Season 2 of “Back” has a great runner. The first in the comedy series’ new batch of episodes, returning after a years-long absence and now airing stateside on IFC, sees the staff and patrons of the local John Barleycorn having to deal with a trendy neighborhood newcomer. “P:ub,” the newly-arrived drinking establishment, has all the trappings of a deconstructed brewery, all the way down to a name that people aren’t 100 percent sure how to pronounce.
The sprinklings of people invoking “Puh-uhb” in and around the John Barleycorn is the kind of simple Season 2 joke that’s “Back” in a nutshell. Pronouncing that name becomes more a dejected statement of fact, the kind of thing that writer Simon Blackwell and stars Robert Webb and David Mitchell have turned into their own kind of magic trick over their multi-decade run together. So while there’s plenty of shifting around in “Back” Season 2, the humor comes from the same place: melancholy resignation to the fact that something will always be (fittingly, in the words of the new network’s slogan) slightly off.
This season doesn’t quite hit the reset button. Stephen (Mitchell) opens the new chapter having just left longterm inpatient therapy, while his previously presumed brother Andrew (Webb) further ingratiates himself with everyone in the family’s circle. The pair’s relationship is icy as ever, with Stephen in a perpetual state of suspicion and Andrew dead-set on slowly dismantling every bit of stability for the man who used to regard him as family.
What seemed like a hindrance through the first season, as the show was finding its footing, has developed into a near-strength. Their fraught sibling dynamic is still the basis of the series, complete with all the daily ups and downs of John Barleycorn ownership that dotted the first season. The more that the show emphasizes this psychological detente, the more the characters (and by extension, the show) find ways to embrace it in their own singular dark defeatist humor.
With Andrew’s motivations at least somewhat in doubt in the series’ early going, Webb’s performance takes on an even sharper edge in Season 2. There’s something incredibly sinister about Andrew’s brand of faux sincerity, especially when he presents himself as selfless. Over time, he’s become a more nuanced manifestation of a cartoon shoulder devil, an expert at making people think that their worst option is in their best interest. And Mitchell, as always, has an uncanny ability to turn even the most mundane details into a punchline. (Witness the delicate inflection he gives to “Citalopram.”)
Even with the well-established Mitchell-Webb interplay, the place where “Back” truly excels is in the more outsized personalities of the John Barleycorn. With Mike (Oliver Maltman) and Jan (Jessica Gunning) tending bar and a revolving door of colorful denizens flowing in and out (Anthony Head is this season’s one-off joy, all the way down to his character’s playful nickname), the series could plop itself down inside those four walls and barely miss a beat.
The patron who truly makes these scenes glisten is Geoff (Geoffrey McGivern), Stephen’s uncle and a delightfully unpredictable purveyor of left-field propositions and unprompted opinions. In McGivern’s hands, Wikipedia rants, animal husbandry, and construction equipment all become “Back” centerpieces, whether they take up a single line or multiple paragraphs.
Outside of those occasional delights, there’s a simmering lack of sharpness to “Back” that keeps it from being a top-tier effort from this team. Its relative lack of change gives the show a wispy feeling that leaves enough of Season 2 as more or less a show on shuffle. “Back” is filled with people trying to make the most of their own stasis. The cast knows how to navigate that cycle of disappointment and frustration and minor reconciliation, but repetitiveness starts to set in as the season goes on.
Still, maybe the most consistent thing about “Back” is its ability to focus its finale and set up a better, more dynamic season to come. Considering those emotions that all come out as a jumble against a backdrop of Andrew’s machinations and everyone else’s well-meaning apathy, it’s a surprise when Blackwell and Co. manage to wring some real heart out of a situation that so often delights in forsaking it. That slew of grudges and dependably odd relatives — Cass (Louise Brealey) and Ellen (Penny Downie) have some strong seasons, too — have some depth underneath, even if sometimes takes a little bit longer than you’d hope for it to get tapped.
“Back” Season 2 airs Wednesday nights on IFC. The full season is available to stream via AMC+.
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