Thursday, September 30, 2021

Rough Edges: notes on Back to Life and The Other Two

After 18 years in prison, Miranda “Miri” Matteson has moved back in with her parents in Hythe, Kent. She was sent away for the accidental death of her friend Lara, and she’s done her time, but she’s been branded a murderer, and although she keeps insisting “it wasn’t like that” — and indeed, it wasn’t like that — that’s the term that stuck. That’s why she awakens to find “psycho bitch” painted on her parents’ fence. That’s why a box of feces is delivered to her home, and a brick sails through the window of her first place of employment.

“It was a long time ago, and I’m ready to move on,” Miri announces, but charting a path forward isn’t so easy. Obstacles — and unpleasant reminders — hound her. Her next-door neighbor Billy, who moved in sometime after she was incarcerated, doesn’t know her identity, but he knows her story — it’s like a legend in this town, one so pervasive that the first time he and Miri sit down for a chat, he can’t help but recount it. In Hythe, the details of Lara’s death have been distorted beyond recognition, and the site where it happened — a sound mirror poised over the English channel — has become a morbid kind of conversation starter. “Apparently it’s where some girl bludgeoned someone to death,” Billy informs Miri with a touch too much zeal: “She lured her there... just the two of them on the cliff at night, and then smashed her head against the edge. It's like a horror film, isn't it?” And Miri, who’s not yet ready to reveal her identity, is left to counter, with a pained smile at once sad and insistent, “It’s not the version I heard.”

Miri is played by Daisy Haggard, who created Back to Life and co-wrote it with Laura Solon, and hers is an astonishingly rich and affecting performance. No expression seems to sit well — or very long — on Miri’s face. Her face is awash with so many emotions: not just the ones she’s feeling, but the ones she thinks she should be feeling. It would be nice to be able to experience one sentiment at a time; Miri doesn’t have that luxury. She’s too busy replaying the past, navigating the present and hoping for a future.

As Haggard conceives her, Miri’s caught between the exuberance and urges of a teenager and the baggage and responsibilities of an adult. She’s a muddle of mixed emotions. When the receptionist at a doctor’s office is hostile, Miri knocks her phone out of its cradle, then guiltily puts it back in place; she blurts out, “I’m sorry” — then, still peeved, takes back the apology. When that brick goes flying through the window of the fish-and-chips shop where she works, injuring her, and the owner asks if she’s OK, she answers instinctively, “Yes, fine,” smiling. But when she gets outside, she starts to cry. In one bravura scene, she arrives at a restaurant — for her first date with Billy (her first date ever, in fact) — only to discover that she has blood on her hands. (She witnessed a murder an hour before her big date; her evening hasn’t gone according to plan.) When Billy notices, she panics — he long ago confessed he’s squeamish about the sight of blood, and she’s not about to let a death dampen her first date, besides — and comes up with the worst possible explanation, that it’s “period blood.” She then frantically improvises a rationale for how it’s gotten on her neck and in her hair. On paper, it’s hysterical; as Haggard plays it, fighting back tears and so terrified she can barely form the words, it’s hilarious yet also deeply upsetting. Haggard pours so much emotion onto the screen, you’re not always certain you’re capable of catching it all. But you sure as hell are going to try.

Miri seems to be second-guessing every decision and anticipating every outcome — but there’s this sunny serenity about her. You understand how she survived 18 years of prison; she held on to the promise of the life she’d have once she was released. In one of their earliest encounters, Billy points out to Miri that her swing is broken, then secretly repairs it overnight. The next morning, she awakens, makes her way to the garden, snuggles into the seat and starts swinging contentedly. She doesn’t stop to wonder how it got fixed; it’s like a visit from the tooth fairy — you just accept it, enjoy it and move on. Miri looks like she belongs on that swing. She desperately wants her world to return to something conventional, to be seen once more as unremarkable. The owner of the fish-and-chips shop admits with surprise, after getting to know her a bit, “Apart from [the murder], you’re just a normal person, really.” “I am a normal person,” she insists, with weary defiance.

The tone of the series — buoyant and irreverent, bustling and unbowed — seems grounded in Haggard’s conception of her character. She spent 18 years as a happy girl, then 18 years in prison. Her life divides into neat stages. Now she’s back at home, a grown woman, but still longing to experience everything she was denied the first time around. She’s retained the positivity and naïveté so typical of youth. And the lack of self-consciousness. If the day gets too much for her, she collapses in a heap on the floor. If the high-heeled shoes she’s sporting for an interview don’t fit properly, she walks barefoot down the street.

