“I Simply Must Get Rid of Him”
Peep Show and the Philosophy of Friendship
By Tiddy Smith
Peep Show follows the lives of flatmates, Mark and Jeremy, the hopeless and socially bumbling “El Dude Brothers”. Each man is exceptionally dysfunctional in his own way: Mark is a hopeless pessimist, plagued by self-doubt and incapable of emotional intimacy. Jeremy, his opposite in every sense, is an idealist, an optimist, with scarcely any self-knowledge and the emotional repertoire of an adolescent. Mark is a loan manager with aspirations to write popular history books; Jeremy is an unemployed “musician”, with aspirations to, well, get out of bed infrequently. In the series, we, the viewers, are given immediate access to the internal monologues of only Mark and Jeremy, and the show is filmed entirely in a point-of-view style, making the awkwardness of their social interactions doubly cringeworthy. Or, as Mark might tell himself:
Mark and Jeremy seem to be friends, and each seems to depend upon the other to compensate for his own debilitating shortcomings. But what kind of a friendship is this? Can it be called a friendship at all? The two men are just so different. Are they benefitting from each other’s company? Or should we think of them as using each other like crutches, with Mark exploiting Jeremy’s trust and good faith; while Jeremy hobbles along, supported by Mark’s financial and domestic stability? Does one of them gain more than the other from the friendship? Or is each man a net deficit in the other’s life?
From his own internal monologues, and sometimes right from his own mouth, Mark often loathes Jeremy in a way that is scarcely reciprocated. Jeremy thinks of Mark, at worst, as a “posh spaz”. But Mark goes so far as to give the following dressing-down to Jeremy, when Jeremy says that he failed to buy a turkey for Christmas:
Sadly, it was just one of Jeremy’s jokes, and Mark is forced to eat humble pie for Christmas lunch.
Worst of all, Jeremy knows that he receives no real philial love from Mark. Indeed, there is something odd about the imbalance of affection in the relationship. This is a fact that Jeremy, in a rare moment of insight, makes clear to Mark point blank:
“Look Mark, I know you don’t want to hear it, but I love you, and in your own dried up, desiccated, weird and unfriendly way, you love me too.”
And oddly enough, we know that he’s right. Mark does love Jeremy, even if he just couldn’t bear to think it. He comes close to admitting it, but doesn’t quite manage it.
Jeremy also outperforms Mark in one of the most important ritual acts between friends: the act of gift-giving. In one particular episode, Jeremy scraps together his last bits of cash so that Mark can have “the stag weekend of his dreams” before his impending wedding to Sophie (who is, after all, a real and entirely human woman). And incredibly enough, Jeremy gets it right! No raves, no benders, no getting tied to a lamppost and stripped naked; Jeremy arranges for a canal boat trip near an Iron Age area, a steak dinner, and a night in playing chess (Jeremy even learns how to play just for the occasion!). Acts like these are demonstrations of caring for the values of others that Marilyn Friedman cites as crucial to relationships between friends:
“One’s behavior toward the friend takes its appropriateness, at least in part, from her goals and aspirations, her needs, her character—all of which one feels prima facie invited to acknowledge as worthwhile just because they are hers.” (1989, 4)
There are other examples of this playing out in Peep Show. For Christmas, Jeremy gets Mark his favourite bottle of cognac and a copy of Roy Adkins’ Trafalgar; while Mark inexplicably gets Jeremy fire lighters (“in case we get a barbecue”) and a pair of kitchen tongs, which Jeremy later discovers were part of a two-for-one deal with the other pair going to Mark’s girlfriend. At the very least we can say that Jeremy takes Mark’s goals and needs to be worthwhile, just because they are Mark’s goals and needs.
At this point, you might think that Mark sounds like nobody’s idea of a friend. But remember: there are two sides to every story. What Mark lacks in terms of affection and concern for Jeremy’s own values, he makes up for with a more typically male concern for stability, encouragement, and reliability. Mark does not care to cater to Jeremy’s values just because Mark believes that most, if not all, of Jeremy’s values are ridiculous, misguided, and utopian. As Mark puts it in the show’s first season:
“Listen Jeremy, nothing you want is ever going to happen. That’s the real world … Maybe somewhere you can earn a living sitting around, drinking margaritas through a curly plastic straw, but in this world, you’ve got to turn up, log on and grind out.”
Mark’s harsh truths are not motivated by malice or contempt, but often for a genuine concern for Jeremy to fix himself. Mark simply can’t indulge Jeremy’s values and aspirations, because Jeremy’s values and aspirations are themselves part of the problem. Jeremy needs the kind of intervention that only friends, family members, or otherwise trained professionals are capable of performing. Indeed, this concern for Jeremy to become a better person is an attitude had by Mark, but comparatively lacking in Jeremy. In the eighth and penultimate series, Mark even pays for Jeremy to receive professional therapy. Jeremy happily accepts Mark’s donation, and proceeds to squander it on an illicit lunch of tikka masala and onion bhajis.
Mark’s pro-reform attitude to the friendship is different altogether to Jeremy’s pro-nurture attitude. Of course, the two are not mutually exclusive, and a good friendship arguably should have both parties keeping both attitudes. But given that Mark and Jeremy are so very lacking individually, we should perhaps set our bar a little lower. Whereas Jeremy seems to believe that friends should “be there” for each other, Mark believes friendship is more like a personality-correcting device. Mark’s pro-reform attitude is more closely in line with an Aristotelian idea of friendship as a way to cultivate virtue in relationship with another.
