Inside No. 9 is a comedy-horror TV show written and starring Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith. With 6 episodes per season, it is currently on season 3. Season 1 is available on Amazon streaming. It’s available on DVD region 2/PAL.
If you like scary movies, this is a good TV show for you. Every episode is self contained with separate stories and characters, not unlike Black Mirror, but the episodes are short (half an hour) and there are jokes. It’s not as dark as something like JAM, but you do get everything from haunted theatres to murderers to demons.
Number 9 is the address for each of Pemberton & Shearsmith’s horror stories. In one number 9, party guests are locked in a wardrobe with an alleged pedophile. In another number 9, a hobo takes over Tom’s life by isolating him from his friends and job. The point is that each episode takes place in one location, giving it a claustrophobic feel. This year, Pemberton & Shearsmith were awarded the Legacy Medal from the Slapstick Festival for episode 2, “A Quiet Night In,” an episode with almost no dialogue. In this number 9, two burglars (Pemberton & Shearsmith) break into a fancy house to steal a painting while the husband, wife, and cook are still home.
Every episode has a different feel to it, and some episodes are stronger than others. “Last Gasp” was the dud of season one, even though it was based on the clever premise that a popstar died blowing up a party balloon, making the balloon that is filled with the literal dying breath of the singer worth millions. Season 2’s “Nana’s Party” felt like an attempt to remake the episode, it also taking place in a suburban home, but this time instead of the balloon being the focus, it’s the cardboard cake set up as a gag. You know it’s never a good idea to hide your head inside something that is traditionally set on fire and then cut open.
Some episodes, like “Sardines” and its equally claustrophobic counterpart “La Couchette,” have a neat twist at the end. Some episodes, like “Tom & Gerri,” have many twists at the end, so by the time you figure out what’s going on, you feel a Twilight Zone satisfaction. Other episodes are set up more like mysteries. “The 12 Days of Christine” lays down a smattering of clues across twelve holiday tableaux in Christine’s life, those holidays being clues themselves, and you spend the episode trying to guess what’s really going on.
Other episodes, like “The Understudy” and “The Harrowing” end abruptly, with no real conclusion. As an American, these endings felt wrong to me. Surely after the demon advances on poor naive Katy, we’re going to cut to a commercial and then come back to see that Katy is in her classroom casting demonic spells on the other kids, much to the chagrin of the teacher. This doesn’t happen, though. The plot of American television is so precise, in order to fit commercials in to the right spots, after decades letting the crescendos and denouements wire themselves into our brains as being the one correct narrative format, watching sitcoms of other styles feels wrong. American TV has a commercial after the second act, and then it cuts to a short bit at the end that is called a “tag.” The plot is meant to be all wrapped up by that last commercial, so the tag is just a chance for one last throw-away gag. But, if you’re in a country where people pay a TV license and don’t have commercials interrupting most TV shows, in theory, you don’t need to have that tag at the end because there’s nothing to interrupt your plot. That’s my theory why some of these episodes felt that they ended too abruptly. It’s my American bias.
Season 2 is equally a mixed bag of good and not so good episodes. “Seance Time” feels like a mash-up of season 1’s “The Understudy” and “The Harrowing.” (Seriously, why do actors always write episodes about actors?) “The Trial of Elizabeth Gadge” is a period witch burning episode that is not scary in the least but is very funny and co-stars David Warner and Paul Kaye. The real gem of the season is “Cold Comfort.” Like “Quiet Night In,” it is award-worthy. The entire episode takes place within the screen of four stationary cameras–all of which are shown for the whole episode. It takes place at a helpline call center. I was a little worried they were going to take it in the direction of my own (award-winning, ahem) short film about a helpline, but they actually veered into very unexpected and satisfying places.
You don’t have to be a fan of The League of Gentlemen or Psychoville, other TV projects by Pemberton & Shearsmith. This show is as dark as those shows but with significantly less goofiness and prosthetic. In fact, it proves that Pemberton & Shearsmith have good enough acting skills that they don’t need makeup and props to make themselves malleable. It is backed by a wonderful cast of familiar faces including The I.T. Crowd‘s Katherine Parkinson, Detectorists‘ Aimee-Ffion Edwards, comedian Tim Key, Charlie Chaplin’s grand daughter Oona Chaplin, Episodes‘ Tamsin Greig, Nighty Night‘s Julia Davis, Green Wing‘s Julian Rhind-Tutt, Outnumbered‘s Claire Skinner, and many others.