TITLE: Inside No. 9
GENRE: ‘Darkly comic’
STARRING: Nikki Amuka-Bird, Fiona Shaw, Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith
PRODUCTION COMPANY/DISTRIBUTION/COUNTRY: BBC Two
RATING: 5 missing loafers
WHERE CAN I SEE IT? Series 1 is available in the U.S. on iTunes; Series 2 and 3 on DVD in the U.S.
Inside No. 9, much like Black Mirror, is the type of show you’ll remember for the first episode you ever saw. You’ll also ask yourself, “Who made this show…and who let them get away with it?” The answer is BBC Two, which is often referred to as the Beeb’s highbrow channel, and has edgier and darker comedy than BBC One. And more power to them for doing it because Inside No. 9 is hugely freaky and unnerving. (I like my TV like I like my men: freaky and unnerving. J/k, weirdos!)
I’m just coming into Inside No. 9 on series three and am glad I entered not knowing much about it. So on that count, I’ll try not to spoil too much of it for you.
On the surface level, think of Inside No. 9 as a contemporary update of The Twilight Zone.
The original conceit was a set of stories, each taking place at the address “No. 9” and you never know what you’re going to get when you go behind the door. That idea seems to have dropped away by the most recent series.
With each episode, the show’s creators, who are also often featured actors, Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith, suck you in with richly drawn, quirky characters most of whom you probably wouldn’t want to be stuck in an elevator with. And yet, as weirdly depicted as they are, some of the characters are also endearing and you want them to escape whatever macabre scenario Shearsmith and Pemberton have dreamed up.
The first episode I saw was from series three and is called “Diddle Diddle Dumpling” (here’s the English nursery rhyme the title alludes to). David, either unemployed or just a lot of time on his hands, finds a black men’s shoe in his front yard one day on his way home. He embarks on a drawn out mission to reunite the show with its owner. Posting signs, placing ads, even setting traps to see that, as his wife Louise describes it, “a single…tramp’s shoe that you’ve found in the street,” makes it back onto the foot of whomever lost it. Because surely one can’t function with just one shoe? The acting is so good that you empathize both with Louise’ frustration at David’s insistence on harboring a lost shoe and David’s insistence that this mission is giving his life some sort of meaning that doesn’t become apparent until the end of the episode. And even then, you’re dubious if there will be a reveal. Is David simply mental? Or is he right that it’s not just a shoe?
Each episode is standalone, though, there’s a lot of overlap in actors across them. But this repetition of faces, using different wigs, styling and costume only adds to Inside No. 9’s top shelf performances. The episodes definitely feel like small stage plays, but not in the stilted way some theatrical performances can feel when they move from stage to TV.
A warning, though, some episodes can be pretty violent and are best avoided if you’re squeamish, like one called, “The Bill.” A group of old friends’ dinner outing turns violent as they argue over who’s picking up the tab. Their fraught relationships are exposed as they grab and Russel for the check.
But, overall, there are some great setups. One can imagine sitting in a waiting room, being a volunteer for a support line, or attending an art exhibition opening and wondering, “Huh. What kind of story could happen here?”
Shearsmith and Pemberton take those musing and craft clever and spooky stories about our mundane interactions to great effect.