Rewatching The Inbetweeners in 2018 has been full of surprises. Mostly, I was taken aback by how evocative it is of its time. I rarely think of the late 2000s as having any kind of distinct culture – it seems most of the time that we haven’t had a decade, in a cultural sense, since the 1990s – but The Inbetweeners looks and feels like a show made very specifically between 2008 and 2010, like a weird kind of time capsule. The cringe comedy, the music choices (remember The Wombats?), an honest-to-God reference to Crazy Frog. There’s some stuff that hasn’t aged well – the voiceover narration always struck me as gratuitous, but I think I’d blanked from my memory how every episode ends with basically a highlight reel – but mostly it made me feel very fond. I love teen movies and shows, but rarely because they remind me of my own teenagehood outside of the broad emotional strokes. The Inbetweeners feels like a show about kids that I grew up with: there’s a relentless ordinariness to it, and a disgustingness that feels, watching it as an adult, surprisingly, sweetly innocent.
The Inbetweeners follows four teenage boys in some anonymous small suburban town in England: Will, a posh ex-private school wanker moved to a comprehensive after his parents’ divorce; Simon, who initially seems like “the normal one” but quickly reveals himself as probably the most fucked-up of all, short-tempered, needy and incredibly sensitive; Neil, who is basically a complete idiot but probably the most together of the four when it comes to actually interacting with other people; and Jay, self-appointed sex expert and pathological liar. They want to get drunk, and pull a girl, but mostly just hang around, talking shite.
Despite having watched the whole show during its original run and seeing episodes occasionally in reruns since, the way the boys talk in The Inbetweeners still kind of shocked me. Okay, shocked is an exaggeration, but I can’t imagine – in a post-Dapper Laughs world – a hugely popular comedy programme using the word “gash” quite as extensively. Also: clunge. And that’s not to mention “bender,” “chav” and “gyppo”.
The kind of language that’s deemed acceptable by the mainstream can change pretty quickly without most people even noticing. When we look back at the past – especially when it comes to young characters – it’s easy to want to just airbrush out what, from our modern vantage point, makes uncomfortable viewing. There’s a big difference between shows that are anthropological – that want to show the world as it is – and aspirational – that want to show the world as it could be. Star Trek is probably the ultimate example of a show with an aspirational view of the world: it’s literally set in a post-capitalist utopian future where there’s no more hunger and no more hate. But there are smaller scale aspirational shows, like the sitcoms of Mike Schur that imagine thoroughly good people in sectors often dogged by corruption and incompetence – local government (Parks and Recreation) or the police (Brooklyn Nine Nine) – and ask us to admire them.
Anthropological shows want to capture something about their own present. I think that anthropological shows are important and valuable, and we shouldn’t try to alter that history to suit our present norms. In a video essay about Stranger Things, IT and 1980s nostalgia, Lindsay Ellis talks about how the kids in Stranger Things talk more like 21st century kids: the 1980s as we like to imagine it, scrubbed clean of the casual racism, sexism and homophobia that was the norm in the period. IT – though a deeply flawed film – is a pretty different beast, having vicious bullies who use words like “faggot”, just like kids in real 1980s movies. I was surprised by some of the stuff that made it into IT – the f-slur especially – because the scrubbed-clean nostalgia is so the norm in how we envision pop culture of the past.
The Inbetweeners was a show about what young lads were like in that moment in time. Watching it in 2018 has something of the quality of hearing someone in a John Hughes movie drop the f-slur: it jars, but it was how kids talked then, and if you want to make something feel real, it has to be warts and all.
When it comes to being gross on The Inbetweeners, it’s hard not to immediately think of Jay. I always thought of Jay Cartwright as a one-note joke character: he tells constant self-aggrandising lies, mostly about his non-existent sexual exploits, although also about going to West Ham trials and being able to ride a motorbike and his dad fighting Muhammad Ali as an amateur and winning (“It was a points decision!”). His lies are often very funny – I have a particular fondness for when, asked what exactly was so filthy about the sex he claimed to have had with a Dutch girl, he said that she shit down his arm while he was fingering her – but from my first run I remembered Will and Simon as the show’s “real” characters, the ones with dimension and development, with Neil and Jay as auxiliary joke-generators.
