There’s a difference between being a good comic and being a good comic actor, and between being a good comic actor and being a good actor, period. Some comics can’t make the transition from playing a sketch-comedy character to playing a real one; many lesser Saturday Night Live cast members have learned this, to their sorrow. Some comic actors don’t have the range to move beyond their comedic personas, as anyone who’s seen Adam Sandler attempt to play a non-Adam-Sandler character can attest. (Spanglish, anyone?) The ability to move between all three disciples seems comparatively rare.

In the first two episodes of Inside No. 9, we saw Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith–the writer/performers behind the series–be comedians (“A Quiet Night in”) and turn in comic supporting performances (“Sardines”). In the third and fourth episodes, “Tom and Gerri” and “Last Gasp,” we see them stretch a bit, step outside the boundaries of what they’re known for, and take on roles that, while they provide no shortage of laughs, are less overtly comedic than their previous roles on the series.

Steve Pemberton, Reece Shearsmith, and Gemma Arterton star in "Tom and Gerri"

Series 1, episode 3: “Tom and Gerri”

Guest starring Gemma Arterton, Conleth Hill.

This week on SeriesTom (Shearsmith), a schoolteacher and aspiring novelist, strikes up an unlikely friendship with Migg (Pemberton)–a friendship which triggers a downward spiral that threatens his relationship with his actress girlfriend Gerri (Arterton) as well as his job. But at least one of these characters is not what they appear to be…

If one were to sum up the basic premise of Inside No. 9 in a single log-line, that sentence might be “Character-based black comedies confined to a single location.” But that still leaves Shearsmith and Pemberton a lot of room to experiment and maneuver, as we saw with the first two episodes. “Tom and Gerri” isn’t as radical an experiment as the almost entirely silent “Quiet Night,” but it is quite different from what came before it, in that it’s largely not a comedy.

That’s not to say that “Tom and Gerri” isn’t funny. Migg isn’t too far removed from the sorts of characters Pemberton played on The League of Gentlemen; at various times, the episode feels vaguely sitcom-ish–the constant redefinition of Gerri’s latest role is a good example. But even when Shearsmith and Pemberton (and Arterton, to a lesser extent) play up the eccentricity, these are mostly straight parts. The only consistent, overt comedic element is the fourth significant character, Tom’s ex-co-worker Stevie, played with mining gusto by Conleth Hill, whom you might (or might recognize) as the scheming spymaster Varys on Game of Thrones.

Moreover, there does come a point when you realize that, if you have been laughing, most of the targets of your mirth are no laughing matter. The episode has spurred some discussion as to whether it treats its topics with due sensitivity. I can see both sides of the argument; but for myself, I find the tension generated within the viewer, when they realize they find something funny that polite society tells them they ought not to, worth the price paid.

The one hiccup, for me, was the somewhat dissatisfying ending–the ultimate understanding of the final twist left me less than sympathetic with one character’s fate, and drained it of the horror I think Shearsmith and Pemberton intended it to have. Otherwise, a solid and very enjoyable installment.

A scene from INSIDE NO. 9: "Last Gasp"

Series 1, episode 4: “Last Gasp”

Guest starring Sophie Thompson, Lucie Hutchinson, Tamsin Greig, Adam Deacon, David Bedella.

This week on SeriesThe British charity WishmakerUK sends American pop singer Frankie Parsons (Bedella) to the home of terminally ill Tamsin (Hutchinson) for a birthday party–where he unexpectedly dies of an aneurysm blowing up a balloon. Tamsin’s parents (Pemberton, Thompson), bodyguard (Deacon) and WishmakerUK handler (Grieg) realize that the dying breath of a beloved celebrity could be worth a fortune–a fortune they don’t want to share with anybody else.

Cynical and acerbic, “Last Gasp” represents an attempt at social commentary. Yet while satire is most often effective when wielded subtly, like a scalpel, Pemberton and Shearsmith seem more determined to cudgel the audience with it.

The target is, as if you couldn’t tell, celebrity culture, the way we take certain individuals and elevate them to a higher social stratus. I’m reminded of a line in Brandon Cronenberg’s film Antiviral: a character describes celebrity as a shared hallucination, one that we in society all agree to take part in. Frankie Parsons can sing–from what we hear of his music and what we’re told of it, he seems like a cross between Justin Timberlake and Michael Bublé–and as a result we decide he’s a better person than we are.

This is, quite honestly, bullshit, and if we didn’t already know that going into the episode, the two characters closest to Parsons–those played by Greig and Deacon–make it absolutely clear to us. Neither seem particularly enamored of the singer; Deacon doesn’t even like his music, while Greig pursues her career primarily to buff her own ego. One of them (I don’t remember whom) describes Parsons as not being particularly enthusiastic about the meet-and-greet; as revelations go, it’s pretty believable.

The comedy in “Last Gasp” comes chiefly from situation’s absurdity, the ridiculousness of four grown adults arguing over a child’s toy given outsized value thanks to a quirk of chance. Hutchinson anchors the episode, and serves as its MVP, as the sanest and most mature figure in this comic tragedy, while Grieg (of Black Books fame) steals several scenes with a particular blend of flamboyant misanthropy.

I liked “Last Gasp”; it goes balls-out with its insane premise and doesn’t take any prisoners. It could be argued that it would have been more effective had the satire been finer; but I think it would have robbed the episode of the thing that made it what it was. Still, I appreciate the desire to not be hit over the head with a message; I’ve criticized many narrative works for the same thing myself, and I’m not entirely sure I can put into words why those don’t work and this does. Such is art.

INSIDE NO. 9

Series 1 episode ranking

  1. “A Quiet Night In” (1.02)
  2. “Tom and Gerri” (1.03)
  3. “Last Gasp” (1.04)
  4. Sardines” (1.01)

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