The only premise more basic than “an adult character returns to her hometown” is “friends hang out and make jokes” — and yet, Daisy Haggard’s “Back to Life” makes it feel new and nuanced in a way all her own.
The series — which first aired on the BBC before Showtime acquired it to air in the U.S. — follows Miri (Haggard) as she tries to readjust to life in the tiny seaside town she left 18 years ago, when she was barely 18 years-old herself. Miri didn’t leave because she had outgrown it, though: She left because she went to prison for killing one of her best friends, the beloved daughter of a local cop, during a confusing and awful fight that haunts her and the town still.
Adult Miri’s relatively meek personality coupled with mismatching accounts of what really happened keep the mystery open throughout the six-episode season. And yet to the show’s credit, the point of “Back to Life” isn’t getting to the bottom of Daisy’s innocence, but tracing the ripple effect of pain that night inspired throughout the community.
The show would be deeply depressing were it not for the pointed strain of humor that keeps Haggard and Laura Solon’s scripts moving, especially when it comes to Miri’s perpetually frustrated parents (Richard Durden and Geraldine James). And while some headlines have taken to wondering if “Back to Life” might be “the next ‘Fleabag'” thanks to the dark subject matter and shared producers in Harry and Jack Williams, that description shortchanges the meaningful differences between the two. Chief among them is the fact that while Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag is wildly witty and acerbic to a fault, Haggard’s Miri is all tender nerve-endings, politely exasperated with her extraordinary situation in the way that one might be with a botched lunch order. Miri’s brand of chaos is unwitting, unsure and, thanks to spending the totality of her adult life in prison, stunted in a naive way that Fleabag just never is. The one trait they might share (besides “British”) is that their resolve to stay in one piece frays with every harsh interaction they encounter the second they step out the door — or, for that matter, under their own roofs.
For Miri, going home also means being there for her father and trying to bond with her wary mother, who presents a particular challenge given that she both never wants to discuss Miri’s time in prison and yet immediately hides the knives upon her daughter’s homecoming. Going home for Miri also means trying to find a job when everyone in town is convinced she’s a “psycho bitch killer,” and facing her former best friend, Mandy (Christine Bottomley), who knows more than she’s let on and is cracking under the pressure of keeping herself together. Going home means exploring what it means to flirt or even love, since her high school boyfriend Dom (Jamie Michie) has officially become a sleaze in her absence and her interested neighbor Billy (Adeel Akhtar) is kindly, but skittish. Going home means figuring out who she is, what she’s become, and letting go of the past when no one around her will let her forget it. Of the supporting cast, Durden and James especially shine in their characters’ most annoyed moments, while Bottomley and Akhtar’s layered performances ground Miri’s story as representatives of her past and future, respectively.
And yes, by the end of the season, the truth about that fateful fight finally comes out. But despite the distracting presence of a “self-employed” investigator trying to make his own “Serial” about Miri’s case, so much of “Back to Life” isn’t about a splashy murder, but people getting up every day, hoping to be their best, and dealing with the disappointing consequences when they fall short. In fact, if “Back to Life” is as good as it is in this first season while having to circle the truth, it could be even better in a second after laying it bare. The mystery is interesting as an unsolved case, but far more compelling as a framework for how people can get frozen in time, stuck in their own beliefs and habits until something finally has to give.
“Back to Life” premieres Sunday, November 10 on Showtime, with all six episodes available for Showtime subscribers.