Women starting their lives over on television are usually emerging from some sort of long-term domestic captivity — marriage, child rearing, an illness of body or mind. Miri Matteson, the heroine of the BBC comedy “Back to Life” (beginning with two episodes Sunday night on Showtime), was a captive of another sort: She spent 18 years, half her life, in prison for a violent crime. Back at her parents’ house, in her time capsule of a bedroom, she scans the posters of David Bowie, Prince and George Michael before arriving at a smiling likeness of the TV chef Jamie Oliver. “Thank God he’s still with us,” she murmurs.
“Back to Life” has drawn comparisons to the Emmy-winning “Fleabag,” another six-episode British comedy with a female creator, writer and star, a raunchy vocabulary and an initial season haunted by a shameful incident in its protagonist’s past. They also share the prolific executive producers Harry and Jack Williams (known for “Fleabag” but mostly responsible for grim crime series).
The humor in the new show is of a different variety, though — softer, more diffident, more resigned, with an ephemeral, storybook quality. Both shows want to pull the rug out from under you, but where Phoebe Waller-Bridge of “Fleabag” is happy to let you hit the floor, Daisy Haggard in “Back to Life” is more inclined to catch you and set you down gently.
Haggard, a veteran character actress (known in America for Showtime’s “Episodes”) who’s writing a series for the first time, makes Miri’s re-entry to life in her insular seaside home of Hythe, Kent, an amusing, bittersweet jumble of lies, pain and small, hard-won victories. (Haggard shares script credit for the season with Laura Solon, whose stint as a writer on “Hot in Cleveland” gives her experience with female characters reinventing themselves.)
Miri expects people to be nicer than they turn out to be; other people expect Miri, the inconvenient woman, to conveniently disappear. On the rare occasions when someone doesn’t already know who she is, Miri improvises unconvincing reasons for her spotty resume or outdated frame of reference: She’s been traveling in Burma, she’s been on a really long diet.
What complicates the situation, and gives “Back to Life” an extra comic kick, is that the duplicity and discomfort come from every direction. Miri, who’s clearly a kind and gentle soul, if sarcastically minded, at first takes the suspicion and resistance she encounters — which ranges from rude remarks to vile graffiti and a brick through a window — as her due. But eventually she cottons to what we already know, or can pretty easily guess: The people she’s closest to, including her mother, Caroline (Geraldine James), her former best friend, Mandy (Christine Bottomley), and the affable new neighbor, Billy (Adeel Akhtar), are harboring secrets that start to make her own past transgression look tolerable.
“Back to Life” may be premised as a spin on a couple of standard narratives, the “woman starting over in a world with no place for her” and the (usually male) “life-after-prison” stories. But most of its comedy stems from the effect Miri has on everyone around her, and its primary pleasure comes from its gallery of supporting performances: James as Miri’s waspish, selfish, covertly sexting mom and Richard Durden as her gruff, eco-warrior dad; Bottomley, echoing the prickly defensiveness of her role in “The End of the ____ing World”; and the wonderfully warm Akhtar. Haggard, with her distinctive features — a cross of Modigliani portrait and midcareer Penny Marshall — plays Miri as a bashful but stubborn catalyst for the action, an unavoidable object disrupting 18 years of small-town rationalization and avoidance.
When it focuses on being a tart, melancholy, frequently dirty treatise on indignity, reconciliation and clashing expectations, “Back to Life” works quite well. (A typical exchange in which two characters review each other’s liabilities: “You killed someone!” “You’re married!”) What doesn’t work so well is the mystery plot, increasingly obtrusive as the season progresses, in which a cryptic freelance “investigator” digs into the circumstances of Miri’s teenage crime. (It involves a dramatic setting that clearly, but irrelevantly, invokes the murder drama “Broadchurch.”) Details of that catastrophic incident are dribbled out to the viewer in a way that’s slightly irritating even as it is crucial to the show’s structure.
The question of what Miri did, and why, is so prominent throughout the season that other threads aren’t (or don’t need to be) fully developed; when it’s answered, you’re not exactly sure whether there’s more for the show to do.
Do we need to see where the tentative romance between Miri and Billy will go, no matter how charmingly it’s played by Haggard and Akhtar? Will James and Durden’s stiff-upper-lip marital and sexual sparring continue to be funny? Will the show’s slight edge of sentimentality grow? Like the ice cream cones Miri and Billy share on a cold winter beach, “Back to Life” is a sweet, possibly addictive but not entirely substantial treat.
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