Peep Show: The Balancing Act of Cringe Comedy

Cringe is a difficult form of comedy to pull off well. It seems simple enough: put your characters into awkward situations and watch the audience wriggle at the second-hand embarrassment. Good cringe, however, takes much more nuance and tact. Cringe is based on pain, and it’s a balancing act between funny pain and dismal depressing pain. For four seasons, Peep Show created some of the most cringe-worthy and hilarious situations on television. And then season five happened.

I avoided watching Peep Show for several years due to the unpleasant and mean-spirited look of advertisements for the show. After several people recommended it to me, I decided to give it a go, and was immediately hooked.

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Jeremy and Mark. Our heroes, ladies and gentlemen.

The show’s genius comes from the design of the two main characters, Mark and Jeremy. They appear at first to be opposites in every way. Mark is a history obsessed office drone who craves order and hierarchy. He is a conservative who pays close attention to protocol and niceties but is filled with malice, pettiness and scorn. Jeremy is a bad musician and free-loader who spends what money he does have on drugs and is a constant lech towards women. He appears to have no moral ideals whatsoever and is extremely short-sighted. Despite their differences, the two share the same desires in each episode and throughout the show: fulfilling romantic and sexual relationships, career advancement and the adulation of their peers. At the end of the day, that’s what most people want, which makes the struggles of Mark and Jez easily relatable.

But not too relatable.

The one trait Mark and Jeremy share is selfishness. Throughout the show the two rarely do anything for the benefit of another person, and if they do it is almost always in their own interest to do so. Both have little to no qualms saying or doing whatever it takes to get what they want. This is why the show works. We relate to Mark and Jeremy’s struggles, but not their methods.  Where Mark creates intricate schemes to manipulate people and achieve some sort of victory, Jeremy thinks in the moment every second and takes whatever action helps him immediately without a thought for the long-term effects. Their selfishness makes it easy to laugh at them when their schemes end in failure and embarrassment at the end of an episode. While we may relate to Mark’s socially awkward behavior or Jeremy’s seeming inability to do anything right, we can’t feel sorry for them when their immoral actions yield a harvest of pain.

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Super-Hans. Jeremy’s musical friend and the most quotable character on the show.

While most of the comedy stems from the uncomfortable, embarrassing or outright mortifying situations, we also are privy to the internal thoughts of the two main characters. This allows the audience an incredible intimacy with Mark and Jeremy (probably more than we want) which makes it easy to understand and perhaps relate to the seemingly insane choices they make. Much of this internal dialogue is spent rationalizing their negative behaviors, something every person on earth does whether they admit it or not. At the end of many episodes Mark’s thoughts lead him to the conclusion he has somehow “won” even though his endeavors ended in failure. His victories are mainly found in the inadvertent pain he caused his enemies, which serves as a hollow balm for his own emotional injuries. A theme of Jeremy’s thoughts is reassuring himself “this is the right thing to do” as he does something wrong or even criminally insane.

What makes cringe comedies work is relatable scenarios with characters we have some emotional distance from. If the people are too likable, comedy can easily turn to tragedy. If they are too unrealistic or loathe-some, we lose the empathy that makes us cringe in the first place. For the first four seasons, Peep Show nails this balancing act. The intimate style allows us to empathize with Mark and Jeremy despite their borderline sociopathic behavior. Season five (and the events leading up to it) is where the show unfortunately falls of the wagon a bit. I will try my best to explain the problems, before diving into specifics and entering spoiler territory.

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Definitely not creepy.

The easiest way to describe the problem with season five is that it becomes too mean-spirited towards Mark. In the early seasons of the show, both Mark and Jeremy behave terribly and face consequences largely of their own making. In season five, all but one episode ends with Jeremy screwing over Mark. The emotional abuse endured by Mark grew enough that by the season finale he seemed likely to commit suicide. Obviously he doesn’t, but his palpable misery (mostly brought on by others) stopped being funny and started making me miserable too. If you haven’t watched Peep Show, I’d recommend you not read the next paragraphs, as their will be spoilers. If you have a a penchant for dry humor and a stomach for unlikable protagonists and vulgarity go watch seasons 1-4. Then quit unless you have an extremely high tolerance for misery.

