One word sums up Miri Matteson (Daisy Haggard): optimistic. She’s the kind of person who always looks on the bright side of things, full of hope that life is on an upward swing. Which for her it is, even when she’s getting faeces in the mail, seeing abusive graffiti scrawled on her parents’ front wall, and being hung in effigy in the front garden. Whatever life – or her neighbours – can throw at her, it’s still a big step up from the last eighteen years… which she spent in jail after being convicted of the murder of a teenage friend.
It’s possibly not the most obvious set-up for a comedy, but Haggard (who co-created the series with Laura Solon) makes it one of the most charming, touching dramedies out of the UK in years. Despite her past, Miri’s not bitter and she’s not broken: across the first series and now with the second, she isn’t just someone we want to see succeed in rebuilding her life, she’s someone who deserves to.
Miri is soft-spoken, thoughtful, a little awkward and totally endearing; not exactly the popular image of a brutal killer. It’s no spoiler to say that across much of the first season the question of whether she really did commit that awful crime loomed large. But she wasn’t protesting her innocence, and the anger and bitterness of those around her wasn’t shrugged off or diminished. She accepted it as her due and kept moving forward to rebuild her life.
The odds have definitely been against her. Moving back in with her parents Caroline (Geraldine James) and Oscar (Richard Durden) hasn’t been easy; their relationship has slowly crumbled while she’s been gone, leaving behind two wounded people who can’t reach out to one another. Season 1 saw her mother have an affair with possibly the worst possible person, and that’s not something anyone is going to forget in a hurry.
Her parole officer Janice (Jo Martin) isn’t exactly a tower of support either. Always ready with a reminder that things are often exactly as bad as they seem, her laid-back approach to almost everything (except biscuits) makes her a comedy highlight in a series where just about everyone can get big laughs with a wry line.
Miri’s optimism has been hard-won. The past is gone; at least she has a future to shape and make her own. But even with her positive outlook, and some dubious assistance from her high school bestie Mandy (Christine Bottomley), it hasn’t been easy. Trying to find a job with her reputation was a big ask. Trying to find a hairstyle was a bigger one. This season she gets out the crimping iron; it’s definitely a look.
On one level Back to Life is a coming-of-age story, only with a lead finding herself in her mid-thirties and taking big steps twenty years later than she’d planned. The way she’s forced to ride a teenager’s bike to get around – she went to prison before she could get her driver’s licence – is just one reminder that in many ways she’s been frozen in time (using a giant Nokia mobile phone is another).
Now in the second season, she’s found just that little bit more room to move. She’s starting a supermarket job, and she’s taking driving lessons too. She’s also made the first tentative steps towards her first adult relationship with her equally awkward next door neighbour Billy (Adeel Akhtar). It’s still little more than eating together; they’ve progressed from ice cream cones last season to sandwiches on the beach at the start of this one. But with the burdens they’re carrying – he’s a widower who’s been looking after his mentally ill aunt – even small steps can feel like giant ones.
Things are still definitely on rocky ground. Her family is broken, possibly beyond repair. Her friendship with Mandy is haunted by the past. Haggard and Solon’s writing has a sharp eye for the traps of small-town life where everyone knows just a little more about each other than they might like. It’s a place where conversations can just as easily end in punchlines as they can in delicate insights into the dark side of life, where everyone is carrying their own burdens and sometimes it’s only joking about them that can make them bearable.
Then the parents of the girl Miri went to prison over arrive back in town. Back to Life isn’t a series with easy answers. Sometimes life hands you a burden that all the optimism in the world can’t carry. Yet Miri carries on, one step at a time.
Back to Life seasons 1 and 2 are now streaming at SBS On Demand (but don’t delay – season 1 is only available until 31 October). Start at season 1:
Jump to season 2:
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