Miri Matteson (Daisy Haggard) sits listening to her bored parole officer Janice (Jo Martin) as the latter reads from a general form: “if you are feeling depressed or have a crippling feeling of deep hopelessness …” Janice then pauses and takes a moment to flip the page, continuing, “…it’s normal.” Miri gives a wan smile and nods. Like the exceptional SundanceTV series Rectify, Showtime’s Back to Life picks up when the 30-something Miri returns to her small hometown after being in prison for 18 years. But this series never flashes back to that time, because Miri’s focus is on starting over and getting a second chance—if only anyone would let her actually achieve it.
The charming and wryly funny series (running an economic six half-hour episodes) is also created by Haggard and co-written by Laura Solon. The duo take the familiar canvas of a small British seaside town where a crime was committed and everyone has secrets, and subverts our expectations of where the story goes next. Yes there is something of a mystery as far as what Miri did, but the script has fun playing with our assumptions (like having Miri’s mother Caroline, played by the great Geraldine James, pluckily hiding the knives before she comes back downstairs). Neighbors write terrible messages on the family’s fence, they harass Miri or whisper like cowards about rumors they’ve heard. But through it all, Miri puts on a brave if exasperated face, appreciating her freedom and hoping that someday people can forget what she did.
Like with Fleabag (also produced by Harry and Jack Williams), the key to Back to Life’s success is how it dances along the line of humor and grief, like when Miri returns to her room—untouched since she was a teenager—and sees posters of David Bowie, Jimi Hendrix, and Michael Jackson. “Last one standing,” her mother says, gesturing to a bedside poster of Jamie Oliver. “Thank God he’s still with us,” Miri replies. In a late episode moment, Miri notices that her parents have made a cup of tea for an effigy doll of her that someone left in their front garden. “Well she was cold,” her mother says, almost breaking into a laugh—I nearly did the same. Back to Life is a quiet and emotionally genuine series that hinges on the fantastic interactions among its characters. It examines the fallout of this past tragedy through the mundanity of daily life, including the lies we hold on to that mask truths we don’t want to confront.
The healing that has to happen is not just between Miri and her community, but also with her mother, between her parents, and with her friend Mandy (Christine Bottomley) who is also connected to what happened that night of the crime. There is brokenness everywhere, but Mandy is the only one who is forced to confront it because of the infamy of her actions. And yet, that spirit of revealing bald truths is one that eventually pervades the entire series, with excellent results.
Though some of the interactions feel more comedically fictitious than truthful at times (including a stalker who tells Miri he’s there to “help fix her problem,”) Back to Life shines in its examination of how Miri is treated—and what the expectations of her are—because she is a female ex-con. There is an automatic conflagration of violence with sexual promiscuity, and she must of course be a “psycho bitch” to have once made a mistake. She thus becomes a scapegoat for all kinds of issues in the town, and a person who others easily believe is capable of anything—a “troublemaker” who might steal husbands and murder everyone in their beds even though that has absolutely nothing to do with who she is or what really happened.
Beautifully directed by Christopher Sweeney and sonically augmented with a thoughtful, soulful score from Solomon Grey, there’s a melancholy to the late fall days when the story takes place, alongside an embedded nostalgia for a time when all of us were younger and seemingly carefree, before things got complicated and life-changing decisions were made. Miri tells her kind neighbor, Billy (Adeel Akhtar) that she keeps waiting for her life start, but he tells her that it’s happening right now. This is it. And all things considered, it seems to be getting better.
Back to Life premieres Sunday, November 10th on Showtime.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV