By Marten Dollinger, Movies Section Editor
Anyone with a passing familiarity with contemporary British comedy probably has a fifty percent chance of knowing That Mitchell and Webb Look, most likely due to the individual sketches popping up on YouTube in the past few years. Slightly less known is their award-winning but not exactly breakaway hit Peep Show, starring the same comedians and written by Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain. The series has aired on the British public broadcast station Channel 4 since 2003. Winning several comedy awards, Peep Show has been renewed for an 8th and 9th season, making it something like Britain’s best kept secret in television. This is largely due to the fact that it’s kind of weird. It’s shot using POV angles, and nothing else. Other than that, it’s pretty much your standard sitcom. The style may alienate a wider audience, but those it charms, in combination with Mitchell and Webb’s success on their own series, brings Peep Show a kind of support-base not dissimilar to that described by the Thousand True Fans model, albeit on a much larger scale.
Peep Show is shot exclusively through POV angles, putting the viewer in the place of whichever character we’re meant to be following at the time. This is done using cameras mounted on hats, held over the shoulder, or placed directly in front of the actor. The effect is not original, and the creators cite Being John Malkovich as the inspiration for this particular use of the shooting style. The series also makes heavy use of voice-over, further strengthening the feeling of being inside the mind of whichever character through which we’re currently seeing the world.
We generally see this world through the eyes of Mark Corrigan (David Mitchell) or Jeremy Usborne (Robert Webb), in a traditional sitcom setting of two not-quite-middle-aged roommates just trying to get by and overcome whatever insecurities they may or may not realize they have. The first season is chock-full of awkward situations, generally associated with one or both characters’ romantic failures. In fact, if it weren’t for the POV gimmick, Peep Show wouldn’t have all that much to differentiate it from other sitcoms. The overall effect is kind of Spaced meets The Office.
What we have, then, is a not really original shooting style with a not exactly groundbreaking set of stories. So whence the sustainable popularity and awards? While the style isn’t original, it has never been used entirely on its own, and when you think about it, there are only so many ways to write a sitcom. It’s the combination of the obscure visual mechanic and the tried-and-true sitcom tropes that make the show work like something new and original without being terribly new and original. Co-star David Mitchell has this to say about Peep Show, and sitcoms in general: “They’re about people feeling like they’ve failed and being trapped and fearful of things getting worse and aspirational about things getting better. We were about to use those classic constants without being accused of being unoriginal because the look and feel of it was so original.” Take a second to think about your favorite sitcom, and then every other sitcom you watch. They all pretty much follow this pattern, right? Each one just has its own gimmick. Cheers was at a bar, Friends had that theme song, How I Met Your Mother has the story-telling thing, The Big Bang Theory has geek references,The Office has the documentary crew, and Peep Show has that same sort of voyeurism, but without the crew.
What makes Peep Show special and successful in a very specific way is its comedic prowess combined with a shooting style reserved for either very short takes or the avant-garde. Basically, you have an audience that probably loved both versions of The Office, enjoys That Mitchell and Webb Look and probably anything Simon Pegg does, and, most importantly, buys the DVDs. Just over a million viewers isn’t generally enough to keep a show on the air, but when all of those viewers are pretty likely to buy the DVD of the series, there’s a bit more leeway. The aforementioned Thousand True Fans theory comes in here. In a nutshell, the theory states that you don’t have to be super-famous to make it as an artist, you just have to be famous enough. Specifically, you need to pick up at least a thousand “true” fans, who will each pay at least a days wages over the course of a year buying your stuff or coming to your shows. This is just a larger, televised version of that model; Peep Show has basically attained cult status while still on the air. On this scale, the show’s success depends on the few viewers supporting the series enough to bring it back each season. It also has a boost from Mitchell and Webb’s growing profile as a comedic duo.
Weird as the show is, Peep Show is just another sitcom. It’s a handful of people living out their lives and having silly things happen to them for our amusement. Ordinary as it is, people love the gimmick and the comedians enough to keep it on the air. It keeps the voyeuristic feel of The Office, only arguably in a more pure form, since we’re voyeurs to the mind of the characters, and we see directly how other characters act with them. Or maybe not, and it’s just novelty. Either way, exactly enough people love it to keep it around. Perhaps further research will unveil why this works in the UK, but Firefly still hasn’t come back for another season.