The sheer disorientating weirdness of middle age is a subject from which dramatists often run scared (perhaps feeling the cold breath of mortality on their own napes, they shudder and move on). But with their 40s receding in the rear-view mirror, Inside Number 9 (BBC Two, 10pm) writers Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton are perfectly positioned to unpick a glossed over yet universal experience. And they do so with the chill factor dialled up all the way as their Twilight Zone-esque anthology series returns for a seventh season.
They’ve also reunited with their old League of Gentlemen mucker Mark Gatiss for a dissection of what happens when you corner life’s penultimate bend and catch a glimpse of the finish line, still a distance off yet nonetheless coming ever closer. Lawrence (Shearsmith), Callum (Gatiss) and Darren (Pemberton) are three old college buddies whose fates, once intertwined, have now diverged dramatically. Callum is a priggish, self-satisfied hospital consultant. Lawrence lectures at a dead-end university. Darren, who is revealed to have had dyslexia, is a dropout desperately seeking a purpose in life via his relationship new girlfriend Donna (Philomela Cunk’s Diane Morgan).
They’re on a pedal boat in the middle of a glum river at Lawrence’s insistence. The reunion soon takes a turn for the unpleasant as they bicker while Donna wonders when they’re going to arrive at the party yacht she was promised. Darren, meanwhile, gets the best gag: “If life gives you melons you’re probably dyslexic.”
Even as we stare into the abyss, the instalment lands upon a bleak truth, which is that life is great until something goes amiss and the tragic underpinnings of the world are laid bare
There’s always a twist on Inside Number 9 – that is, after all, its raison d’être. On this occasion the bait and switch is stonkingly joyless, as it is revealed Lawrence’s wife has died and that he has lured his pals into an impromptu mourning session for her, accompanied by bittersweet fireworks.
He slips into unconsciousness on an island and wakes to discover he shares a row-boat with a hooded ferryman straight out of a popular Chris de Burgh soft-rock anthem. Has he passed on and could it be this muddy channel is the River Styx – gateway to the Underworld? And if he has shuffled off, what has happened to his friends?
“They’re on the other side,” says the boatman. Eventually the pair reach the far bank and,having heeded de Burgh, Lawrence finally pays the ferryman and hears his wife’s voice on the wind. It’s a despondent end to a bleak episode – one of those rare moments Pemberton and Shearsmith set to one-side their cultivated wryness and encourage the audience to gaze into a heart of darkness.
But even as we stare into the abyss, the instalment lands upon a bleak truth, which is that life is great until something goes amiss and the tragic underpinnings of the world are laid bare. That’s not a message you are necessarily in the mood for on a random Wednesday. Still, you can’t help admire Inside Number 9 for going where more cautious dramatists might fear to tread and grasping the grim nettle that is existence itself.