But it turns out – stick with me, here – that Jay is a character filled with incredible pathos, who moves me very deeply.
If you’ve watched the show only casually, or not for a long time, that probably sounds bonkers. It’s roughly equivalent of rewatching Frasier and getting really invested in Bulldog. Like Bulldog, there are some concessions to his fragile interior life, but he’s only really there for a quick laugh, to bounce off against the main characters. Bulldog practises a kind of masculinity that might as well be a Keep Away sign across his chest: he’s brash, rude and sexist, he demeans women with sexual come-ons and, on occasion, literally barks like a dog. Jay mirrors this kind of masculinity in a clumsy, adolescent way: all dirty words and dirtier magazines, it doesn’t seem to matter that no-one but Neil swallows his bragging, just that he gets to say it at all.
If I met someone like Jay, I would hate him on sight. He says things like “Bring your wellies, because we’re going to be knee deep in clunge!” and “If there’s grass on the pitch, play ball.” He calls his car the minge mobile and insistently asks Will if he’d fuck his own mother. In The Inbetweeners Movie, he wears a t-shirt that says “Pussay Patrol” on the front and “Mr. Big Nob” on the back.
And I love him. I worry for his well-being, and want the best for him, and don’t want anyone to ever be mean to him. I think he is, of all things, sweet.
The prestige TV drama is sometimes imagined to have unlocked the possibility of complex psychological characterisation in television, and there are ways in which that’s true. But great sitcoms provide a constant stream of psychological insight into their characters almost imperceptibly: any one of the Gang from It’s Always Sunny are among the most complex characters to grace our television screens in the past decade. David Brent from The Office and Michael Scott from the US remake seem like buffoons but have layers of inadequacy, insecurity and desperation. Malcolm from The Thick of It is remembered as a shouty sweary man, but his most important line reveals unexpected motivations: “We have to get back into government because that’s where we can help people.” Rimmer from Red Dwarf makes me sadder than almost anyone on TV, and he starts out as basically just the worst possible version of Felix from The Odd Couple.
Rewatching The Inbetweeners in the space of a week or so, all of Jay’s small details became amplified, and what seemed like one note played over and over revealed itself as, if not a symphony, then a lovely, sad song.
Jay lies constantly about his sexual experience, but is by far the most sexually inexperienced of the group. While Will and Simon are quick to point out when he’s lying, they’ve got nothing on his dad’s put-downs: he constantly mocks Jay’s inability to get a girl, saying that he should go for “fat birds” since no-one else would be willing to go out with him. Or, failing that, a “desperate girl who likes the smell of B.O. and blokes with tiny cocks.” He says it with a big smile to Jay’s friends, like it’s banter. And some of it would be just banter between two adult friends, who had known each other for a long time and could tell the other one when to fuck off. But it’s not banter when it’s a grown man and his sixteen-year-old son, who is so insecure about his sexual inexperience that he feels the need to constantly, outrageously lie about it. In a moment where he lets his guard down, he admits that he “exaggerates” because he’s terrified of people not noticing him.
At the end of the second season, Jay gets a girlfriend, Chloe. Simon is quick to call bullshit, but his tone goes all soft when he realises that this time it’s for real: he tells Jay that Chloe seems really nice. Simon asks if he loves her and he blushes and smiles. The way Jay talks to and about her is like night and day with his usual bragging: Neil makes some gross sexual comment – the kind that Jay usually makes roughly every ten seconds – and he is quick to shut him down. He’s shy when he’s with her. He still lies: he says he doesn’t need to study for his exams because he has a photographic memory, which is both an excuse for why he can come around to her house and a desperate bid to assure a grammar school girl that he’s clever.
