A few years ago, after giving up a lifelong dream of working in theater and comedy, I got a marketing job. I spent my days wondering why I had moved to L.A., stress eating and watching British television. The accents made my cheap Hollywood apartment seem a little classier.
I turned on “Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room,” an episode of the BBC anthology series “Inside No. 9,” ready to be cheered by the premise of a comedy duo called Cheese & Crackers who reunite for one last show. Lo and behold, the episode was about a sketch team that broke up partly because one left comedy and theater to get a marketing job.
Twenty-nine minutes later, I was uncontrollably sobbing. Not only because my guilt of leaving the arts was so directly reflected in the show but also because an episode that started as a silly comedy had become a moving piece about broken friendships and regret. Since then, “Inside No. 9” has become one of my favorite shows.
Despite my tears, “Inside No. 9″ is like “Black Mirror” but much less depressing. The mostly comedic anthology series was created in 2014 by Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith (from “League of Gentlemen” and “Psychoville”). The only constraint is that episodes must stay inside one location and at some point involve the number nine.
When it comes to comfort television, I don’t always go for light and distracting. Sometimes, I need an excuse to release my bottled emotions within the safety of a 30-minute teleplay. “Inside No. 9” lets viewers experience terror, laughter, sadness and the thrill of a well-told story, all in the course of a six-episode season. After the year we’ve all had, the show offers a welcome catharsis.
You don’t have to be a former theater kid with emotional repression issues to like the show. Now that all five seasons are streaming on HBO Max, Americans can discover this incredible British import. Here are three reasons to do so.
Where else could you find a show that covers a hilarious 17th century witch trial; an office comedy turned thriller, made entirely of closed-circuit TV footage; and a touching look at a woman’s life as told through 12 holiday celebrations? Other anthology shows are confined by genre (sci-fi futurism for “Black Mirror” and “Electric Dreams,” horror for “Tales from the Crypt,” and so on). “Inside No. 9” does whatever it wants.
Beyond genre, Pemberton and Shearsmith are constantly playing with form. At first, the idea of a whole episode made from CCTV footage sounded like a chore. A few minutes in, “Cold Comfort,” from Season 2, became an engaging story set in a call center with a background hint of menace. By the end, I wondered why no one else ever thought to mount a couple of security cameras and make a TV show.
The episode “A Quiet Night In” has no dialogue, while “Zanzibar” is performed entirely in iambic pentameter. “Sardines” involves a game of hide-and-seek that gets much too serious, while “The Harrowing” is a gothic horror tale with a monstrous secret hiding upstairs. “Once Removed” tells the story of an assassination gone wrong in reverse chronology, and “The Stakeout” is two cops sitting in a car. The miracle is that they all work! Sure, some episodes are better than others, but there’s no outright flop in all five seasons.
Then there’s Pemberton’s and Shearsmith’s range as performers. Though the casts are rounded out by excellent character actors (David Warner, Jane Horrocks and Fiona Shaw to name a few), the creators star in nearly every episode. The variety of accents, wigs, physicality and wigs (yes, the wigs are tremendous) is truly amazing. Oh, and Pemberton and Shearsmith wrote every episode.
“Inside No. 9″ is known for its twists, which include mid-episode genre changes and M. Night Shyamalan-style shock-reveals. Each episode keeps you guessing. “A Quiet Night In,” for example, plays out like a heist in its twists and turns, while “The Stakeout” seems like a conventional cop drama until the very end.
What makes the plot turns so brilliant is that the episodes don’t depend on them. The stories are fascinating on their own, not just empty setups waiting for a big reveal — the twists add extra surprise or in some cases, a burst of emotion. (No, I’m definitely not crying about “Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room” again.) I’ve streamed ungodly amounts of television and sometimes feel as if I’ve seen everything. But “Inside No. 9” continues to surprise.
Even when the show deals with exaggerated characters — witch hunters, creepy gothic siblings, a nagging ghost mom — it finds a way to explore the weird, relatable bits of humanity that tie us all together.
In one of the most beautiful episodes, “Love’s Great Adventure,” from Season 5, we see a struggling family at Christmas, as told through the days of an advent calendar. This one has no big twists or crazy characters, just scenes like the one in which parents wonder if their son will be OK. Or the one in which a little boy happily eats cereal as his grandparents fight in the background. Or another in which a teenage daughter tries to hide disappointment in her mother’s homemade gift while her mom pretends it’s no big deal. This episode shows how love makes things better but doesn’t fix everything. How life is full of disappointments and tiny heartbreaks. Yes, I cried at this one, too.
Pemberton and Shearsmith created a weird and varied world that manages also to feel familiar. Even in the most extreme episodes, “Inside No. 9” gives a twisted and beautiful look of what it is to be human. So, if you want to laugh, gasp and occasionally shed too many tears over a fictional comedy duo, stream all five seasons. Season 6 just finished filming, so you’ll be ready for the “Inside No. 9” surprises to come.