SPOILERS START NOW

Where the show first begins to falter is actually back at the end of season 3 when Mark accidentally “proposes” to Sophie and she accepts. He no longer wants to marry her, but now he decides to go along with it simply to avoid embarrassment. While it’s funny on it’s face that he would go the rest of his life in a loveless marriage out of fear, the practical consequences that come of it quickly become dire. In season 4, just before the wedding Mark attempts to step in front of traffic before realizing that he must call off the wedding. Even so, he doesn’t do it. Both Mark and Sophie cry at the altar, both assuming the other is crying tears of joy. Afterwards, Sophie runs out on him and it appears Mark is saved.

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Finally, a worse love story than Twilight.

This would have been a fine ending to this arc, but then season 5 happened. For some reason, Sophie has told everyone that Mark jilted her, despite the fact that she left him. I’m actually not sure if the writers even remember this fact, as no one acknowledges it in the rest of the series. There appears to be no reason for this change other than to make Mark suffer. Everyone at Mark’s work now hates him, which leads him to befriend Debby (aka Dobby) from IT. Mark takes an interest in her, and she appears to like him as well. The problem is, Sophie keeps popping back into Mark’s life and ruining his chances with Dobby. This reaches a head in the season 5 finale, when Mark and Sophie have a drunken one-night stand (which is admittedly a terrible decision by Mark) and she intentionally attempts to get pregnant after the condom breaks. Her plan works and she becomes pregnant, but as it turns out the baby might also be Jeremy’s. This twist feels lazy since we never actually saw Jeremy and Sophie hook up and have no context for it other than to make Mark’s life worse. Of course, Mark is ecstatic when he finds out the baby might not be his, but he is also furious at Jeremy.

In addition to this horrible arc, as I previously mentioned Jeremy ruins Mark’s life almost every episode. In one episode he racks up thousands in credit card debt, which Mark takes on. In another he takes away Mark’s chance to write a memoir of a war hero. Perhaps worst of all, he takes away Mark’s first truly gratifying sexual relationship for the least significant of reasons. You could argue that this bad behavior is building up to the finale when he joins a cult and turns his life around. However, while there is a notable change in his behavior, none of his previous actions are made up for.

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Dobby, a cinnamon roll too good for this world, too pure.

The final problem with season five is Dobby. Don’t get me wrong, Dobby is funny and likable and one of my favorite characters. That’s the problem. Dobby is much too likable of a character, and the pain in Mark’s life affects her too strongly. It isn’t funny to see her mad or hurt, because we like her and she does nothing wrong. Other love interests have been shafted by Mark and Jeremy in the past, but they were less sympathetic. Sophie is a bad person who makes bad decisions sometimes comparable to Mark and Jeremy. Big Suze and Nancy are idiots who are never hurt by Jeremy’s comeuppance anyway. Toni is a cheating housewife who was only ever using Jeremy to get back at her husband. But Dobby isn’t a bad person or an idiot, and yet she suffers from Mark’s mistakes. We know that she would work well with Mark and perhaps inspire him to be a better person if it weren’t for the horrible circumstances. At the same time, she deserves better than Mark, and we want to see her get away from his tornado of self-destruction.

The show still has moments, and in some cases recovers the slightly lighter atmosphere of earlier seasons. While things don’t get much better, the end of season five is definitely the lowest point. If you can power through, there are compelling reasons to keep watching. However, the season takes Peep Show down from being a nearly perfect show, to just a good one. So I’ll leave you with this Jeremy quote on flowers and the inevitability of death, a metaphor for the show’s trajectory.

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Poetry.
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