Even though the writers would have you believe otherwise, it’s very difficult to watch an episode of Inside No. 9 without trying to guess what the reveal will be. Sometimes it’s painfully obvious and this detracts from the enjoyment, others times it’s unclear and then disappointing when no twist arrives. At the show’s absolute best, the stories keep you guessing right up until the last moment.
This is all my long winded way of saying that Mr King, the second in this season, took me by surprise in in the very best way. Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith gleefully play with our expectations, throwing up one narrative titbit after another. It reminded me of last seasons fantastic Lip Service in its winding structure, even if tonally the two episodes are worlds apart.
Mr Curtis (Shearsmith) has left the stress inducing environment of London to teach in a little primary school in the Welsh countryside. In his new role though, he finds himself constantly compared unfavourably to his incredibly popular predecessor, the ubiquitous Mr King.
What makes Mr King stand out from last week’s good-not-great episode is the ending is never obvious. From the start of Merrily, Merrily there was only one a couple of real options in terms of a twist. Here the story branches off in several directions, with the writers clearly relishing the numerous set ups they deploy. There’s the tension within the class itself, recalling Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt or The Children’s Hour, that make you question Curtis’ character; the repeated shots of his pills, and an increasingly short temper coupled with his intense passion for the environment. Added to this are the strange practices of the jocular head teacher (Pemberton) and the vaguely sinister cleaner. (Annette Badland, almost unrecognizable beneath a pair of ridiculously thick glasses)
The episode raises numerous questions as it goes along, leading you down several garden paths at once, before pulling the rug out from under you. Crucially though, these strands aren’t just distractions – they all inform the story and prove integral to the episode’s denouement.
The ending itself is more unsettling and disturbing than any of the potential outcomes, and leads to what is potentially the nastiest climax the show has ever had, at least rivalling Season One’s The Harrowing. It’s a wonderfully disturbing ending that pays homage (and does justice) to one of the most iconic horror films of all time – a favourite of Shearsmith and Pemberton since their days on The League Of Gentlemen.
Shearsmith is as great as ever, playing his character straight down the line – he’s equally plausible as a well-meaning teacher or something more sinister. Meanwhile Pemberton is a joy as the old-fashioned headteacher, constantly making technology related malapropisms and misunderstanding Shearsmith’s painfully unfunny jokes.
As ever the dialogue is incredibly rich, densely packed with as many puns as red herrings. The running gag of “I don’t know you from Alan” is delightfully cheesy (and more than a little reminiscent of the John Dunne joke from Psychoville) and I don’t think I’ve laughed harder at an Inside No.9 episode as I did at Shearsmith’s shouted delivery of “A big floppy penis!” and the inevitable reveal.
There are a few narrative turns that don’t really work dramatically (why would anyone phone the person they suspect of wrongdoing to tell them what they know?) and the final twist comes just a tad too early, meaning there is a little bit of treading water in the final chilling moments. But as usual these are quibbles and don’t detract from the rest of the episode. Mr King is up there with the strongest episodes of Inside No. 9; a playful mix of comedy, discomfort and genuine horror – just what you want from this show!