UK TV review: Back to Life Season 2
Helen Archer | On 07, Nov 2021
Warning: This contains spoilers for Season 1. Not caught up? Read our spoiler-free review of Season 1 here.
Following the critically acclaimed first season, Daisy Haggard is back as Miri Matteson, recently released from an 18-year prison sentence into a society that has changed in myriad confounding ways. Coming to terms with the modern world and adulthood in her late-30s, the programme promised a light-hearted look at female arrested development, but it ultimately deepened into something so much more.
The second season, co-created by Haggard and Laura Solon, sees that depth intensify, while retaining all the humour of the first. We catch up with Miri just a few weeks after the end of the previous season, and the fallout over the revelations therein resumes. Miri – now sporting 1980s-style crimped hair – is still living with her parents, Oscar and Caroline (played by Richard Durden and Geraldine James), in the seaside town of Hythe. Refusing to speak to them after uncovering her mother’s affair with Miri’s ex-boyfriend Dom (Jamie Mitchell), she is now communicating via the medium of pre-recorded messages played on an ancient cassette machine. Miri’s father’s obsession with recycling continues unabated, as he avoids any meaningful conversation with his wife after the revelation of her infidelity. Caroline, meanwhile, is talk of the town thanks to public knowledge of said revelation, and finds herself excommunicated from her church group, whose judgemental attitude towards her demonstrates a distinctly unchristian attitude.
For her part, Miri relays the events of the past few weeks to her social worker, Janice (Jo Martin in a role which has clearly been expanded for the second series, as Martin’s comedy chops are recognised and capitalised on), in a concise and to-the-point catch-up, which also acts as an effective reminder of the story so far. Still not talking to her erstwhile best friend Mandy (Christine Bottomley), Miri’s tentative romantic relationship with the sweet, recently widowed next door neighbour, Billy (Adeel Akhtar), limps on. Meera Syal is newly cast as Billy’s controlling mum – perfect casting in itself, with the added benefit of seamlessly enriching the nature of Billy, and strengthening his character.
Miri’s also up for a job at a local supermarket, although the employment process has its own difficulties for someone who hasn’t had an active bank account since she was a teenager, and she’s learning to drive. Later in the series, we see her over-empathising with an alpaca and coming to terms with sex toys and modern-day porn, as she contemplates the possibility of beginning a sexual relationship after her decades-long period of enforced abstinence.
All this would seem to be enough to be getting along with, and that’s before we even consider the ongoing plotline of bereaved parents John and Norah Boback (Adrian Edmonson and Lizzy McInnerny), for whom Miri’s release has stirred up all sort of emotions. While John wants to destroy Miri by any means necessary, Norah – a remarkable performance in a near-wordless part – finds herself on the receiving end of her abusive husband’s terrifying, barely suppressed rage.
And this is where Back to Life really shines – in its exceptional handling of tonal shifts. Scenes can go from funny and light to dark and sinister (and everything in between) with nary a hesitation, showcasing a creative sure-handedness which defies all logic. Themes of loss, grief and regret are woven in seamlessly alongside the comedy, creating a multi-layered work with a first-class cast of characters whose subtlety belies the 30-minute sitcom format. It’s a triumph for everyone involved.
Back to Life is available on BBC iPlayer until August 2022