According to Aristotle, friendship is minimally a mutual feeling of goodwill between two people. Goodwill is an essential ingredient of friendship, but the reason behind the goodwill defines the nature of the friendship in question. There are three kinds of friendship for Aristotle. The first is friendship based on sheer utility, where each party derives some material benefit from the other. The second, and more valuable form of friendship, is friendship based on pleasure, in which each person takes pleasure from the company of the other. These may be certain traits, behaviours or activities of the other person, like the ability to tell good jokes. The highest form of friendship is based on virtue. A friendship based on virtue will still contain utility and pleasure, we hope, but it will be fundamentally directed toward a different good altogether. Each party will be committed to the development and maintenance of the other person’s character.
On some accounts, this is thought of as a kind of mirroring process. For Aristotle, the idea of a mirror is powerful, since he believes friendships are founded in similarity of virtues. So, if we are both good people (equally generous, equally kind, equally brave, equally honest etc.) then when we find ourselves diverging from the behaviour of our friends, we may ask whether we or our friend has gone wrong somewhere. If we both walk past the beggar in the street, and I swat my hand dismissively but you hand over $20, both of us have an opportunity to reflect on our behaviour and to decide whether we were being too stingy, or whether our friend was a little too profligate.
However, this view of friendship won’t work if Mark and Jeremy actually are friends and that’s because the men are so very different. Their virtues and vices are completely out of sync. They have virtually no shared interests either. Indeed, anyone who has paid attention to the show probably relates to the feeling that I often have, that the two men are more like a single person split in two; one collecting all the doubt and self-loathing, the other collecting all the naivety and optimism that might more typically be found residing within one rather more complete person.
Indeed, their opposed personalities and their differing attitudes towards friendship make up the vital ingredients in their friendship; their differences are not a bug, but a feature. This idea, that interpersonal differences are vital to meaningful friendships has been argued for by some philosophers. In their article “Friendship and the Self”, Dean Cocking and Jeanette Kennett argue that interpersonal differences are important to deep and lasting friendships. One reason for this is that our own sense of self is elucidated by its comparison with others who differ. They give the following example:
“Judy teasingly points out to John how he always likes to be right. John has never noticed this about himself; however, now that Judy has pointed it out to him he recognizes and accepts that this is indeed a feature of his character. Seeing himself through Judy’s eyes changes his view of himself… The close friend’s interpretation of the character trait or foible can have an impact on how the trait continues to be realized. Within the friendship, John’s liking to be right may become a running joke which structures how the friends relate to each other. John continues to insist that he is right; however, his insistences are now for the most part treated lightheartedly and take on a self-consciously ironic tone.” (505)
What is important in friendship is the revelation of the self, not by a process of self-reflection as Aristotle thought; but rather more directly by a process of being “called out”, laughed at, commended, scrutinized, or appraised by the other party. When Jeremy says to Mark:
“I’m your friend. I know you, Mark. I know you like to pretend that you’re this stuffed shirt who reads incredibly boring books about dead people killing each other with bayonets and typhoid, but I know the truth. I’ve watched Grand Designs with you,”
he draws attention to Mark’s pretentiousness, and thereby gives Mark pause to question his own desires and values. Mark, through Jeremy’s judgment, is given a look at himself from another point of view. Jeremy is an active participant in delineating Mark’s sense of self. This process can be often quite explicit, in both senses of the word:
Jeremy : If you had to, would you have sex with me?
Mark : It’s a stupid question.
Jeremy : If you had to? If the men came and they made us, with their guns?
Mark : Oh, I don’t know. I suppose… maybe I could do it, just so long as you didn’t…
Jeremy : What?
Mark : Enjoy it. I think maybe I could make it through, as long as I knew you weren’t enjoying it.
Jeremy : Hang on, you’re saying you could rape me but you couldn’t make love to me? That is so you. That is you all over.
And this sharing of different viewpoints also runs from Mark to Jeremy. Jeremy may be offended when he learns that Mark’s family use an invented verb “to jez” as a synonym of “to botch”, but it’s nevertheless an insight that Jeremy gleans from Mark’s outsider view. As the butt of this joke, Jeremy learns about his own unreliability. Even though a little offended, Jeremy copes. The door knocks shortly after he learns about the family’s new lingo. “I’ll go and see who that is,” Jeremy says. “Let’s hope I don’t Jez it, or do a big Mark in my pants.”
Sure, their relationship has had its ups and downs. Since they are both so selfish, the downs are down. Jeremy once poisoned a flu-ridden Mark, padlocked him in his bedroom, and demanded that he be quiet and defecate in a bag if he must. And Mark, for his own part, once pressured Jeremy to keep working as a rent boy, so that Mark could retain access to the john’s palatial abode. Perhaps these appalling examples, among so many others, are so extreme that they disqualify Mark and Jeremy from any claim to real friendship. As Aristotle is said to have decried “O my friends, there is no friend.” Or as Mark Corrigan once said:
Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics
Friedman, Marilyn, 1989, “Friendship and Moral Growth”, Journal of Value Inquiry, 23: 3–13.
Cocking, Dean and Kennett, Jeanette, 1998, “Friendship and the Self” Ethics. 108:3, pp. 502–527.
Tiddy Smith teaches philosophy and logic at the University of Indonesia. He is the author of The Methods of Science and Religion, and the father of Monnie and Wall