But if the innocence and ebullience of Miri’s youth haven’t faded, neither has that adolescent ability to see through the pretenses of adult behavior. She has her head on straight. She’s both optimist and realist. She’s an absolute mess (she turns up for that first date riding a scooter, because her best friend’s daughter wouldn’t let her borrow her bicycle), but she talks sense. People around her may be overdramatizing their misery, but she’s not about to indulge them. Lara’s grieving father returns to town hell-bent on revenge, and although Miri should be properly terrified — and is — she’s also pissed off and practical: “Just stop it. Drop it. You used to make a mean lasagna. Be that guy. Be lasagna guy. Not this supervillain ….. You can do better than this.”

The tone of comedies has become so edgy over the last few years — especially the female-led ones, like This Way Up and Fleabag, which are propelled by an aggressive energy — that when something less antagonistic comes along, it’s sometimes overlooked. Back to Life wasn’t overlooked — on the contrary, the reviews were rapturous — but still, I’m not sure it’s reached as wide an audience as it deserves. It’s an original: a painfully compassionate comedy about redemption and forgiveness — rambunctious but never strident, as ingratiating and impressive as its heroine. The first series debuted on BBC One in 2019; the second, which aired this summer on BBC Three, is currently finishing up its run on Showtime. I missed the first series when it aired, and watched the whole thing in 2021. It’s quite simply the best thing I’ve seen this year.

Back to Life is meticulously plotted, but the structure doesn’t feel stiff or predictable. On the contrary, it captures the chaos of ordinary life — where events rain down on you, and it’s impossible to know where to turn your attention, or how best to harness your energies. So you keep moving, blindly and with resolve. In the first episode, Miri’s father advises her about getting her life back on track, dealing a death blow to the “it’s like riding a bike" myth: “You can’t get back on your old bike, because that’s a tricycle. And what are you doing trying to ride a tricycle at your age? Right here, right now, it’s a brand new bike. No stabilisers. You’ve got to learn to ride it for real this time.” And it’s a message she takes it to heart. No matter how patchy the path forward, Miri just keeps peddling that bike, hard. And when she can’t find a bike, she uses a scooter.

Back to Life delights in its absurdities, but those absurdities never strain credulity. The world throws an awful lot at us at once: isn’t it asking, perhaps, a bit too much to expect our responses to be sane and disciplined? People carry around secrets through both seasons of Back to Life: Miri’s mother, her best friend, her old boyfriend, her new boyfriend — not because it’s an easy way of keeping the plot in motion, but because life is hard. It’s tough navigating its twists and turns, especially while keeping our integrity intact. So we make mistakes, and we cover them up. And we’re found out. And people suffer.

“It’s harder to forgive you than I thought it would be,” Miri’s father angrily admits to her mother late in the second season, for an indiscretion she committed early on. Back to Life doesn’t believe in shortcuts: people have to learn to forgive in their own time; they have to make amends at their own pace. (As Miri reminds Lara's father, "I know that you suffered a terrible tragedy at my hands, but don’t you worry: I am paying for that every second of my life.") But it doesn’t get bogged down in those beats. Life continues while they're struggling. Life goes on while they’re grieving. Life takes them places that seem totally — and tonally — at odds with the emotions they’re processing, because that's how life works. Miri’s mother and father, whose marriage has been strained since she had an affair, start to reconnect when her former lover shows up at their house, in need of the loo; it’s so odd and improper, it provides the laugh both of them need to clear the air. Billy is aghast when he discovers that Miri witnessed a murder and might be implicated, but he’s so relieved she doesn’t have “period blood“ in her hair that he vows to stand by her, whatever the outcome. It's those times when our lives are most ludicrous that they make the most sense.

There’s something enchanted about this seaside town — the fourth episode of the second series is even narrated like a fairy-tale — but that aspect of the setting is beautifully unstressed. Miri is very much living in the real world; she’s just living in a real world that looks after its own — that serves up the odd new friend when we need them most, or help from an unexpected source when we’re in deepest despair. Awful events occasionally have neat resolutions: not because the world is easy, but because sometimes we’re all due a break. Every so often the universe senses our suffering and responds with a wink. And once in a great while, it sends us a prince — granted, one who’s scared of blood and giraffes, with a mother from hell — whose clear-headed compassion lets him see us for what we are: “a good egg who’s had some bad breaks.” Although Miri may well have been a normal girl, fate ensured that her world would never be normal again. She would have to call upon resources she never knew she had, ones that would transform her into something special. This new Miri is never going to have a normal life. But she might just have something magical.


