While 2019 has been a banner year for comically devastating TV heroines imported from Britain, Miri Matteson, the hero of the new Showtime series Back to Life, is so distinctive that to clump her in with the Fleabags and the Sharons, the Aines or even the Alices, feels like a disservice. Created and played by Daisy Haggard, Miri is impossibly kind and ineffably optimistic. She’s also just been released from an 18-year prison sentence for a crime that’s unspecified at the show’s outset, but is serious enough to compel Miri’s mother (Geraldine James) to hide the kitchen knives the day she gets home.
The question of forgiveness was very much on Haggard’s mind when she was writing the show, the writer and actor told me on the phone from a café in South London. (The first few minutes of the call focused on the fact that, as teens, we went to the same all-girls school, a few years apart, where we were both earnest contributors to the annual poetry festival and where I once saw her play Miss Hannigan in the 1995 senior production of Annie.) “Obviously there are some things that people do and ways people behave that you can never forgive,” she said. “But I’d say I believe in second chances, and I am a forgiver.” Her desire with Miri was to create someone whom society had labeled a bad person, but whose actions and instincts complicated that judgment. “It was about presenting a human rather than what we often do, which is stamp somebody with the thing they’ve done wrong.”
Before she created Miri, Haggard had been acting for more than two decades, playing the mournful studio executive Myra Licht in the Showtime/BBC comedy Episodes, and appearing in installments of Black Mirror and Doctor Who. She’s always written things, she told me—the poetry festival notwithstanding—starting with a film she wrote when she was 11 “where you can tell halfway through I hit puberty and it suddenly becomes about lots of good-looking boys with their tops off.” Back to Life came about after Haggard met with Harry and Jack Williams of Two Brothers Pictures, the producers behind a wealth of recent British hits (not least of which was a quirky BBC3 comedy called Fleabag). After pitching them what she described as “seven dreadful shows,” Haggard landed on an idea about a woman who’d done something terrible years ago and was trying to return to something like normality. She knew it would be “an unusual mixture of drama and comedy, and a bit dark and weird.” But she also knew that Miri had to be buoyantly optimistic, to keep the show from tilting too far into tragedy. Miri’s spirit, in Back to Life, is “part of what keeps the lightness alive.”
The show’s six episodes, co-written with the comedian Laura Solon and directed by Christopher Sweeney, portray Miri’s return to her childhood home on the south coast of England, while slowly spooling out the central mystery of what she actually went to prison for. The show masterfully darts back and forth between modes. When Miri steps outside the prison walls for the first time since she was a teenager, she basks in the sunlight, absorbing the sensation of her new freedom. Her parents, played by James and Richard Durden, are inherently comic—Miri’s father is obsessed with recycling (“Garden waste,” he says despondently when Miri throws an unwanted bouquet of flowers in the trash), and her mother is the kind of rigidly repressed Englishwoman whose formality implies secrets. The punch lines are tinged with gloom: In the first episode, Miri returns to her bedroom, which is just as she left it, with posters of David Bowie, Prince, George Michael, and Michael Jackson on the walls. Only Jamie Oliver, peering out cheekily in a magazine spread from his Naked Chef days, has made it. “Thank God he’s still with us,” Miri sighs.
As Miri contends with probation officers, whispers all around her from strangers, hateful graffiti, violent attacks, and a lurking Scandinavian man who seems to be tailing her as part of a true-crime investigation, she somehow keeps her chin up. “That’s pretty much me,” Haggard said. “I can have a good old cry if things go wrong and then I’m like [she puts on a voice that’s part Muppet, part Pollyanna], ‘Okay! What’s next? Everything’s gonna be fiiiiiine.’” Miri is also periodically buffeted by the kindness of strangers, including her next-door neighbor (Adeel Akhtar) and the owner of a fish-and-chip shop (Liam Williams), who gives Miri a disastrous job interview in which she has to explain why her CV includes a stint working at a surf shop in 2000 and then absolutely nothing from then on.
Maintaining the show’s tone to keep it from being too light or too dark was a collaborative process, Haggard said. “As a writer, I don’t believe in choosing necessarily between having to be funny or sad or dramatic. That’s how I see life.” But it’s her performance more than anything that lifts Back to Life out of its bleakest moments. With an inordinately expressive, open face, Haggard produces nonverbal acting in the series that’s in a league of its own. When Miri goes to visit her high-school boyfriend early in the show, he blurts out that she’s got “nice tits,” prompting Miri to smile, blush, stare at the ground, and look thrilled and mortified all at the same time; her mannerisms drive home the fact that she hasn’t so much as spoken with a boy in 18 years. When Miri’s probation officer visits, warning her not to Google herself and to accept that she might feel “a deep and consuming sense of hopelessness,” Miri’s features neutralize into a kind of mask, and her sudden deanimation feels heartbreaking.
For Haggard, who will appear with Martin Freeman in the FX series Breeders next year, the experience of making her own show has been thrilling. “I feel like people are realizing more and more that everyone has a story to tell,” she said. She seems adjusted to the idea that people will compare Back to Life to Fleabag, given the unexpected success of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Emmy-sweeping series, and their shared producers and same time slot on BBC3. Much more important than the similarities of two shows about funny, flawed women trying to survive, though, are their differences, which seem to herald an expansion of what TV can do and be.
There’s always been an appetite for shows about women, Haggard said. “It’s not like the hunger and thirst wasn’t there. I just feel like we’re allowed to tell our stories now, and they don’t have to be perfect. They can be messed up, they can be interesting. We can be human. We can be flawed. We can be as ugly or as pretty as we want.” (A recurring joke in Back to Life is the scruffiness of Miri’s post-prison wardrobe, to the point that when an effigy of her appears on the front lawn, her mother says, aghast, “It looks exactly like her. But ironed.”) It is still really hard, Haggard said, to get a show made, and she hopes the broadening of TV continues “with all aspects, not just gender.” But having written for so long, “it’s just really exciting finally to have something on the telly box.”