The Empathy Exams: A Eulogy for Peep Show

Comedy Features
The Empathy Exams: A Eulogy for Peep Show

Everyone has media that function as comfort food, old favorites we return to when we’re feeling down. I might watch Clueless or Buffy the Vampire Slayer when I’m sick, for example. When I am in a really dark place though, when I think the world is shit and I’m never going to make it, that’s when I get the urge to watch Peep Show.

Peep Show follows Mark Corrigan (David Mitchell) and Jeremy “Jez” Usborne (Robert Webb), two roommates spectacularly bad at being normal people, for nine glorious, wretched seasons. Mark and Jeremy are habitual liars, both to others and themselves. Mark plays at being a nice, mature intellectual, and Jeremy plays at being a cool, outrageous artist. They might be convincing from the outside, but by getting inside their heads, we strip away their ability to be anything but frauds.

I usually pitch Peep Show as the UK equivalent of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. A simple character comedy about codependent friends turning slice-of-life problems into dangerous, outrageous, often disgusting disasters. I know a lot of edgy comedies like a roguishly terrible character, but Peep Show and Always Sunny are the only shows where I’ve seen characters kill and eat a dog . To prove a point. So they win. They win the worst contest.

More than just sharing a deranged point of view, both shows have a surprising depth and intelligence, especially when it comes to diving into their characters’ psychology. As cartoonish as the they may get, after so long a run of unblinking focus, it’s impossible to not understand these characters, to see the pain in their absurdity, and the desperation in their actions.

Part of the beauty of the POV filming in Peep Show is it makes everything look terrible. We feel how shabby the apartment is by almost never getting a good clear wide shot, and nearly every kiss or sex scene is filmed too uncomfortably close to be sexy. Nothing is glorified. While the show uses the voiceover device, it doesn’t use fantasy sequences or musical cues to clue the audience into how the characters are seeing the world; we just see the world as it is. Just like Mark and Jez, we can be in their space and not understand it. We can be so close to the people they know and yet feel nothing. We don’t switch over to Sophie’s, or Dobby’s, or Johnson’s heads, and this keeps our allegiance with Mark and Jeremy. I might be able to safely assume Mark did Sophie wrong, but I’m never going to hear her side of things, whereas I’ve heard an agonizing wealth of information on Mark’s perspective. I’ve got no choice but to identify with Mark and Jeremy, even though they are almost universally in the wrong.

When Jeremy tells Mark that getting a job would be a “kind of abuse” because he’s an artist, I am both Jeremy sincerely feeling that entitled sentiment, and Mark sincerely hating that lazy bastard. I’ve whined with Jeremy,“Why can’t I have everything I want all the time? Isn’t that democracy?” I’ve thought Mark’s thoughts, “I suppose doing things you hate is just the price you pay to avoid loneliness.” Or his bleaker, “How do I feel? Empty? Check. Scared? Check. Alone? Check. Just another ordinary day.” I may not hit their low lows, like Jeremy’s justification for cheating being, “It’s almost like a moral decision, but not really ‘cause no one will find out” or Mark fantasizing about shooting up his office followed by, “I’m probably exactly the kind of person who could end up doing something like that.” Yet even then I recognize those ugly instincts as not risqué jokes for shock value but brutal honesty. The sort of thing people really do say to themselves.

Peep Show doesn’t succeed in saying what nobody is saying; it succeeds in saying what people think all the time. Not to validate those thoughts — Mark and Jeremy will often immediately regret a bad thought or change their mind — but to let us know we’re not alone.

We might cringe while watching a scene, or yell, “don’t do it!” when Mark or Jez choose a particularly horrible plan, but when the big blow up happens (chasing the neighborhood kids with a pipe, eating a dog, waterboarding a roommate), we know how they got there. We signed off on at least one of those choices. We’re culpable for even wanting them to get away with it. The system’s awful, Peep Show says, and it doesn’t offer any alternatives; it just never stops reminding us that it — and the awful parts of ourselves — exist.

Mark’s area of nerd expertise is an obsession with History, specifically WWII, which provides us with a smart context for the series. The characters will often relate whatever ordinary thing they’re doing to the actions of people in war time. In the Season 7 episode, “The Nether Zone,” Mark and Jeremy get trapped in Jeremy’s boss’s apartment building after Jeremy slept with his girlfriend), and while trapped, Jeremy asks Mark what he would have done in France in WWII. Mark says that if he’s honest, he would have kept his head down, and Jeremy gives him hell about it. Jeremy claims that not only would he have joined the French resistance, but he would have gone so far as traveling to Germany to shoot Hitler himself. Jeremy says all this while climbing into the shower to hide from his boss. It’s a very funny moment, but the hypocrisy hits hard. It’s easy to think of ourselves as brave and noble, but most people have the natural instinct to hide in the shower.

Plus, in the immortal words of Super Hans, “People like Coldplay and voted for the Nazis. You can’t trust people, Jeremy.”

I’ll level with you, Peep Show will make you feel horrible. The seasons are only 6 episodes long because who could possibly take anymore? It’s like if Black Mirror was believable and made you cry laughing. It will drag you down, but it might also forgive you. In a moment when Jeremy is feeling down Mark assures him, “The absolute worst thing anyone could say about you is that you were a selfish, moral blank, whose lazy cynicism and sneering, ironic take on the world encapsulates everything wrong with a generation. But you my friend are not evil.” It’s slim praise, but it means more for the thoughtful consideration put into it. The show in a nutshell.

Is Peep Show just a weird show about people being terrible? Yes. And that’s why you should watch it: it’s a lesson in empathy. Other comedies might slide into darkness, but they will always pull back for hugging and learning. It’s not saintly to understand other people, it’s kinda gross. We have to switch our rose-colored glasses with a magnifying glass. But if we can see in Mark and Jeremy the parts of us that hates parties, or loves attention, or thinks it deserves more than it’s earned, maybe we can start to see even deeper than that. If Mark and Jez are opening up their heads for us to rummage through, why can’t we turn that Peep Show eye onto ourselves? If we see Mark’s and Jeremy’s cowardice, delusion, and willingness to hurt others, we can see it in our own thought and actions, too—and then, hopefully, stop it. Laugh at it. Say, “I would have told the truth,” or “I would have been kinder,” and mean it.

Sara Ghaleb is a writer and comedian living in Los Angeles with her incredible cat, Veronica. When she’s not watching TV she’s tweeting about it. You can follow her on twitter at @binaryfission.

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