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Robert Webb and David Mitchell return for season 2 of the jaunty-bleak pub sitcom.

By Darren Franich
March 19, 2021 at 05:17 PM EDT
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Credit: Sundance Now

Modern sitcoms can get so painfully serious, moving with self-conscious artfulness from laughs into mood-music drama. Fair play, but consider Back an acidic exception: The worse things get for the characters, the funnier this Britcom becomes. Season 2 (debuting March 31 on IFC at midnight) picks up with long-suffering Stephen (David Mitchell) in rehab, and things go downhill from there. He tells his family that he's cured of alcoholism— and guzzles down cheap vodka hidden in hedges along his jogging route. He's the sort of pathological loser who gets job offers because people need assured failure for tax purposes. When someone tells Stephen they've got good news, he deadpans: "Am I in a coma after all? Thank Christ for that. Do feel free to switch off the machine."

Every line of Back curls like that: jaunty and ornate, nihilism served with a smile. The six-episode first season arrived way back in 2017 on Sundance Now. (Season 2 is somewhat less buried on AMC+, where it's currently streaming in its entirety ahead of the IFC debut.) The sitcom begins with Stephen preparing to take over his late father's provincial pub, the John Barleycorn. Trouble arrives in the form of Andrew (Robert Webb), a mysterious man with happy memories of his days as a foster child raised by Stephen's parents.

Confusingly, Stephen doesn't remember Andrew at all. But the newcomer gets welcomed into the family by Stephen's mom Ellen (Penny Downie) and sister Cass (Louise Brealey). Andrew's a fascinating antagonist, played by Webb with generous charm that turns Satanic if you (like Stephen) assume he's lying about everything. Webb and Michell are longtime collaborators who previously starred in the cult sitcom Peep Show, and their dynamic in Back is just amazing. They're playing each other's greener grass. Stephen has the family and the legacy itinerant Andrew seems to yearn for. Those things are rather asphyxiating for Stephen, who nevertheless feels anxiously enthralled by his foster brother's man-of-the-world cool.

Andrew turns out to be better at living Stephen's life than Stephen himself, a central dark joke that made season 1 a low-key horror story. Season 2 begins with Andrew running the John Barleycorn, which isn't a dream come true. A stylish new pub — called, ridiculously, P:UB — opens across town, offering a palpable atmosphere of metropolitan cool in humble Stroud. Ellen has found passionate May-December love with local clergyman Julian (John Macmillan), which seems to leave a void in the Freudian corner of both Stephen's and Andrew's hearts. Cass commits herself to living a glamourous student lifestyle, and Brealey remains utterly delightful as a woman who wakes up every day expecting the world to be the novel she never wrote. Even trusty Uncle Geoff (Geoffrey McGivern) makes a life-changing decision, which turns out quite badly.

Back is, broadly, a "People at the bar" sitcom, and Andrew's presence suggests Cheers invaded by Tom Ripley. The second season features a pub quiz episode that belongs in a museum, a marriage gone way wrong, and an impressively funny series of jokes about a dying dog. If you're getting the sense this is a rather bleak comedy, it's important to underline just how breezy the tone of Back is. The ensemble faces their regular miseries with humor and hope, the latter even funnier because it seems so unjustified. "It's fine to fail," Ellen tells Stephen. Downie turns that line into a beautifully sincere bit of lacerating maternal support.

Creator Simon Blackwell revels in how Andrew preys on the collective self-delusions of everyone around him. He's a stand-in for any faux-sincere con artist offering people a chance to (Br)exit their humdrum everyday. In the face of that, Stephen's cynicism becomes a kind of superpower. The rest of his family aspire to glossy dreams of self-actualization: Travel, meet new people, find love! "Dreams aren't real," Stephen explains. "Only nightmares." Pour another pint of hedge vodka, please. A

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