While we were waiting for the second series of Back to Life to air, my husband alerted me to another comedy we had missed in 2019, The Other Two. So we binged — and savored — the first season. And in the sort of “gift from the universe” I referenced above, the second season of both shows arrived at roughly the same time this past summer, when we were desperately in need of a good laugh.

In The Other Two, which debuted on Comedy Central before making its way to HBO Max, the lives of millennial siblings Brooke and Cary Dubek are upended when their 13-year-old brother Chase becomes an overnight, Bieber-like internet sensation. Creators Chris Kelly and Sarah Schneider send up this age of instant celebrity and also effectively dramatize two lead characters (expertly played by Heléne Yorke and Drew Tarver) who manage to be both exasperating and endearing. The first season achieved a steady stream of laughs that climaxed in a gut punch of a penultimate episode. Once the show was renewed for a second season, the obvious question was: can the showrunners sustain the levity, wit and sense of surprise? Are there enough pop-culture targets left, and given the promotion of mama bear Molly Shannon, deservedly, to series regular, will the two leads continue to receive the attention they deserve?

There was no cause for concern. Season 2 proved as riotously entertaining as Season 1. Like Miri in Back to Life, Brooke and Cary Dubek are so appealing for being so rough around the edges. Brooke, a failed dancer who moonlights as a realtor so she can crash at the apartments she's showing, reinvents herself in the wake of Chase's success — first as his assistant, then as manager to both Chase and their mother Pat, who parlays her son's notoriety into her own talk show. (It’s not as easy a job as Brooke expects: “Did you realize that managers do actual work, Cary?” “No, I truthfully did not.”) Cary, a struggling actor making ends meet as a waiter, gains unexpected notoriety when his brother’s confessional music video (“My Brother’s Gay and That’s Okay!”) goes viral — but can he channel that into a career? Events flood Brooke and Cary's lives at an almost catastrophic rate, but their reactions don’t seem manufactured. They seem fresh, frenzied and gleefully chaotic. Life comes at them fast, and you see them thinking on their feet — frequently stumbling and occasionally falling. But even when they fall, they don’t fall to pieces.

There’s hardly an episode that doesn’t fix a satirical target, and sometimes two, but the characters never get submerged to the satire. The focus is always on Brooke and Cary’s awkward attempts at self fulfillment — and in their fleeting moments of self-awareness, the growth that comes with it. They seem like true siblings; they’re both so committed to being successful, and both so unable to grasp when they’re achieving it. And no wonder, of course, as the show reminds us how the definition of “success“ has changed in the last decade. Nowadays, success has nothing to do with hard work or talent. It’s about Instagram likes and Twitter trends. It’s about how many people will go online at midnight to see what color you’ve dyed your hair.

Kelly and Schneider are merciless at mocking the rabid fervor of fandom. If you're a star who's suffered a loss or tragedy, no matter how unusual the circumstances (and the Dubeks are hiding a doozy of a family secret, which gets exposed late in Season 1), throngs of followers will line up to proudly announce that the very same thing happened to them — or something very close happened to them — or something without a grain of similarity happened to them, but they feel a bond with you anyway. Fans leap at the opportunity to align themselves with those they worship. A zealous housewife informs Brooke, “Me and Pat have the same birthday. Almost. Hers is July 3 and mine is August 12.” (Wondering aloud if Pat’s show ever goes on location, she further advises Brooke, “If she ever comes to Garfield, I have a spare bedroom. I don’t know if the show puts her up, but if not, she can stay with me. I’m only 50 minutes from the lake, and I know Pat said on one of her shows she likes to swim. So if she comes, make sure she brings a suit. Or – my sister is staying with me right now, so she probably has something that Pat can wear.”)

But as much as Kelly and Schneider mock dimwitted fans, they save some of their best barbs for the stars themselves, who encourage and indulge their supporters’ worst delusions. (When members of the studio audience want to know if they can meet her mother after the show, Brooke’s go-to response is “No, but she loves you, and she’s just like you.”) These are the same celebrities who consent to humiliating promotions to maintain their popularity, who manufacture fraudulent backstories to prove they’re right for a potential role, who align themselves with cults masquerading as churches, and who struggle to maintain relevance by tweeting about fabricated social injustices, without a shred of information. The Other Two is a merry skewering of all aspects of show business: an industry where you haven’t arrived until you’ve been sued, where controversy is only good if the right A-list celebrities and protest organizations get behind you, and where agents are incapable of honesty or sincerity. (The Other Two makes sport of everyone in showbiz, but agents come off worst. At some point, you figure, Kelly and Schneider must have hated theirs.)

