A Dark Story That’s As Fresh As A Daisy
Back to Life IS Back for season 2
One of the more pleasing discoveries of the last decade on TV has been the emergence of Daisy Haggard. Those lucky few of us who enjoyed Episodes well remembered Haggard’s scene-stealing role as a network assistant who only seemed to speak in moans — even when she gave birth. Two years ago, she began co-starring with Martin Freeman in Breeders, a superb BBC-FX collaboration about two fortyish parents with difficult children and parents. I was understandably delighted that Haggard was recognized with a Best Actress nomination from the HCA after being ignored by the Emmys this year.
Understandably, I thought that because Haggard was busy on Breeders that she had left behind the project she developed in conjunction with the BBC and Showtime in 2019, Back to Life. Haggard plays Miriam, a woman who has served eighteen years in prison for murder and has been released. The small coastal town that she returns to hasn’t forgiven her for her crime, and to say her return to society is painful is an understatement. Windows are broken, foul things are left on her doorstep, and a life-sized dummy of her beaten and bruised is delivered to her parents’ home. Her parents, Caroline and James are not equipped to deal with her: Caroline’s been having an affair with a much younger man (who gave her Chlamydia) and Oscar is obsessed with being green to the point of insanity. Her only support are her former best friend Mandy, Janice her parole officer, and her next door neighbor, who she tentatively becomes friends with. Things have just been lousy for her in the first season, and they actually got worse in the finale when the community had a meeting to exile her and she ended up learning that Mandy had, inadvertently, been the cause of the death that sent her to prison.
This could just as easily be a setup for the British version of Rectify, were it not for the fact that Back to Life is a comedy. As Miri tries to acclimate herself back to society, most of the threat are far sillier than they are angry. The community meeting where they try to say she should be exiled, bogs down when one of the older members wants to discuss ‘the parking on Dixon Street’ and all the other sins of the community come out in awkward fashion. The series didn’t tell a complete story, but given the way so many British series work I wasn’t sure I’d see Back to Life again. Imagine how pleased I was when it returned last night.
It’s been six weeks since Miri got out of prison and apart from a ridiculous hair style (which she is proud of) things haven’t improved, despite her optimism to Joy. She isn’t talking to parents (she using a boom box to play recorded messages), Mandy refuses to accept her ‘forgiveness’, her job at a supermarket is kind of a mess, and her relationship with her neighbor isn’t going very well. Finally, she reaches the point where she moves out of her parent’s flat and in with Mandy and her husband (who each have a hysterical reaction) which would be progress…if the father of the girl Miri murdered had not just returned to town.
What none of this makes clear is how funny this show is. Haggard is equal parts sweet and angry and everybody’s reaction to everything is so quintessentially English that you can’t help but smile. Joy gives a long speech in which she speaks of portents of evil, we cut to this sinister stranger… and Miri says: “You’re probably just hungry.” Miri’s father using a vile curse word to describe her, and immediately afterwards it’s very clear he never used it before and doesn’t know what it means. (He has to Google it in a later scene.) And when Miri storms into Mandy’s apartment and they bury the hatchet, her husband spoils the mood by running in with a heavy object, something that they admonish him for doing and then Mandy says: “You really took your time, by the way.”
Oh, make no mistake there is darkness at the center of Back to Life: we do get the images of a life that has been wasted to this point and the utter lack of forgiveness of the community despite knowing the facts. But the approach they take are so badly handled and so awkward that you can’t help but smile at the silliness of it. Yes, the community wants to form a mob, but because they’re British they ask everything if they’re fine with it a dozen times. A person who tries to bully Miri at her job at the supermarket is so pathetic and so easily cowed that you actually feel sorry for him for trying
Back to Life is charming, sad and humorous all at the same time. It is a triumph for Haggard on all fronts. It’s going to take time for Miri to win acceptance anywhere. It’s going to take far less time for Haggard to win the recognition she deserves for the series she’s leading and the ones that are sure to come afterward.
My score: 4.25 stars.