The BBC anthology series “Inside No. 9” feels like “The Twilight Zone” or “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” if they had been written by Will Shortz or Erno Rubik. Episodes turn out to be deviously constructed puzzles, whose pieces fall into place only at the final moment. Twists give way to bigger twists. Major reveals upend everything that has come before. One genre of story turns out to be disguised as another.
Even the writing of the show seems to be treated as a cunning and complicated game. The series creators, Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton, who also star in the show, have written all 37 episodes so far, including a silent episode in the style of Laurel and Hardy, another episode told in iambic pentameter, another shot entirely as if caught on closed-circuit security monitors and another that unfolds in reverse-chronological order.
A special Halloween episode was performed and broadcast live and was apparently bedeviled by poltergeists before viewers’ eyes. One episode, appropriately enough, centered on a playable crossword, published in The Guardian the day the episode aired.
Oh, and every episode takes place in a single location — an apartment, a suburban home, a barn, a sleeper carriage — with a 9 on the door.
The trickery continues in the show’s sixth season, written partly during last year’s lockdown. In a video conversation ahead of the season’s Tuesday U.S. premiere, on BritBox, Shearsmith and Pemberton talked about confounding expectations, even when the unexpected is precisely what’s expected. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
There are quite a few anthology series today, but there weren’t so many when you developed “Inside No. 9.” What drew you to the format?
REECE SHEARSMITH Our previous series [“Psychoville”] was our version of a big, sprawling, episodic narrative. When that finished, the pendulum swung completely the other way. We thought it’d be nice to have things reset and try to tell a different one-off story each week. Little mini plays.
STEVE PEMBERTON We grew up in the theater, and we wanted it to be quite theatrical. We didn’t want to do a lot of fast cutting, fast editing, multiple camera shots. Many of the episodes unfold in real time. It’s old-fashioned storytelling. The limitations force you to be more creative in how you tell the story. Like the first episode, where we had 12 characters playing a parlor game in a wardrobe.
But there’s something very fulfilling about telling a story with a beginning, middle and end, and we’ve come to love knowing that the audience will get their ending. They’re not going to be left waiting. I find that with a lot of series now, you sit through a lot of padding. Things just bumble along. I get a little bit impatient with that.
SHEARSMITH They’re shot in six days. That’s the appealing thing for the actors, I suppose. It’s not a massive commitment.
The popularity of anthology series might be a reaction to the well-padded shows you’re talking about.
SHEARSMITH To get your one hit, where you’re not committed to watching in any order — that’s an appealing lifestyle choice! One-off stories are hard to do, though — to hook you in, hit the ground running, make you care about characters quickly. And it’s increasingly a tyranny, having to come up with a new thing every time. But if you can do them, and make them work, they’re the most satisfying thing in the world, I think.
You pull off an impressive range of genres in the first season alone, from suburban comedy to full-on horror. Was there a particular episode where you realized the show could go just about anywhere?
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PEMBERTON The breakthrough was trying to write a 30-minute narrative with no dialogue, just to see if we could do it. The success of that episode [“A Quiet Night In,” in which the two creators play stealthy art thieves] freed us up to be playful with different storytelling techniques. That’s now something that’s very much at the forefront of our minds.
To the point that now, in the sixth season, you do an entire episode as commedia dell’arte.
PEMBERTON That was such a difficult thing to work out how to do. I think it was challenging for the audience as well. There definitely would have been an uptick in Google searches for “commedia dell’arte.”
But you’ve also put out some tender, heartfelt episodes. It must have been surprising to your fans in Britain, where you’re mainly known for a certain kind of dark twisted comedy.
SHEARSMITH That was a place people didn’t expect us to go. It’s the beauty of no two episodes’ being alike. One week you will get one that is a very dark horror comedy with a twist that you didn’t see coming. And then another week there might be something with heart. Everyone has different favorites, but that’s as it should be.
It’s great if, in a half an hour, we can get you to care so much about the characters that you cry about them by the end. It feels like a real achievement.
By now you also must have gotten very good at second-guessing viewers’ second guesses.
SHEARSMITH That’s part of the process now, definitely. Being ahead of the audience, who now go into these episodes expecting the unexpected, and that all is probably not as it seems. We try to let them think they’ve worked it out. But that’s just part of the laying of the trap.
On top of that, there’s the storytelling constraints. The iambic pentameter, for example, or the crossword episode. You seem to like to make things hard for yourselves as writers.
PEMBERTON We’ve just always had that work ethic, but yes, it’s been like writing school for us. We’ve learned an awful lot by just setting ourselves these challenges. The writing becomes an obsession. It can take over your life. Then when you get into the production stage, and then in the postproduction stage, you can relax a bit.
SHEARSMITH The best times are when we are just talking about the ideas. That’s when a lot of the legwork is done. It’s not the writing of it. It’s the interrogation of an idea and really talking about it for a long time before we begin to write.
It’s remarkable that it’s still just the two of you writing the episodes.
PEMBERTON I suppose that’s quite unique. We don’t want to bring anyone else in; we want to see it through. Going into the seventh season, which we’re about to start filming in summer, that’ll be 43 stories that have come from these two brains.
SHEARSMITH There is a version of this where we never stop.
The only constant, aside from the 9 on the door, is a figurine of the hare that you hide in every episode. I just noticed it behind you, Steve.
PEMBERTON That just started as a bit of fun for us, an Easter egg to spot. The hare has got a strange sort of mystical quality to it that just felt right. We didn’t realize we’d keep doing it all the way through, but it’s become a lovely part of the game now. And, hey, if it makes people go and watch the episode again, good for us.
Given the past year and your penchant for experimenting with the way you tell your stories, I have to ask — any temptation to do an episode that took place entirely on Zoom?
PEMBERTON We tend not to do anything that would seem like the obvious thing to do. We might do it in the future, when it’s not as trendy. We hoped very much that Zoom would not be part of our lives in 2021. And here we are.