During its twelve year run, Peep Show certainly achieved cult status. Its depiction of Mark (David Mitchell) and Jez (Robert Webb), two flatmates whose first person perspective and account of events make up the narrative of the series, remains both inventive and engaging. Creating a first person perspective through interesting and unusual camera use was initially the series’ USP and, in the early series in particular, the camera is continually bobbing and weaving across the screen, forever drawing the audience’s attention to its use.
The employment of the first person narration from both Mark and Jez allowed the audience to not only gain an insight into character motivations, but also their machinations. With both characters sharing thoughts with the audience that would never be said audibly, a form of kinship can be created. The audience is privy to Mark and Jez’ innermost wants and desires, ones that are often, fleetingly, dark for comedic purposes.
Initially, it is this strain of dark humour that is the show’s strength. Largely because, no matter how objectifying, or bizarre Jez and Mark’s thoughts are, the other characters are there to temper their actions. Thus, Mark’s call to Sophie early on in their burgeoning relationship, in which he phones and leaves a voicemail singing to her, is reiterated back to him by Jeff. Jeff, also in a burgeoning relationship with Sophie, recognises the strangeness of Mark’s actions, and uses the knowledge of it to mock him. While we may not like Jeff, and certainly first viewings do not endear his character to the audience, we align our perception with his. We too recognise that Mark’s actions are becoming obsessive, and it is the very nature of these actions that promote much of the comedy. Jez’ behaviour too, is tempered by those around him, including Mark. His sexual proclivities are often brought into question, and Mark regularly expresses distaste for Jez’ actions. Together the pair, while both individually questionable in their actions towards women, are initially able to monitor one another, largely preventing their actions from becoming too damaging.
It is later on in the series run, that their actions frequently become rather more repugnant. Take Mark’s treatment of Sophie. Throughout the series, almost until the moment that the pair finally got together, Mark had promoted Sophie to a position of high regard. He places his affections for her above anything else, and regularly proclaims his belief that she is ‘the one’. This belief, it quickly becomes apparent, is clearly based on Mark’s own projections towards Sophie. He doesn’t truly know her, or understand her character, and when he is finally in a relationship with her, does all he can to avoid spending time with her (joining a gym, nearly reneging on his decision to propose). Mark seems to accept that once in a relationship with someone, happiness doesn’t matter and isn’t the end goal. It is simply being in a relationship that is enough. It could, of course, be argued that the audience is supposed to question Mark’s actions and treatment towards Sophie. After their disastrous wedding, Sophie becomes a former shadow of her once vivacious self, and we see a woman who was once capable (being promoted ahead of Mark at work) become a liability. Yet, Mark’s actions, being used for comedic purposes, are never truly brought into question, particularly when the early episodes have spent so long attempting to commend Mark to the audience.
Mark’s treatment of Sophie is not his only misdemeanour. His treatment of women, in general, is hugely questionable, and, upon repeat viewing, merely highlights itself as outdated and tired. Take his actions towards the vulnerable university student that he meets under false pretences. After he purchases shoes from her while shopping, he tracks her down at her university, pretending that he too is a current student. Allowing her to share her fears and feelings, he quickly sets about attempting to engineer a relationship between the two of them, regardless of age disparity or lack of honesty. Similarly, when regretting the demise of his relationship with Dobby, we discover that he tracks and monitors her location surreptitiously. These actions are not sources of humour, and should not be heralded as such. Rather, they are the actions of a man abusing his position of power.
Jez too, while not as damaging in his treatment of women (he does, at least, appear to respect women and enjoy their company) regularly involves himself with women through manipulation and lies. His relationship with Zara, for example, is entirely based on fabrication, and despite his working for her partner, he frequently attempts to contrive a moment in which the pair can begin a relationship.
Notably, much of Jez’ actions towards women are borne out of apparent love, and he does seem damaged or hurt by the breakdown of his relationship with Big Suze. His issue though, despite the affection and high esteem that he holds women in (he genuinely appears to care for Elena and Nancy) is that he, like Mark, projects his own vision of a relationship onto these women. He never truly attempts to get to know them, but rather, would rather admire them for their physical attributes. His connection with these women are superficial, and after the relationship breaks down, quickly becomes manic. He too, like Mark, is prone to outbursts in which he declares his current love interest as ‘the one’, and it is this concept that is perhaps the most damaging. Mark and Jez’ version of ‘the one’ is whoever is around at that moment. Their personality and characterisation does not matter, but rather what they represent at that moment.
Thus Mark’s interest in the university student is borne out of his regret of his choice of degree. Her studying of History, a degree which Mark always regrets not doing, allows Mark to create an alternative fantasy life for himself. One in which he is recognised for his supposed academic attributes. It is not the university student herself that he is interested, but rather what she represents: an opportunity to mould himself into the image that he desires for himself. Similarly, his interest in Sophie is reignited when he perceives the opportunity that the ownership of ‘nanna’s cottage’ would represent. He immediately begins to envision a life for himself, forgetting or neglecting to recognise, that this life with ‘nanna’s cottage’ would entail a marriage and life with Sophie.
While Peep Show was, and remains, progressive in its form, its depiction of women is entirely questionable. This representation is, interestingly, often made problematic through the very use of the first person perspective that is only ever male. We only ever see Mark and Jez’ perception of events and characters, and thus, the audience is encouraged to align their own viewpoint with the very characters whose discernment is so challenging.