Inside No. 9 S7E5: A Random Act of Kindness

by thethreepennyguignol

A small note for those who might have missed it: my new book came out this Monday, available in hardback, paperback, and digital, if you’d care to check it out!

Inside No. 9 is a show built around the twist. It is, I think, one of the first things that comes to mind when you try to put this series into words: take a premise, add a twist, usually a slightly sick and twisted one, and you’ve got Inside No. 9’s basic recipe.

It’s easy to do a twist ending, in some ways – tag on the most outrageous thing you can think of, call it innovation, and hope for the best – but I think the really impressive episodes of the show are the ones that wrap the twist perfectly up in the existing premise and storyline. Inside No. 9 is at its finest with episodes such as Lip Service, The Stakeout, The Referee’s a Wanker, where it’s all fair and all feasibly figurable-outable if you just pay close enough attention. They’re going more for the forehead-slapping “ah!” of realization, rather than the eyebrow-raising “uh?” of confusion, and that’s what I look for in a brilliant twist.

And this week’s episode, A Random Act of Kindness, struggles with getting that right. It follows a newly-single mother (the national treasure that is Jessica Hynes) as she grapples with an increasingly fractious relationship with her son, meeting the mysterious Bob (Steve Pemberton) who she hires to tutor her teenager in physics. Initially, I found this a really compelling set-up, as some of my favourite episodes of the show are basically very slow home invasion thrillers – the realisation that there is something terrible going on, but it’s already worked its way into the fabric of the house and the people who live in it – with Steve Pemberton’s ambiguous presence serving as a slow-burning question mark over the course of the story. Reese Shearsmith punctuates each act with a Bill Nye-esque clip as a scientist-entertainer type with some exceptionally fabulous hair, explaining a little more about the basics of physics (and trust me, as a full-blown science illiterate despite my best efforts, I sincerely needed this). Yeah, the teenage belligerence stuff wasn’t exactly nuanced, but with a limited runtime, I can forgive a bit of corner-cutting.

But then it all wraps up to reveal Pemberton is actually the older version of the teenage son come back in time to plead with his younger self to be kinder to his mother since she is actually dying of terminal cancer. Now, the time travel, ,it’s-actually-a-younger-version-of-yourself trope is about as well-used in the twist department as “it was all a dream” and “they were dead all along”, but if the show could have brought something really interesting to it, I wouldn’t have minded the hackiness as much – but honestly, using it as a framework to finger-wag a thinly-written teenage bastard into being nicer to his mum for being imminently dead feels dissapointing.

It’s so black-and-white instead of the fun grey area Inside No. 9 usually plays in – be nice to your mother, because she’ll be dead soon! Perhaps if the relationship between son and mother hadn’t seen some obviously turned up to an extreme for the sake of delivering this message, it might have landed a little better, but as is, it doesn’t work for me. A twist is slapped on top of that, with Reese Shearsmith murdering a future Steve Pemberton for reneging on the success they found in the timeline where he didn’t go back to see his younger self, but that reads as more comical than anything else (perhaps intentionally – Reese Shearsmith pointing a tiny little ray gun at Pemberton has to be intended to be at least a little funny, right?).

But more than anything, I really think this twist is not particularly well seeded into the plot of the episode as a whole. It feels like it just sort of appears on the horizon at random instead of allowing a more considered and careful unfolding, all to deliver a moral that seems uncharacteristically simplistic for the show as a whole. It’s a twist, yes, but it’s one that feels hackneyed, especially when matched with a relatively uninteresting story and execution that surrounds it. As twists go – especially for a show which has arguably made its name on them – it leaves a whole hell of a lot to be desired.

If you liked this article and want to see more stuff like it, please check out the rest of my Inside No. 9 reviews. I’d also love it if you would check out my horrible short story collection, and, if you’d like to support my work, please consider supporting me on Patreon!

(header image via Beyond The Joke)