Inside No. 9 Season 2: Impeccably crafted horror and humour
Ivan Radford | On 27, Dec 2016
Ever since The League of Gentlemen, Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith have been masters of chilling comedy, something that was proven beyond all doubt with the first season of Inside No. 9. Their second anthology of six miniature plays, which combine horror and humour to darkly comic effect, are as impeccably crafted as ever.
Episode 1 sees a group of colourful characters disturb each other on a sleeper train, much to the annoyance of one doctor (Shearsmith), keen to get to an interview on time. Fart jokes and sexual foreplay bring giggles from the perfectly pitched cast, while the cramped location only adds to the claustrophobic tension – something that will ring true with anyone who has found themselves faced with the awkward tightrope walk that is couchette etiquette. But it’s Shearsmith’s determination to reach his destination, regardless of the dark turns the journey takes, that really leaves you shivering.
It’s a solid opener to a run that only gets better, and bolder. How, then, do you improve upon greatness? Three words: add Sheridan Smith. The actress is astounding in the second episode, which is the best episode of the series to date. She plays Christine, a woman who finds her life unravelling after bringing a man home from a party. As events seem to slide from one time period to the next, awkward social gatherings deliver big laughs – Pemberton as a flamboyant friend is a highlight – and a mysterious intruder (a seriously sinister Shearsmith) delivers chilling jumps, but it’s the sudden departure of loved ones that delivers the tale’s heartbreaking punch.
Inside No. 9’s strength is that Shearsmith and Pemberton understand how to boil down a tale to its essential form and tell it without over-complicating matters, an approach that makes the funny hysterical, the sad moving and the scary terrifying. The 12 Days of Christine is perhaps their most basic concept yet, but that simplicity gives it a power that hits you right in the gut.
The same is true of their understanding of how each genre works, which is never more obvious than in the way the show handles that staple element of thrillers: the twist ending. Inside No. 9’s constantly relies upon the writers’ – and cast’s – ability to undermine expectations, somethinig that is showcased in one story about a woman (Ruth Sheen) on trial for being a witch. Charges and humiliation give way to domestic rows and demands of reimbursement for beauty products, leaving you unsure whether their take on The Crucible should be taken seriously or not. The result (served up by an ensemble that includes Paul Kaye and David Warner) surprises you with laughter one minute and shocks you with cruelty the next. Is our subject really a witch? The fun lies in the fact that whichever answer you go in expecting, you can almost guarantee it will be the opposite.
There’s a similar build-up at Nana’s Birthday later in the season, as celebrations (as you`d expect) don’t go smoothly. Family secrets and drinking habits all come to the surface, while someone waits quietly underneath a pretend cake waiting to burst out. Eavesdropping and awkward truths make this recognisable gathering a gleefully painful watch, but while the final episode of the batch escalates to pure, rug-pulling horror, Nana’s Birthday is full of nasty emotions more than gruesome murders. Alongside Episode 2, it’s a delicate, restrained demonstration of how Reece and Steve have elevated their format to mature new heights.
That ambition extends to the show’s format, as well as its themes. Cold Comfort, the boldest of the season, is a thriller that takes place entirely in a call centre. We follow Andy (Pemberton), a new volunteer at Crisis Support Line, who receives a disturbing call from Chloe, a teenage girl who talks of suicide. His colleagues (played by Jane Horrocks, Nikki Amuka-Bird and Tony Way) don’t help much, as suspicion begins to grow about what may or may not be hoax calls to the centre, with everyone needled by rude supervisor George (Shearsmith).
The episode marks the directorial debut of Shearsmith and Pemberton, and they shoot the whole thing from the perspective of fixed CCTV cameras, a move that makes for a grippingly realistic ride, but also highlights just how ambitious the pair are – like Season 1’s A Quiet Night In, a farce that took place in total silence, this is a brave departure from the series’ norm, and, moreover, one that pays off handsomely.
The result teeters along the line between scares and silliness with deceptively complex precision; a compendium of vignettes that feel different from the majority of modern TV in almost every department. In an age of serial dramas and binge-watching box sets, Inside No. 9’s old-school anthology may deliver entertainment in bite-sized morsels, but they’re ones to saviour.
Inside No.9 Season 1 and 2 are available on Netflix UK, as part of £7.49 monthly subscription, and on Amazon Prime Video, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.
Where can I buy or rent Inside No.9 online in the UK?