the dark, dark, dark, British series where everything is a surprise

By Yaqi Zhang

Everything's a surprise and not always a pleasant one
Inside No. 9 is an anthology television series that is very British, very dark, and very funny. It first aired in February 5, 2014. Written by Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton and produced by the BBC, each episode features a new story, with a new setting, and new characters. Episodes last around half an hour, and always come to a surprise conclusion—even when we’re waiting for the surprise conclusion, which is part of the fun of the series. The stories are linked only by the fact that each takes place in any place where there is a number 9—it could be a room, an ad-dress, etc. Shearsmith or Pemberton, and normally both play different characters in every epi-sode. The episodes are effectively short plays, and could easily be performed on stage. Most of them take place in real time, following half an hour in the lives of the characters.

Inside No. 9 is a tricky, tricky, tricky, though it follows a rather ridged formula every single time. The beauty of it is: even when you know what’s going to happen and how they’re going to do it, they still fool you. It’s kind of marvelous in that way, because it is like a magician saying, “I’m going to pull a rabbit out of your backpack, and you know it’s going to happen, and yet you still can’t figure out how it’s done.” So I want to talk about how Inside No. 9 works as a television series and how it makes us aware of story structure and how things are put together.

A little game of "Sardines"
The first 28 minutes are al-ways about waiting and the last two minutes about surprise. You know everything is leading up to the ending. There are no wasted lines, every detail is important, and the final outcome always makes us look back at what’s happened before.

For example, in the first episode, “Sardines,” we are at Rebecca and her boyfriend Jeremy’s engagement party. Everyone is playing the goofy and traditional game Sardines, which is similar to hide-and-seek. When a person finds out where the first person is hiding, he has to hide in the same place. They then wait for the next person to find them, and that happens over and over until the last person discovers everyone and they’re all crowded together like canned sardines. In the first 28 minutes of this episode we watch the char-acters entering the room one by one and hiding in a big closet. As they talk to each other, we learn about them and their relationships to each other.

One of the pleasures of the series and espe-cially, “Sardines,” is that there are a lot of clues and we try to hold them all in our head but can’t. One of the first clues of “Sardines” is the date of the engagement, the 9th of November. Ian says, "That's 9/11 and you will not forget that in a hurry.” And of course the audience won’t forget that either. Rebecca says that she “can’t think that far.” And Ian says, “Well, you must.” I immediate-ly think that this is a hint of death, a clue that there is going to be some type of catastrophe.

There are a secrets
The second big clue is that Rebecca and her brother Carl are stuck in the closet. Carl looks menacing and slightly sad. “What do you think, Rebecca? Look where we are.”This seems to suggest that the closet itself is a clue, as if it might explain something about Carl and Rebecca’s relationship and lead to some kind of resolution. We know that something has happened here and that Ian has also hidden there.

The third clue is that there is an elder sister, Caroline, who does not come to her sister’s engagement because she does not want some unknown event from happening again and to her own children. The fourth clue is that Stinky John does not like bathing. Yes, his name is Stinky John. He is very sensitive to soap, so that’s how he got his name. This also shows that he is one of the victims. The fifth clue is that Rebecca says she is aware of the pattern of the house, so she has a lot of advantages. But Carl says that Rebecca never finds him. I guess Rebec-ca found Carl, but because of what she saw, she only can say that she can’t find Carl. The sixth clue is that Stewart says, “It is not my fault that you are afraid of intimacy.” Carl says, “that is not my fault.” The audience does not know what happened.

When I first watched “Sardines” I never would have guessed — spoiler alert — that the trick of the narrative would be that the Fa-ther gathers his son and boys in the neighborhood together and teaches them "basic health knowledge" in order to molest them. Of all the boys, only Pip dares to accuse the old man, but is finally bought off. Years later, Pip comes back for revenge. This is typical of Inside No. 9, it’s absurd and serious at the same time. It makes guess and you never know what’s going to happen.

The eternal theme of Inside No. 9 is reversal, simulated reversal, and frantic re-reversal. The first 28 minutes of the story may bore, confuse, or perplex the audience, but the last 2 minutes are always exciting. This is the golden rule of Inside No. 9.

Is the terror real?
The second episode of the second season, "The 12 Days of Christine,” is typical Inside No.9. Christine comes home with a man she met at a party, dressed as a firefighter, and then suddenly the scene changes and the two are on a formal date, and then the scene changes again and they have children, and then another scene and they’re quarreling and another scene and they’re divorced. These experiences are not consistent. Christine can’t remember many of the people she encounters. At first we might think she is crazy or schizophrenic, but we find out is that she is going to die in a car crash and the important mo-ments of her life our flashing in front of her. Looking back, we finally understand why the title is called "The 12 days of Christine." Yet instead of ending in a celebration, her life is ending in a violent crash.

In "The 12 days of Christine” all the scene are clues, not only for the story but also for Christine’s life. In Inside No.9 clues are intense and sometimes make the audience feel as if they don’t get it. When the story finishes with some kind of reversal, the ending always makes you reassess what has happened. And sometimes the endings are so mysterious that even the power of the Internet can’t solve them.

Everything's a mystery
For example, in the first episode of the second season, “La Couchette” why does the doctor mention countless times how important it is to go to work for a job in Geneva? He’s on a train heading to Geneva, desperate to fall asleep and people keep on inter-rupting him and he keeps on finding beds for them. Then they find out that one of the sleeping passengers is dead and he volunteers to look for the train crew. He quickly returns and tells them that he cannot find any of the train crew and suggests that everyone should ignore the dead. The-se are all important clues, but like all of the episodes we can’t guess what’s going to happen. The writers apparently use these reversals to play with the audience: as Shearsmith says, “I just want you to guess wrong.”

In the first episode of the third season, “The Devil of Christmas," the first 25 minutes are a "70's" low quality suspense film. It looks mediocre. When the film ends, the real story of terror begins. The director voiceover suddenly announces that they’re going to add a rape scene. The staff chains the actress to the bed and cover it with plastic sheeting. The lens fo-cuses on the actress with a “I do not know what is happening” face. The subtitle in the episode, "The police trial of Dennis Fochell ends at 16:05." The scenes we just watched are not movie material, but the director's cut of court trial material. All this is real, at least in the world of In-side No. 9, and it’s terrifying.

After watching, I could not watch it again and I love rewatching the episodes to gain a different perspective. The best part about Inside No. 9 is that you can never guess what will happen next. Everything always comes at the end and it is often a shock.

©Yaqi Zhang and the CCA Arts Review

No comments:

Post a Comment