A year ago, I got the opportunity to develop an Honors course at the university I work at. Without hesitation, I came up with the theme: anthology television. I grew up watching The Twilight Zone, and Night Gallery, and Tales from the Crypt. The episodic anthology format is my favorite of all television formats. When researching for the class, I stumbled across a show I had never heard of: Inside No. 9. I read about it in a listicle of top anthology shows, so I only got a small dose of information about it, but what stood out to me, aside from how high the show ranked on the list, was that the twists of the show were compared to Twilight Zone. If it could be compared to what is arguably the greatest anthology show of all time, then it was a must-see show for me. Of course, I approached the show with some reservations. Twilight Zone is so good, and plot twists are so difficult to pull off, and if there is success with a plot twist in one episode, can that success be duplicated? Or should it even have to be? (I am sure M. Night Shyamalan has some opinions on that.) I recently finished all three seasons (or series, as it is British) of the show, and I was blown away.
What makes Inside No. 9 stand out from many anthology shows is its embrace of multiple genres. Though every now and then a series might break genre, in general you know what you are getting when you tune in every week. Unlike some of the most popular anthology shows, Inside often incorporates comedy into each episode, in fact, it could be argued that one of the twists of an episode is where the shift between comedy and either drama or horror comes in. Speaking of twists, every episode is somewhat twisty without relying on a flat-out twist ending. What I found myself looking forward to with this show more than with any other anthologies is what the next episode would bring. The episode might be a morality tale, a spoof, a comedy with a macabre side, a drama with a dose of laughter, something that takes place in present day, or something that takes place hundreds of years ago. With only 18 episodes under its belt, Inside No. 9 offers some of the greatest variety possible. The show’s genius can be directly attributed to Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton, who not only co-write and produce the shows, but they also star in every episode (or almost every one, they are absent from one each). If you have not seen the show, stop reading right now, find it, watch it, and then return to finish this list, because otherwise, consider this your warning that after this point, spoilers abound! Here is my list of my top six Inside No. 9 episodes (and if you were expecting a top five list, well, I told you there are twists).
6. Diddle Diddle Dumpling (2017)
Before I say this, maybe I should introduce myself. I am Bethany Rose. I like the horror genre, chocolate pudding made on the stove top, and that Punky Brewster episode where everyone was murdered in a cave and became part of the cave. Nice to meet you. Now that the introduction is out of the way, here’s some real talk. This article is the first I’ve written since I took an extended maternity leave. Three months and five days after my son, Gage, was born, he died. I watched Inside No. 9 for the first time the day after that. This episode is part of the third series, so it took me a couple of weeks to get to it. One thing I have learned in the past month is that people grieve in very different ways. Pemberton and Shearsmith’s twist on a grieving father’s coping mechanism resonated deeply with me, even if it is not quite the route I am taking in my process. Pemberton took a smaller role in this episode, which follows Shearsmith’s character David as he becomes obsessed with finding the owner of a lost shoe (size 9, of course). As the seasons change, his obsession threatens to ruin his relationship with his family, until, one day, the shoe’s owner returns. The great thing about the entire show is that even if there is not a twist ending, or if it is not the strongest twist, there are usually some terrific moments leading up to climax. In this episode, the tension created when the shoe’s owner shows up is a fantastic example of just how good Inside No. 9 can be. There is layered tension. The audience, like David, is not sure whether to trust the supposed owner or not. At the same time, the audience does not know how David will react to finally finding the owner. In order to make sure he does not give the shoe to an impostor, he copied the soles of four different shoes and shows a lineup of photos to the potential owner. This lineup manages to be both comical and disturbing. It is funny that he has created the lineup, yet it shows just how obsessed with this shoe he is.
5. Sardines (2014)
The first show of the series sets up almost every trademark element of the show with much aplomb. It takes a simple concept, a party game of Sardines, throws in humor and tension, and ends with a goosebumps-inducing twist. It proves that an incredibly limited set can still display a captivating story, as long as the set is filled with the right characters. My main gripe with it is rather minor (because I consider this list a list of six amazing television episodes that just so happen to be from the same show). In most episodes, if Pemberton and Shearsmith are not both the main characters, then usually one of them is. There are only a couple exceptions to that, and an episode can still be stellar without them at the forefront; however, since it is the first episode of the series, I would have liked them to be the main attraction. Really, really minor gripe though, as they still are featured in the episode, and as the rest of the characters hold their own and make for a memorably macabre little tale.
