Black Mirror might have a bigger budget and a more cinematic look, but when it comes to an anthology show that consistently gets it right, nothing compares to Inside No. 9. Taking it’s lead from The Twilight Zone and Tales Of The Unexpected, Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton have created four series worth of excellent self contained stories. Some are funny, some are terrifying; some have fiendishly clever twists, some don’t, but all of them are refreshingly original and beautifully observed. Thankfully, even after four series, they aren’t showing any signs of running out of new ideas, and this first episode is a great way to kick off the new series.
Set exclusively in the referee’s changing room during the final game of the season, The Referee’s A W***er follows the fallout of a series of disastrous decisions made by Martin (David Morrissey), the meticulously proper referee during the final game of his career. Helping and hindering him along the way are his terminally dull assistant (Reece Shearsmith) and the two linesmen; vain Phil (Ralf Little) and slovenly Oggy (Steve Pemberton).
As with the show’s best episodes, this almost feels like a play in places, with vivid, fully realised characters, all of whom are fleshed out wonderfully by the cast. Shearsmith and Pemberton are always great (Shearsmith’s combover is almost a character in it’s own right!), but it’s the guest stars who steal this one. Little is great as the self centred, superficial linesman, and Morrissey gives an especially nuanced, multilayered performance as the conflicted Referee.
I love how the two writers play with the show’s premise, so spotting the titular number 9 in each episode becomes part of the fun, and this is a particularly mischievous example. Shearsmith and Pemberton fill this episode with the clever plotting, character work and one liners that have been staples of the series so far, and combine it with some nicely judged, human moments. The brief chat between the two writers on the role of the referee in football was the highpoint for me, showing how the position has changed from one that commanded respect into a figure of fun, and the result is quite a touching tribute to a pretty thankless job.
I also appreciated the ending, which rather than the usual eerie twist, actually ends on a rather joyful note, with one character actually sharing an infectious smile with the audience. As with previous series, there is foreshadowing aplenty, and subtle hints at where the story’s going, ceded in the dialogue and furtive glances between characters, but these are never obvious, and instead serve as a treat to pick up on a rewatch.
Even five series in, Shearsmith and Pemberton are still capable of surprising their audience. The Referee’s A W***er might be a bit simpler than some of the more intricate episodes, but the writing is still excellent and it’s clear the pair haven’t lost their touch. It’s relatively light in tone, without sacrificing any of the show’s edge, and makes for an incredibly strong start to this series.