Showtime The Joyful Redemption of Back to Life

Joyful Redemption of Back to Life

"Back to Life" is a British television series created by Daisy Haggard and Laura Solon that premiered on the channel Showtime in the United States. The show follows the character Miri Matteson, a woman who returns to her hometown after serving 18 years in prison. 

The show explores themes of redemption, family, and relationships. The show has received positive reviews from critics and has been praised for its performances, especially by Daisy Haggard as the lead. The show premiered on Showtime, it is a paid service, and you need a subscription to watch it.

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.

There’s always been an appetite for shows about women, Haggard said. “It’s not like the hunger and thirst weren’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.”

Sophie Gilbert is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was a finalist for the 2022 Pulitzer Prize in Criticism.
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