“I'm not sick, but I'm not well, and I'm so hot ‘cause I'm in Hell” – Harvey Danger, “Flagpole Sitta”

Everyone has their own little travel rituals. Some people carry trinkets around and take pictures of them in front of famous landmarks; others try to eat at foreign McDonalds just to see what weird shit they have on the menu (like whatever this is). My traveling tradition is to see what’s on TV. It may sound cripplingly lame to say that I spend money on a vacation just to do something I can do at home for free, but seeing what people from other countries watch for entertainment can be pretty interesting. You ever watch the local news in another city? It’s like being on another planet. Now picture it in Italian and things get weirder tenfold. And because I usually only have time to watch TV later in the evening while on vacation, I get to see all of the especially bizarre shit that foreigners roll out for late night entertainment.

So far it’s been a pretty rewarding practice. In France, they play music videos from 1991; Italy has a bunch of operatic soft-core pornography; and once at a rural North Carolina motel, I watched a public access DJ competition at 3 am. But by far the best thing to come out of my little ritual is the discovery of “Peep Show,” a BAFTA winning British sitcom that’s a strong contender for being the funniest show on TV. 

I first saw “Peep Show” in one of those crappy English hotels that you see in the movies, complete with rickety single beds, furniture lifted out of a 60s dormitory, and a dingy bathroom hidden somewhere on the other side of the building. As my girlfriend wandered off to find the shower and my brother lazed on his child-sized bed dozing in and out of a coma, I clicked on the TV to see if I could find a Polo match or one of those weird celebrity panel quiz shows. Flicking through all five of the TV’s channels, I settled on a network called Channel 4 just as Harvey Danger’s “Flagpole Sitta” marked the beginning of a peculiarly shot sitcom that I had never heard of before.

It started with unemployed hedonist Jeremy (Robert Webb) wanting to take his dead-eyed office drone flat-mate Mark (David Mitchell) off for a stag weekend (a kind of bachelor party) to celebrate Mark’s engagement to his long-time office crush Sophie (Olivia Coleman). It follows their exploits as they travel downriver on a canal boat, and the subsequent trouble that it gets them into. The set-up is standard sitcom. You could easily replace the names above with Joey, Chandler and Monica and come away with an episode of “Friends;” but within the first few minutes of the episode, titled “Holiday,” it becomes clear that Mark and Jeremy’s little river adventure isn’t going to be your typical wacky good time gone wrong.

“Peep Show,” at its core, is a comedy about misery. Mark hates his job; he desperately wants to break off his engagement with Sophie, for whom he has lost all affection; and it’s clear that the two longtime flat mates have only stayed friends out of circumstance and convenience. While a similar British show like “The Office” plays on the same bleak awkwardness of the daily grind as “Peep Show,” it still has moments of hopeful resonance, especially in its romantic subplots. An idyllic Tim and Dawn pairing would be alien in the oppressively bleak world of “Peep Show,” where relationships tend to be emotionally dysfunctional, desperate and sad. This strand of misery and hopelessness weaves throughout all of “Holiday,” the fifth episode of the show’s fourth season, and it comes on so strongly, and so quickly that it set me on my heels as I watched it in that cruddy little hotel room.

One of the very first things Mark and Jeremy talk about in the episode is Mark’s hope that a trip to a relationship counselor will break up his engagement, and it’s the only glimmer of happiness we see in the entire episode. Mark thinks the session will allow him the chance to come clean about his doubts without the burden of guilt or responsibility, and Sophie can’t get mad at him because there would be a professional there to exonerate him. Rather, in typical “Peep Show” fashion, the therapy session lingers more on Mark’s inadequacy in bed than any of his suffocating doubts, or as Sophie bluntly puts it: “Often, Mark, you ejaculate quite a long time before I’ve had time to feel like I’ve started to enjoy our sex.”

On their stag weekend, Jeremy and Mark encounter a pair of entitled party girls, one of whom Jeremy fancies, forcing Mark to deal with the come-ons from the second, pig nosed sister. But when he finds out that the girls’ wealthy father is looking for someone to manage a sketchy sounding call-center in India, Mark sees another chance to break free of his wedding obligations and feigns interest in the man’s daughter to gain an edge on the position despite suspecting that she may have a borderline personality disorder. Between Mark’s scheme to abscond to India and Jeremy’s quest for “sweet punani action,” things spiral out of control as (spoilers ahead) Jeremy accidentally backs over the girls’ pet dog and has trouble figuring out how to dispose of its corpse. “Why did I put it in the bag?” Jeremy ponders, “I should have thrown it like a discus!”

If all of this gloomy existential misery makes “Peep Show” sound rather dour, don’t be fooled. The show is, without a doubt, knock-you-on-the-floor funny. By the time the episode ended, and the girlfriend returned from the shower, my brother and I could barely explain what we had just seen without breaking apart in a fit of giggles. “The dog,” we wheezed, “he ate the dog!”--a statement met with puzzled looks from my confused, freshly showered girlfriend.

After returning from our trip, I quickly consumed every episode of “Peep Show” I could get my hands on. I found out how Mark developed his rocky relationship with Sophie and how it went from fawning desire to bitter resentment, and how Jeremy jumps from woman to woman in an effort to live up to his rock star ambitions despite being a bit of a talentless loser. Each season has its own merit, likely peaking somewhere in season 3 or 4, but remains consistently hilarious and surprising even into its fifth or sixth viewing. Mitchell and Webb have a fantastic chemistry together that’s drawn out both by their years of experience as a comedy duo and by the brilliant writing of the show’s creators Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong (the latter of whom was nominated for an Oscar for his work on In the Loop).

Despite the show’s consistency, “Holiday” remains the one episode I regularly revisit. Between Mark’s desperation to escape from a life of loveless matrimony and Jeremy’s cavalier attitude about killing a beloved family pet, “Holiday” encompasses everything about “Peep Show” that makes it such a wonder. It’s a twisted look at the emptiness of modern life, custom built for saps like Mark and Jeremy who are uncomfortable in their own skins.

Watch the full episode here:


Next Week: What does "Desperate Housewives," Tom Hanks in a bath robe and The Sentinel all have in common? The ‘Burbs (1989)

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