Plenty of shows have based themselves on someone coming back from a long prison stint to find that everything has changed — The Last O.G. comes to mind. But Back To Life, a new British comedy, is a little different. Not only is the person being sprung a woman, but she comes back to the small town where she grew up and has found that very little has changed… including her reputation. Read on for more.
BACK TO LIFE: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
Opening Shot: A woman stands in front of a mirror practicing saying “Hi” and “Hello” for a job interview. Then she decides to trim her bangs.
The Gist: We see this woman, Miri Mattheson (Daisy Haggard), in that job interview, and when the manager asks her why there’s an 18-year gap in her resume (“it’s pretty much all gap” after 2000, he says), she claims she was travelling in Burma. When he asks a question about when they opened the borders, she knows her flimsy lie is collapsing.
Intercut with the interview is scenes from a few days before, when Miri was released from prison after 18 years. She moves back in with her parents Caroline (Geraldine James) and Oscar (Richard Durden) in the small coastal town where she grew up; she moves right back into her room, where she had posters of David Bowie, Prince, George Michael and Michael Jackson… all of whom are now dead.
We don’t exactly know why she was in prison for so long. But given that she was a teenager when she went away, and the severity of the sentence, we have a suspicion it was for something pretty bad. Also, given how she’s received when the cleaning company she has an interview with cancels the appointment by saying she should “clean offices in hell,” her reputation in that town precedes her.
She meets Bobby (Adeel Akhtar), a caretaker for the lady who lives next door, who curses her out from the window. But she really wants to talk to her old boyfriend Dom (Jamie Michie), whose Discman she still has and whom she thinks still has a passing interest in her. After all, Caroline has told her that Dom asks about her. But when she goes to Dom’s house — to give back the Discman, of course — he’s shocked that she showed up at his door. Then he blows her off when his wife and twins come up the walk.
She’s having a hard time, but when her parole officer Janice (Jo Martin) comes by, she lies and says “it’s like riding a bike.” Janice replies, “Right here, right now, you have a brand new bike. No stabilizers. You’ve got to learn how to ride it for real this time.” One way she starts is by finally owning up to the fact that she is the Miranda Mattheson, who was convicted of murder 18 years ago, in that job interview. This is after she sees that someone has scrawled “PSYCHO BITCH” in red paint on her parents’ front fence.
Our Take: Haggard, best known in the States for a role in Episodes, created Back To Life and co-wrote all six episodes with Laura Solon (Office Christmas Party). We’re not sure where Haggard came up with this concept, but it’s an intriguing one: How does a normal-seeming woman who just happens to be an ex-con get on with her life? Haggard adds in the complication of having Miri move back to the small town where she grew up and where the crime for which she was convicted was committed.
If that were the extent of Back To Life, it would be a pretty interesting, albeit not inherently funny, concept. And the first episode tries to be funny but falls short more often than not. But then Haggard and Solon throw in even more complications, not the least of which is the fact that her mother Caroline is having an affair with none other than her ex-boyfriend Dom. Yes, the same Dom that Caroline said kept asking them if Miri was doing OK in prison.
In the first episode, that plotline feels extraneous, but then again a connection between this icky affair and Miri’s prison stretch will hopefully be made somewhere. Has this been going on the whole time or is it more recent? Was it happening while Miri and Dom were dating? For the sake of this series, the connection should be made soon.
Also, we’re going to be getting details about what exactly Miri did in dribs and drabs, which can only go so far. Yes, she’s trying to move on, while her past keeps creeping up on her, so we’re experiencing it from her perspective. But at some point, we need to know more, otherwise the entire exercise becomes maddening.
Sex and Skin: Other than Dom having oral sex with Caroline in the back seat of her car, not much.
Parting Shot: Despite the scrawl on the fence and Miri not being able to walk in her mother’s heels and pencil skirt, we see her confidently walk to her interview with a tiny smile on her face. In voice over, Miri responds to the manager who just hired her, fascinated by the fact that she’s a “murderer”: “It wasn’t like that; it was a long time ago, and I’m ready to move on.”
Sleeper Star: Akhtar’s character Bobby is likely some sort of romantic interest, or at least someone willing to a friend to Miri. We like his role because he’s new to town and knows nothing about her reputation; he just likes her for who she is now.
Most Pilot-y Line: We get why Oscar is portrayed as a doddering dad who can’t deal with his daughter’s emotions. But the gag where he’s on hold with an insurance company for almost an hour then Caroline hangs up the phone right as someone comes on the line has been done to death.
Our Call: STREAM IT. The only reasons we’re recommending Back To Life are the premise behind the show and Haggard’s inherent charm. But some of the complications we saw in the first episode make us think there isn’t enough there to carry a series, even if it’s only six episodes.
Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting and tech, but he doesn’t kid himself: he’s a TV junkie. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Salon, VanityFair.com, Playboy.com, Fast Company.com, RollingStone.com, Billboard and elsewhere.