Inside No. 9 S8E5: 3 By 3

by thethreepennyguignol

Take The Chase, add a generous sprinkling of Scanners, and you’ve got a distinctly horrible episode of Inside No. 9 to fill out this excellent eighth season.

3 By 3 is one of those episodes of the show that’s got that gleefully twisted edge to it – all jolly game show antics and Lee Mack in a bad suit banter, only to hit you with an utterly incongruous stab of shocking violence in the last few seconds. It’s a straightforward set-up (that did, for the first few minutes I’ll admit, have me wondering if I had switched to the wrong channel by accident) – a cheesy British mid-afternoon game show, hosted by Lee Mack, takes a turn for the worse when…well. You know. That happens.

I find these episodes of Inside No. 9 really interesting, because they’re very much committed to the bit – this is, for all intents and purposes, for the vast majority of the runtime, just a moderately uninteresting, occasionally exhaling-quickly-through-the-nose levels of amusing game show, but, tucked away behind the glittery backdrops and gimmicky game concepts is a small, scary, and sad little story. It’s a really difficult way to unfold a narrative in a satisfying way, because it really requires the audience to pick up on these small, subtle details to piece the story together by the time it reaches it’s climax, but, this being Inside No. 9, and attentive viewing by now part of the equation, it works well for me.

And I think the choice to use the daytime game show as the backdrop for this story is a really inspired one, because there’s something so lulling and almost sedatively pleasant about this kind of television. It’s made for you to occasionally tut when someone doesn’t know that really obvious bit of general knowledge, to chuckle at Lee Mack’s patter, and wait for the ready meal to warm through in the oven.

The version of this kind of show Shearsmith and Pemberton created here is utterly accurate – Lee Mack is a genuine delight here, as he is in almost all of his quiz show appearances (if you haven’t seen this clip from Would I Lie To You?, you have not yet appreciated the full extent of his excellence, and you need to remedy that). Their rare choice not to feature in this episode as actors was certainly the right one here, because it allows for a deeper immersion into this little world – either of them being present would have drawn us out of it a bit, but using mostly unknown actors is a smart way to play by the rules of this kind of television.

And it’s this commitment to the bit that makes the ending so disturbing. Hinted at through brief, tense moments of conversation between the family and a great, increasingly taut performance from Saskia Wakefield as Catherine, it’s an understated bit of storytelling for the show, but a rewarding one. The throughline of this episode follows Catherine, a young woman with apparent psychic abilities, as she competes on the show with her family, including her overbearing and controlling mother; at first using her psychic abilities to give them the advantage, Catherine eventually turns on her mother and…explodes her head.

The image of her brains and various viscera splattered over the cheerfully sterile set is a genuinely shocking, stomach-turning image, and a credit to how well this episode builds a believably gentle tone. Even though we all knew it wasn’t going to be as nice as all that, that this is Inside No. 9, after all, and something dreadful would happen, it’s still so utterly incongruous in tone as to be really disturbing. It’s like turning on Pointless to find Alexander Armstrong in a reverse bear trap, you know? It reminds me a little of Ghostwatch, that excellent piece of BBC found footage horror, in that subversion of the familiar to deliver particularly unsettling scares.

By tapping in to that familiar and comfortable place, and turning it so violently and horribly and shockingly on it’s head in the final moments of the episode, 3 By 3 lands a triumphantly, memorably nasty denouement. With how well it pulled off the actual game show aspect, I won’t be surprised to see a lot of people utterly shocked but that finale – and that’s just how I like my Inside No. 9.

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 BBC)