Inside No 9, Nine Lives Kat, review: too clever by half

 Sophie Okonedo in Inside No 9 - BBC
Sophie Okonedo in Inside No 9 - BBC

Inside No 9 (BBC Two) is the TV show that dares to be clever. It’s certainly earned the right to aim high – six series of self-contained, half-hour Tales of the Unexpected-style plays have yielded some of the best TV of the last decade. What’s more, in an age ruled by big budget dystopian sci-fi or men on horses with swords, Inside No 9 remains wonderfully idiosyncratic. There’s nothing else like it.

The danger is always that something this clever gets too clever, particularly six and a bit series in, when it’s already worked its way through so many set-ups and conceits. When you’ve had riffs on Commedia dell'arte, near-silent episodes, composites of CCTV footage in a call centre and a protracted homage to Macbeth, continued attempts to innovate won’t always hit the mark.

Nine Lives Kat wasn’t a total misfire, but it never quite caught fire either. Sophie Okonedo played Kat, a hard-boiled detective stuck in a time loop. When we joined her she was neck-deep in a tough case – a child abduction – and pouring vodka on her Coco Pops. But then she woke up. It was all a dream.

Or was it? Because just when it looked like we were in Memento or Groundhog Day territory, writers Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith pulled the rug once more: Kat was actually a character in one of the crime novels of Ezra Jones (Pemberton), and not a very good one either. With the boozing, the menagerie of inner demons and one of those I’m-losing-it walls of Post-it notes and photo-fits in a downtrodden flat, she was a walking cliché. What was actually happening in Nine Lives Kat was that Ezra was about to consign her to his desk drawer as a character not worth pursuing. But Kat didn’t want to be put to bed.

What followed was a sort of metatextual battle royale as Kat fought with her author in a bid to remain his lead character. The minute he wrote her out altogether, his own son was abducted. And then there was another twist – Ezra himself turned out to be a figment in another crime author’s imagination, and a cliché to boot, much like Paul Sheldon in Stephen King’s Misery.

These concentric circles of fiction and meta-fiction were both ingenious and, ultimately, a little tiresome. It’s pointless to say that it felt contrived because Inside No 9 is meant to be a contrivance. It’s just that at its best, the working and concepts behind each episode are perfectly balanced with the characters and the story. This episode was like a concept car – fizzing with so many ideas that it could never really work. But I’m still glad they tried.