TV Review: ‘Inside No. 9’: The Curse of the Ninth?

© BBC Studios / James Stack

Content warning: This review of BBC’s Inside No. 9 features mentions of drug use.

After first airing in 2014, Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton have satisfyingly put the final nail in the coffin of their macabre, Bafta Award-winning comedy anthology series this month after reaching the number nine milestone. But was it worth the wait? Or should they have ‘CNTRL, ALT, ESC’-aped far earlier? 

The long-running show achieved an impressive 55 episodes of twists, turns and stars over its ten-year stint (with the stars often literally coerced into the twisting and turning) and the ninth series is no exception.

To quote from the final episode, there is the risk with an anthology series that every fourth one is a dud, and yes, inevitably, there is no way every single episode is going to be exactly the same quality. Yet, Inside No. 9 does a very good job of dispelling this myth. Just when you think this pair have used up all of their best ideas, they just keep churning out more.

Although by no means the very best of the nine seasons, (‘Once Removed’ will always remain a personal favourite) each episode in this series is executed exceptionally well, and there is plenty here to get the cogs turning and blood pumping. This season gives a glimpse of the good old days of the series which is most welcomed after a slight sinking point at series seven.

There are a few minor criticisms that may spark discussion, for example, the first episode of the final series, ‘Boo to a Goose’, set on a Merseyrail train, has all the ingredients required for chaos and therefore a great episode. The characterisations here are brilliant. We are presented with perfect archetypes of characters from completely different walks of life; which include a straight-laced, 2.4 family couple on their way back from the theatre, a homeless man played brilliantly by Charlie Cooper, a morally sound nurse played by Philipa Dunne and an openly un-PC drag queen played by Pemberton.

Despite the enticing set-up here, the ending leaves us with a few too many questions and teeters a little too far into Black Mirror territory, without the episode length to pull it off. Admittedly, this is a slightly pedantic take and what the episode does highlight is the creators’ incredible observational talent and their dedication to keep the show moving with the times. No ruts are getting stuck in here. This episode draws attention to our current social climate and is arguably one of the most politically relevant as we have seen with a No. 9. However, it does the usual great job of  making you laugh and feel intensely uncomfortable all at the same time. All in all, this is a great opening episode that sets the precedent for an exciting series.

‘This Country’s Charlie Cooper stars as part of the ensemble in ‘Inside No. 9’s first season nine episode, ‘Boo to a Goose’. | © BBC Studios/James Stack

Like the majority of Inside No. 9, this final series achieves the perfect measure of silliness, sincerity, and empathy. The show does not take itself too seriously, yet we vitally and fundamentally care about the characters because they are fleshed out just enough, and acted remarkably well. To introduce, build upon and then conclude the fate of new characters every week all within a limited 30-minute time slot is incredibly tricky, but there is no doubt they pull it off (almost) every single time. Reece and Steve both have the most wonderful transformative ability, so even when the narrative arc doesn’t knock you completely off your seat, the commitment to the characters and sheer creativity is worth watching in itself.

This series is innovative, engaging and suitably macabre – which I think we have come to expect and secretly love. I think we can all agree that the grislier the outcome the better. The series features one episode shot entirely through a Ring doorbell and one in an escape room, and it is these recognisable, everyday settings that make the show work so well. There isn’t an episode set in space or on a fictional desert island. What we are seeing are pretty horrific things happening to ‘real’ people in banal contexts we can all place ourselves in, which is always far scarier than any robot or zombie chase.

Episode two, ‘The Trolley Problem’ is the only one in the series I feel dips in quality ever so slightly. Most likely, I think this is largely due to the fact that we have been spoilt in every other episode with a host of familiar faces, whereas here, it is only Reece and Steve who feature in the episode. Although the fateful twist is relatively satisfying and suitably grim, this one felt like a bit of a filler.

The host of outstanding British actors surely helps this series out a lot, but I mean this as no disservice to the production itself. It certainly does not rely on these actors to be watchable, but you have to admit they have chosen impeccably. In this series, we are treated to the likes of Eddie Marsan, Natalie Dormer, Hayley Squires, Adrian Scarborough, Siobhan Finneran, Joel Fry… I could go on! This is to name just a few familiar faces we are graced with that have been, rightfully, plastered over our screens over recent years.

A stacked cast in the third season nine episode, ‘Mulberry Close’ | © BBC Studios/James Stack

Speaking of an all-star cast, the last episode, ‘Plodding On’, has to be a series highlight. This episode goes full meta, parody, and sending themselves up in the best possible way. The episode contains an impressive cohort of actors, all of whom have appeared in previous episodes of Inside No. 9.

The episode is set during a wrap party for the show and the super(star) turnout is a clear testament to how great the pair are to work with, or how much they have paid them to be there – you decide! Tension builds in the episode between the two creators as Shearsmith and Pemberton self-indulgently bicker and snipe at each other about their fate in the acting industry. They perfectly embody the privileged narcissistic actor they master a little too accurately. Featuring hilarious cameo roles from Katherine Parkinson and Tim Key snorting cocaine in the toilets, this episode is the perfect and only way to conclude what has been a thoroughly entertaining series.

It cannot be denied that Reece and Steve are masters in their craft and have absolutely nailed the secret recipe for a deliciously dark comedy. A No. 9 will always get your brain fizzing and your heart racing, and I feel the TV Guide (if people still read these) will bear a noticeable hole now this has come to an end. In a world of streaming and crime dramas with high production values and endless hour-long episodes you can binge all at once, there now feels like a bigger drought than ever before for television as intelligent and innovative as this.

However, not to fear No.9 fans! A theatre adaption of the series has already been announced to hit the West End in 2025 so this is far from the end of the road for these two creative geniuses.

Words by Abbie James

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