bring them enough money to buy two vacation places, so they wouldn’t really have to see each other that often. “She’s lovely” Mark thinks of Sophie, as he re-adjusts his vision of the future, one more time. “She’s attractive. She does irritate me. But most people irritate me!”
- The clearest time stamp on this episode is that everyone is talking about the resignation of Tony Blair. Jez suggests that maybe, to fill the hours of his retirement, he can start a band, with Bono on vocals on Bill Clinton on sax. “Yeh,” grunts Super Hans, “that is definitely gonna happen. Geldof’s gonna shit!”
“Conference” (season four, episode two; originally aired 4/02/2007)
With the state of Mark’s personal life well established, the second episode of this season gets down to the business of sending his professional life into a major downward spiral, from which—spoiler alert!—it has not yet fully recovered. Johnson callously sets Mark up for certain failure by putting him in charge of a “work study group” whose job is to hash out a plan for the consolidation of two different departments, then dazzle everyone at the upcoming big meeting with their brilliant solution. This episode introduces Gerard, who will later become Mark’s romantic rival and near-doppelgänger, and who, interestingly enough, is the last person on the team to put up with his neurotic, abusive outbursts, after everyone else has stormed out. There is a partial sign of what’s to come in Mark’s thoughts as he lays eyes on Gerard for the first time: “Tube up his nose, there’s a man with a tube up his nose!”
The climax provides one of the funniest and most extreme demonstrations of how thoroughly Mark is not cut out for, well, pretty much anything besides sitting contentedly in his home and comparing incidents in his life to the events at Stalingrad. As the minutes before the meeting tick away and he still has nothing to show for it, he opts to run away. Literally: He jumps out the office window and hides behind a bush. For the first few minutes, it’s all very exciting. “Maybe I’ll go to a KFC and have a whole bargain bucket. Or I could join al-Qaida.” His time on the manic end of the scale builds to the glorious cry, “Fuck the Blockbuster fine! I’m going clear!” After Sophie finds him cowering at the edge of the parking lot and urges him to return to the offices and just tell the truth, he does his best to keep his spirits up. “Maybe she’s right. Maybe the truth does work. Maybe Iraq was a good idea. Maybe I’m outing enough into my pension plan. Maybe computer games aren’t a waste of time. Maybe O.J.’s innocent. Maybe everything’s going to be okay!"
Definitely not okay: Jez’s relationship with Big Suze, which pretty much hits the wall when Johnson gets a look at her and, as suavely as he possibly can, asks if Jez would consider pimping her out. Damned if Jez doesn’t try. “I’m a human being, Jeremy,” protests Big Suze, her face a soft mask of hurt. “From one perspective,” says Jeremy. This turns out as badly as it could from Jez’s perspective: Big Suze will never forgive him, but when she goes to give Johnson a piece of her mind, his smarmy charms coax her into bed with him anyway. “It’s fun!” she tells Jez when they greet him together in their robes. “We eat breakfast off each other.” Johnson, who talks a good game about being some kind of futuristic semi-Vulcan alpha male with no place in his life for the tender emotions that confuse and slow down the lesser orders, isn’t too proud to admit that he is deeply smitten. There may be some consolation for Mark and Jez that he, too, is drowning, not waving, even if he manages to look like a ballet dancer while it’s happening.
- The big meeting on which Mark’s career hinges begins very unpromisingly, with Johnson saying, “Everyone’s wondering why you climbed in through the window, Mark.” Mark, bravely refusing to go down without a fight: “Yeah, well, I don’t play by the rule book, what can I say?”