Brits have a strange sense of humor. And they admit it.
Just ask Daisy Haggard (“Episodes”) to describe her six-episode comedy series “Back to Life,” which debuts Sunday on Showtime. She stars as Miri Matteson, a woman who is released after 18 years in prison and returns to her seaside hometown in southeast England.
“We wanted to make it as hard for her as humanly possible,” said Haggard, who co-created and co-wrote the series with Laura Solon. “And by putting a woman in her late 30s back in her hometown where she did the worst thing that’s ever happened in that town and she’s got no job, no friends, and a whole town that hates her, we thought it presented the most amount of challenges.
“It doesn’t sound like a comedy, but...”
No, it doesn’t. And yet ... “Back to Life” is very funny, in the weirdest sort of way. In a very British sort of way. (It’s a BBC show that Showtime bought.)
“British humor is all about pain and awkwardness and suffering,” Solon said, adding that there have been “no tweaks to it” for American viewers. “All the British-isms will be in it.”
(Helpful hint for watching British TV shows: Turn on the subtitles.)
No spoilers here, but Miri was sent away for murder. There’s a bit of a mystery to the show, and the crime might not have been what it appeared.
Not that that keeps the townsfolk from harassing and insulting Miri. Or keeps old friends from turning their backs on her. Or keeps a stalker from pursuing her. Or keeps her own mother (Geraldine James) from hiding the knives and scissors before Miri comes into the kitchen.
“We took it to the extreme,” Haggard said, “because extremes are quite fun, aren’t they?”
But there’s also something universal about it. Like the town meeting when one woman says, “We are here to discuss the release of a violent psychopath into our town.”
“And the parking on Dickson Street,” a man interjects.
What makes “Back to Life” work is that, despite the trials Miri faces, she maintains a sense of optimism. Like when she sits across from her clearly bored parole officer, Janice (Jo Martin), who reads from a standard form. “If you are experiencing depression, frustration or just a deep and consuming sense of hopelessness,” Jo intones, pausing as she slowly turns the page and adds, “It’s normal.” Miri smiles and nods.
“Maybe we are quite mean in Britain,” Haggard said. “We love watching people struggle.”
“We are not very comfortable with winning or success,” Solon added. “We are much happier when we are doomed. ... I think British humor is more about pain and suffering. American humor is more joyful, upbeat, can be very ironic.”
Well, it’s not like we don’t have dark comedy on this side of the Atlantic — everything from “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” to “Better Call Saul” to “You’re the Worst.” CBS’ “Mom” is about people who are recovering alcoholics/drug users and has killed off two of its characters — including one who died of a drug overdose.
But there’s something oh-so-British about “Back to Life.” It’s decidedly different in a weird, funny — even sometimes hilarious — kind of way.
Meanwhile, I’m still waiting for someone to explain the current hosts of “The Great British Baking Show” to me. In the three seasons that Noel Fielding and Sandi Toksvig have been the presenters, they’ve consistently given us lame, unfunny “comedy” bits.
Do Brits actually find them funny? That I can’t wrap my head around.
(The first two episodes of “Back to Life” air Sunday on Showtime — 8 and 8:30 p.m. Dish and DirecTV; 11 and 11:30 p.m. on Comcast. All six episodes will be available to stream starting Sunday on the Showtime and Showtime Anytime apps, as well as on Showtime On Demand.)