Following on from last week’s genre-bending opener, Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton find themselves on more familiar ground with Simon Says, a cutting, timely tale of a TV writer and an obsessive fan.
Spencer Maguire (Pemberton), the writer of award winning fantasy epic The Ninth Circle, has had a rough night. Facing an onslaught of criticism for his controversial series finale, and coming from an abysmal awards ceremony, we first see him desperately washing blood off his clothes after getting into a physical altercation with a fan. While cleaning up, the doorbell rings – another fan, Simon (Shearsmith) witnessed the attack and the aftermath and is here to help, however he can.
In this era of unprecedented back and forth between TV creatives and the consumer, this is a timely look at the way certain fandoms can assume ownership of a TV series, and the sometimes aloof way writers view the fans themselves. The Ninth Circle seems an obvious analogue for Game Of Thrones (especially given that shows notoriously fumbled final season) but it could just as well be a stand in for Jed Mercurio‘s Line Of Duty, which had a similarly divisive finale. In fact Pemberton’s dialogue is even more apt when you relate it to the intentionally downbeat finale of Mercurio’s crime drama.
It’s a strong episode, but it did leave me wondering what side of the argument the writers actually come down on. Spencer is presented as an arrogant, bullish character, who dismisses the opinions of the fanbase and seems to delight in frustrating their expectations. Simon is a fan who loves the show so much he thinks he knows the characters better than the writer himself. Both viewpoints are given equal weight, but both are undermined by the characters voicing those opinions being insufferable, and it makes for a slightly frustrating watch.
Of course, it doesn’t help that neither Simon or Spencer are ever sympathetic. Both actors are as great as ever but their characters are abrasive and vindictive, and worst of all, neither act like real people. Shearsmith’s character begins as the more sympathetic but quickly becomes insidious, and more than a little reminiscent of Misery‘s Annie Wilkes – the scene where he acts out a scene from the show is genuinely uncomfortable to watch. Meanwhile Pemberton is brash and arrogant from the word go, and doesn’t mellow as the episode goes on.
It would appear that the Pemberton and Shearsmith are at least partly on Spencer’s side (as Simon is revealed to be more and more deranged) but then this is undermined by Nick Mohammed as another adoring fan, who gives an impassioned speech about the importance of a faithful fandom to a show’s success. Mohammed is the only genuinely likeable character in the episode (unless you count Lindsay Duncan‘s brilliantly mercurial turn as Spencer’s agent) and putting these lines in his mouth gives them more resonance than if Simon was saying it. This all makes the final reveal much more conflicted, and this may be the point – to deny the audience the comfort of a black or white ending – but it still feels like the writers want to have their cake and eat it.
The execution and sense of mood is a lot more interesting, and there is some excellent cinematic framing – I think I even spotted a couple of split-diopter shots where Simon is framed as the devil on Spencer’s shoulder, and there’s a shocking moment in the second half shot brilliantly through a glazed window.
Simon Says is another strong episode, and if the intention is to kick off a discussion on Creators Vs Fandoms then it succeeds as the episode never conclusively comes down on either side. It’s a bit more conventional than last weeks, and more on brand, all taking place in a single, claustrophobic location. This is also an example of the execution being a lot more satisfying than the story with strong performances, some brilliant framing, and an increasingly oppressive atmosphere. It might not be as ambitious as last week’s but it’s reassuring to be back on solid ground again.