4. The Devil at Christmas (2016)
I hate that the only two episodes on this list from the third series are in the bottom half of this list, because I do not want to insinuate that it is the weakest season. Since I am such a fan, I decided to pick only two episodes per season, and it was still not easy to narrow the list down. Of all the series, it was perhaps the third that I found the most difficult to pick only two from. I decided on this one for a few reasons. I love horror/Christmas hybrids, so this story that takes place in December while focusing on Krampus fits into that dynamic. I also love the general setup, suggesting the viewer is watching an old movie with what seems to be notes from the commentary track pointing out various details about the production of the film. With that setup, it might be difficult to figure out exactly where this tale is going, so when it gets there, you might end up as surprised as one of the cast members. This episode is a fun reminder that not everything is as it seems. As an added bonus, each episode of the show has a movie poster artwork made for it. This episode’s artwork features animation, as the snow in the scene actually falls down to the ground.
3. La Couchette (2015)
Maybe it is because of Murder on the Orient Express or Terror Train, but I love a story that takes place on a train, particularly if it features a sleeping car. Give me an episode that takes place entirely in such a location and I am already “on board” as a fan. The appeal of “La Couchette” extends far beyond the setting, as viewers are shown what seems like one of the more comedic episodes. It also feels highly relatable, as it is easy to feel the frustration that Shearsmith’s character, Maxwell, experiences when he tries getting to sleep in a noisy, crowded compartment. In many ways, the episode mimics some of the best parts of “Sardines,” though it feels more lighthearted even with the dose of frustration thrown in. Soon, Maxwell isn’t the only person in the compartment whose slumber will be disturbed. The best part about the episode is that no matter what frustrating or horrifying thing happens, I couldn’t help but laugh. It was one of the best overall dark comedies featured on the show.
2. A Quiet Night In (2014)
Bumbling burglars. Two quarreling lovers. A maid. Two dogs. A silent salesman. The mix of characters alone suggests this episode will be memorable. The second episode of the entire show is early evidence in how vastly different episodes can be from each other. Unlike the cramped, old-fashioned room in “Sardines,” this episode takes place in a large, modern house. While the first episode relies almost entirely on banter between the increasingly cramped party guests, the second episode is almost devoid of dialogue. There is a slapstick feel to “A Quiet Night In” that is not present in the first episode. If you are not sure who Pemberton and Shearsmith are when you start watching the show, you might not realize they take center stage in the second episode. The comedy of errors is intriguing from start to finish. Perhaps the greatest testament to the quality of the episode is that it is still just as funny and entertaining the second time around. I would not only put “A Quiet Night In” near the top of this list, I would put it at the top of a list of the best episodes of any anothology series. While it works as a standalone episode, as any good episodic anthology piece should, it is perhaps even stronger when viewed right after “Sardines.”
1. The 12 Days of Christine (2015)
This fragmented story of Christine’s life after she meets her future husband stands out to me for many reasons. I love the mystery that builds with every passing scene. What is significant about the pieces of Christine’s life we are seeing? Why do some things, like her relationship with her husband and her worries as a parent, seem so real, while others, like the strange man who keeps appearing at her flat and eggs flying across the room, seem so surreal? The combination of a slice-of-life drama and a Lynchian like mystery make for a compelling episode. This segment is also significant because it is one of the few where Shearsmith and Pemberton both step into minor roles so that the story feels like it is fully Christine’s. The humor is restrained, almost absent, and, while I am a fan of the injection of humor most episodes include, this episode did not need it. What is most significant to me about this episode is how haunting it is. It stayed with me long after it ended. I still cannot get the story, particularly the final moments, out of my head.
I do not know if there will be more episodes of Inside No. 9 or not, but the eighteen episodes that exist are filled with laughs, dread, and twists. The chameleon performances of Shearsmith and Pemberton are nothing new to anyone familiar with some of their other projects, but that does not lessen their impact in this show. With stellar writing, and a host of intriguing tales, Inside No. 9 is a show that likely has something for everyone, and should not be missed.