Offhand, I can think of no sitcom right now so adept at not merely timing and nailing a joke, but repeating it for maximum effect. The old writing principle “The Rule of Three” insisted that jokes land best when they’re repeated twice. On The Other Two, jokes resurface seven or eight times. Or twelve. Good gags will recur throughout an episode, and even when you know to be on the lookout for them, the punchline takes you by surprise. Kelly and Schneider manage yet another variation that catches you off guard, and the rat-tat-tat repetition — with subtle, effective permutations — actually makes the gag stronger with each reappearance.

In a late Season 2 episode, the running joke is that everyone in the industry lies about their job, because otherwise they’re forever being grilled by tagalongs and wannabes. “I love this flight from New York to LA,” a stewardess informs Brooke, who’s heading west for a fashion show her brother is hosting: “Last week, Teri Hatcher was where you were. I got to pick her brain about Desperate Housewives the entire time.” You can only imagine Teri Hatcher’s discomfort — and so can Brooke, who’s already let it slip that she’s a manager, but adds “of a UPS Store.” Later, in her hotel sauna, Brooke doesn’t even have the energy to invent a fake profession. “What’s the most boring job you can think of,” she demands of the woman inquiring what she does for a living. “An accountant?” the woman ventures, and Brooke runs with it: “Yup. That’s what I am.” (Variation #1.) But when Brooke takes a tumble and bashes her mouth, the woman in the sauna comes in handy; she was just chatting with a dentist. She brings her in — but it’s (fictional) pop star Alessia Cara, who merely said she was a dentist. (Variation #2.) Meanwhile, Cary, who’s gotten himself mired in controversy, spots Chase’s publicist Shuli at the hotel bar (it’s Wanda Sykes, as deadpan droll as ever) and begs her for advice, but the man seated beside her interjects: “She’s not a publicist. She’s a milkman.” (Variation #3.) “I'm not sure why you need a publicist,” Shuli advises Chase: “This is great. You just keep getting more and more famous.” (As The Other Two regularly reminds us, there is no such thing as bad publicity.) “Then again, what do I know?” she adds emphatically, like a bulldozer breaking the fourth wall: “I sell milk.” Across two hilarious seasons, “I sell milk” might have been my favorite line. It was a running gag in its fifth appearance, but refreshed with such cunning, I laughed just as loudly as if it were the first time — or the third.

Part of the beauty of The Other Two is, when it seizes upon a satirical target — and magnifies it — you have no idea how gross an exaggeration it really is. Even the most outrageous gags have a ring of truth to them. Are gay men actually sending butthole pics to each other as a dating ritual? Probably. Are hospital corridors truly cluttered with actors tailing doctors and nurses, because they have an upcoming role in a medical drama and want to properly prepare? In all likelihood.

And are people in show business really denying working in the industry, to stave off the flatterers and fawners? On that front, Philip reminded me — while we were watching Brooke claim to be a UPS Store manager — that sometime in the mid ‘90s, when we were living in Los Angeles, we needed to have a termite inspector come to our house. He saw the sound equipment in my home office and asked what I did for a living. I replied that I was a record producer. And he responded excitedly that he had written a screenplay — my termite inspector had written a screenplay — and could he drop it by? I clarified that I was in the music industry, but he was undeterred. And when the package arrived, there wasn’t just a screenplay; there was also a video in which he had engaged actors to play all the roles except the lead, which he essayed himself. He then followed up by phone, several times, to ask what I thought. I kept reminding him — as I had initially — that I had no contacts in the film industry, but he seemed disappointed nonetheless, and even a bit hostile that I was refusing to help. That was 25 years ago, and I only now realize my error; if I’d had The Other Two as my cautionary guide, when my termite inspector asked what I did for a living, I would have told him I sell milk.

