What do you do when the series that you’ve worked on for more than a decade – one that’s attained cult status, spawned BuzzFeed listicles and earned you famous fans on both sides of the Atlantic – has finally come to an end? For David Mitchell and Robert Webb, the stars of the beloved Britcom Peep Show, which ran on the U.K.’s Channel 4 from 2003 to 2015, the answer was obvious: Get to work on another series.
“We were sort of staring into the abyss of a post Peep Show world,” explains Webb, calling from London. Mitchell concurs: “We’ve been working together since we were students. We sort of forged our careers together, really. It was absolutely our intention to keep working together.” Cut the next act of their comedy partnership: Back, a six-episode series that premiered in the U.K. in September, and is now streaming on Sundance Now.
The premise is simple enough: Mitchell plays Stephen Nichols, a sad sack in his 40s – divorced, a failed lawyer and riddled with anxiety. He’s tasked with operating his family’s pub after his father passes away. Webb plays Andrew Donnolly, a slick, worldly gent who was a foster child in the Nichols household when both men were tweens. The patriarch’s death brings him out of the woodwork 30 years later, ready to ingratiate himself with the family. In the process, he also wreaks havoc on semi-sibling, though it’s unclear whether this is unintentional or part of a larger plot in which the the prodigal son intends to, per Stephen, “steal my family, my business, and my life.”
Fans of Peep Show will find themselves on familiar ground: Mitchell’s Stephen is what the actor calls an “intelligent loser,” not wholly unlike that series’ Mark Corrigan, who was defined by his neuroses and bleak outlook on life. “Take the sharp edges to the character I play[ed] in Peep Show,” Mitchell says, “and add a decade of miserable experience. You get Stephen.”
Webb’s Andrew is the polar opposite; he’s flashy and cool, a world traveler who easily charms Stephen’s hippy-dippy mother and aimless sister. Beneath that glib exterior, however, is something slightly more sinister. “Part of the fun of the show is working out what the hell Andrew is doing,” says Webb, who calls the character “a brilliant liar.” He continues: “The challenge of the character really is to find this line between a slightly needy guy who needs a lot of approval, and, on the other hand, maybe we don’t know but possibly someone with this implacable streak of malice.”
These characters, and the story itself, are the brainchild of In the Loop and The Thick of It writer Simon Blackwell, who spent the past few years as an executive producer on Veep (for which he won an Emmy in 2015). Mitchell and Webb approached him as Peep Show was coming to an end and asked him to come up with a series they could do together. “I just kind of liked that central idea of someone coming back into your life after those years and saying, ‘Hello. I’m your brother,'” he says. “And remembering things he had either forgotten or might not have happened. Much of the conflict, and the comedy, comes from that.”
One thing that does put Back in sharp contrast to Peep Show is the fact that the characters, and the men who play them, are older now; they’re less concerned with bedding women and running ridiculous schemes than they are with figuring out what the hell happened to their lives. Stephen, who’s stuck in his small hometown of Stroud, is already in the throes of a mid-life crisis when the more worldly Andrew – who, as Webb notes, “has been around and he’s lived and he’s done all kinds of crazy things in different parts of the world”—reappears in his life. “[When you’re younger] there is always hope for the future. When you’re older, this is kind of it – this is what his life is going to be,” says Webb. “The stakes are higher for older men, I suppose.”
And while it may not be obvious to Americans watching the series, the specter of the Brexit referendum – which, Mitchell notes, was happening just as they were finishing the series pilot – looms large over the series. “That feeling of, ‘What is authenticity? What are we really?’ I think has cut to the heart of the show, and that was ultimately the thing underlying Brexit,” Mitchell explains. “I thought it was perfectly timed for a show about that kind of middle-aged doubt and identity crisis.”
Still, for all of the heavy questions about middle age, identity and provinciality that Back raises, it’s a comedy – and often a pitch-black one at that. (In a particularly cringe-worthy moment, Stephen is alone in a library, swigging whiskey and eating the British version of Cup O’ Noodles, cheering over an unsavory revelation about his nemesis.) Blackwell, who wrote all six episodes, says that he “tried to cram as much story in as possible” into each episode, and there are jokes aplenty about hipster food trucks, organized religion, debunking homeopathic medicine and more. The ensemble cast – which includes Sherlock’s Louise Brealey (as Cass, Stephen’s flighty sister) and The Thick of It’s Olivia Poulet (who plays Stephen’s ex-wife, Alison) – add to the mix.
At the heart of it all, though, is the partnership between Mitchell and Webb – a duo who still have the same brilliant chemistry that made Peep Show and That Mitchell and Webb Look, the pair’s sketch series, such peerless comdies. (“It’s so great to work with [David] again because I miss him,” Webb says.) And now that Back has been renewed for a second series, the mystery of who Andrew is, and what his motives are, may finally be revealed – or, at the very least, unspooled a bit.
“I think once we know exactly what Andrew’s up to, that’s the end of the show,” Webb says. “I’m sure there are lots of reveals and secrets that we can tell as we go along, and I for one am looking forward to finding out. Because I don’t know any more than the viewer does. I really don’t.”