I don’t make a habit of comparing half-hour shows to “Fleabag.” It’s not fair to them, since they inevitably don’t measure up to Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s tart two-season wonder.
But I’m happy to say that Showtime’s “Back to Life,” also a six-episode British series about the interior journey of an anguished but buoyant woman and her peculiar family, holds its own next to the show that won this year’s best comedy Emmy. “Back to Life” has a very different, more suburban rhythm from “Fleabag,” and the tone is a bit more somber overall, but it shares the same kind of lovely and simultaneously painful intimacy toward its lead and her struggles. Both shows — which share some executive producers — truck in black humor, quiet heartbreak, the import of life’s mundane moments, and emotional authenticity in service of delivering their heroine’s journey out of woe.
Daisy Haggard, who co-wrote the show with Laura Solon, is the perfect lead as Miri Matteson, now 36. Miri has a bad haircut because she has just gotten out of prison after 18 years, for a crime whose details are carefully parsed out across the season (and which I won’t spoil here). Her parents, whose eccentricities heighten with each episode, welcome her back with open arms — but wait, why is her mother, played by the extraordinary Geraldine James, hiding the steak knives? And how has their marriage fared since their daughter was hauled off? Their desire to be supportive of Miri is honest, but she’s a stranger to them after all this time, and, as we learn, her imprisonment profoundly altered their lives, too.
They’re wary, but the citizens of the town, Hythe, are fully unhappy and fearful now that Miri is back home. They mail her poop, and they paint graffiti on her parents’ fence. “Back to Life” also shares common ground with the more dramatic and meditative “Rectify,” as it, too, looks into the difficult aftermath of prison and the suspicions that can trail an ex-convict. Watching Miri look for a job is difficult; she’s eager to be normal again, to resume living, but no one will give her a chance, until she stumbles across an eccentric restaurant owner. This sounds gloomy, and the show certainly has bleak moments — but Haggard and Solon always reward our sympathy with a laugh or two or three. “Back to Life” is a comedy first, with dramatic underpinnings. Miri’s probation officer — a great turn by Jo Martin — is humorously disinterested in Miri but in love with Miri’s family’s snack foods, and her scenes turn the justice system’s indifference into a farce.
The sweetest part of it all is Haggard, who may be remembered for her turn as the sourpuss head of network comedy on “Episodes.” She brings likability and optimism to Miri, and you can’t help but admire her bravery in the face of all the hate and rejection. Culturally, Miri is decades behind — her old bedroom still has posters of David Bowie and Prince — and she watches our cellphone obsession with a raised eyebrow. But she desperately wants to move forward — if those around her will let her. She wants to date, and she wants to work, and she relentlessly pursues these ordinary goals despite all the pushback. “Back to Life,” which premieres Sunday at 10 p.m., beautifully exposes the tension between Miri’s new freedom and other people’s refusal to let her experience it.
There are so many new shows this fall, particularly as new streaming services arrive. “Back to Life” is exactly the kind of little gem — so wisely and commandingly written, so effectively acted, so well-paced — that could easily get lost among the glitzier stuff. That would be a shame.
BACK TO LIFE
Starring: Daisy Haggard, Geraldine James, Jo Martin, Christine Bottomley, Richard Durden, Adeel Akhtar, Liam Williams, Jamie Michie
On: Showtime, Sunday at 10 p.m.