Want more? Check out an essay called "Private Faces," in praise of two spectacular series that emerged in the fall of 2020, Roadkill and Life, and another entitled "Unwilling Victims," taking a look at three recent series by and about women: The Trial of Christine Keeler, Deadwater Fell and Flesh and Blood. I offer up The Five Best TV Shows You Might Not Be Watching, Five Foreign TV Dramas You Shouldn't Miss, and my latest, inspired by the death of my puppy Czerny, The 10 Most Comforting TV Episodes About Death.

If you like in-depth looks at hit shows, I delve into Rhoda Season 3, Maude Season 2, Newhart Season 7, WKRP in Cincinnati Season 4 and Bewitched Season 2; serve up my 10 Best Episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Designing Women, WKRP in Cincinnati and Kate & Allie; pen an appreciation of Mike & Molly; and offer up some thoughts as to why The New Adventures of Old Christine took such a tumble in quality over its five seasons. Or if you prefer dramas, check out my write-ups of of Criminal Minds Season 8, Judging Amy Season 6, Voyager Season 4, Doctor Who Series 8, Cold Case Season 4, Gilmore Girls Season 7 (and the subsequent, ill-judged Netflix miniseries), and fourteen essays devoted to all the seasons of the great nighttime soap Knots Landing, starting here. I also look back at Murder, She Wrote and pick out The 10 Best "Murder She Wrote" Mysteries: not (necessarily) the best episodes, but the best whodunnits.


  1. Yeah, I enjoyed 'Back to Life' immensely, too. It was such a weird mix of serious drama, normal people, dark humour, and slapstick that I initially thought it couldn't work, only to be pleasantly surprised when it did. And if anything, season 2 got better: a feat in itself for an industry frequently incapable of assessing what makes its shows great. No news on a third season yet, but it'd be a crying shame if we didn't see these characters again.

    1. You know, I actually had a paragraph in an early draft about how refreshing it was that neither show had the proverbial “sophomore slump.“ I think I even went through the litany of shows I’ve written about over the last decade that were so good when they debuted, and couldn’t sustain that excellence for more than one season. As you said, I don’t understand why it’s so hard, but I agree: I think ‘Back to Life’ might’ve gotten even better in Series 2. Haggard seemed able to hone in on exactly what made the story — and the storytelling — unique.

      It’s funny: I’m undecided whether I want it to return. I mean, if Haggard wants to do more, I’m all for it, and I’ll be there. But part of me sees it as this exquisite miniature: a short-form story that came to an incredibly satisfying conclusion. I’m not sure I’m not just happy knowing those 12 episodes exist in the world — and that I can return to them whenever I want.

  2. I have not seen them Tommy - but based on your recommendation I definitely will seek them out! Thanks ---

    Steven Cates on Twitter (@sc_mo )

    1. I hope you enjoy, Steven. As I mentioned here, they both made a difficult summer *so* much better. Two very different shows, but both marvelous. If you do watch, and get a moment, drop by here and let me know what you think. :)

  3. Everthing you said about these two shows is spot on! they are amazing. AlsoMolly Shannon deserves an Emmy for sleeping while awake — and the moment the entire Dubeck family have their (now seasonal) denouement.

    1. I agree that Shannon was an absolute gift to the series. As I noted, I had my concerns when it was announced that she’d become a series regular for Season 2; I worried that she’d start to take over the show. But I thought the way she was incorporated was perfect. (Meanwhile, because I never shy away from controversy, I’ll admit that I was the only person on the planet who didn’t like her performance in ‘White Lotus.’ I found it tonally off: a little too self-aware, like she’d dropped in from a sketchcom. But what do I know: everyone else adored her.)

  4. I also want to add, how shocked I was at how Chase Dreams (and actor Case Waler) aged between season 1 and 2. So much so, that it acutally felt like a recast -- and a huge IQ bump for the character .

    1. I’m embarrassed to admit I didn’t even notice Walker’s growth spurt between seasons. (Man, sometimes, I miss the most obvious things.) But I guess that’s what happens when a pandemic forces a nearly 2-1/2 year hiatus between Seasons 1 and 2. :)

  5. Another two series to add to my queue! Thanks for the recommendations. Also hope you are more cautious in dealing with the pest-control industry...

    1. Whenever you get around to them, enjoy — and let me know what you think. I’m just so glad ‘Back to Life’ managed a deal with Showtime; it would have been horrible if it had taken years to cross the Atlantic, like ‘Unforgotten’ did. Or if, God forbid, it had *never* been picked up by a U.S. network or streaming service, like my favorite series of 2019, ‘Summer of Rockets.’ Still can’t get over that one...