Jay worries that Chloe is more experienced than him, but while part of it is probably the standard jealous-guy, women-shouldn’t-be-such-sluts thing, it’s more that he is just so terminally embarrassed by his own lack of experience. He’s had it engrained in him by his dad and the world-at-large that a man’s number of sexual partners is a measure of his worth, to the point where he’s built a whole persona around bragging about sexual partners he hasn’t even had. He doesn’t want Chloe to think less of him, because he already feels so far beneath her: she goes to a grammar school and he goes to a comprehensive; she’s studying hard and he isn’t at all, not because of his “photographic memory”, but because it feels like it won’t make any difference. It’s not like people like him go to university anyway.
(His dad, who sets him and Simon up for work experience at the plant hire where he works, tells him that with his brains he’d be fucking lucky to get a job throwing shit into a skip.)
Jay asks his dad what to do about his insecurity with Chloe, and he tells him to “check where she is all the time” so he’ll “know she’s not off sucking off [some] other bloke.” Jay believes this terrible advice, and texts Chloe constantly, until she breaks up with him because he’s too sensitive and needy and it’s all too much too fast. Wikipedia describes this as “paradoxical”, because she disliked the false persona Jay put on at his father’s advice and would have preferred the “real” Jay that we see all the time, who you wouldn’t describe as sensitive in a million years. But Chloe is right: Jay is too sensitive and too needy, it’s just that most of the time, he buries those qualities under layers and layers of bravado and bullshit.
In one of the show’s very best scenes, Jay attempts to explain to Will that he dumped Chloe: “She wouldn’t have this threesome even though I organised it with a top lezzer model, and” – he bursts into tears, and I mean bursts, going from nought to convulsive sobbing in point two seconds – “my cock was too big for her.”
I’ve always loved this scene, and the episode in general. But first time around, I thought of it as a rare instance where Jay is sensitive and capable of genuine connection with a girl. I think a lot of people think of it that way – as another side of Jay that is normally eclipsed by his dominant personality. But rewatching it, this scene is just all of Jay’s scenes turned up to eleven.
“My cock was too big for her,” he says through sobs, and it’s completely incongruent. There isn’t even the pretence his bullshit usually has of being put forward as true; not even Neil believes it. He’s heartbroken; we know it, he knows it, Will, Simon and Neil know it. But Jay bullshits, because this is exactly why he always bullshits: because he has all this pain inside him, and he needs to push it down and cover it up. Not just say that he’s fine, but that he’s fucking brilliant, just notice me, please don’t ignore me, please please please.
So every lie Jay tells takes on a shade of melancholy. He’s doing his usual shtick about all the girls he’s fucked, this time at the caravan club where his family goes on holiday, and when Will says, “You go on holiday in a caravan? Like a gyppo?” he has to double-down: “Actually, it’s a well-known fact that caravan club is like a sex club.” (In another episode, Will calls him a chav.) In order to make his timeline of sex partners make sense, he has to retreat further and further into the past, claiming to have got blowjobs off cleaners at eleven in a way that reminds me of those weird comments you always get on stories about adult women raping teenage boys about how “lucky” he is. As the other boys get older and more sexually experienced, his lies become more and more strained as he’s pressed for details he has only foggy ideas of from porn: “Yeah, amazing. I pissed right in her mouth.”
The Inbetweeners Movie is basically a feature-length season finale, and apart from straining a little too hard to get that happy ending, it’s good. In the longstanding tradition of British sitcom film adaptations, it’s about going on a sun-and-booze holiday, this time, shortly after the boys finish their A-levels. Jay inherited some money off a dead relative, and he’s ready to get pissed and go out on – ahem – pussay patrol. Jay’s main arc in the film is about falling for a girl called Jane, a beautiful, funny overweight girl: he’s initially rude to her, but they end up getting on well, until – right before they’re going to swim naked together – he sees some guys making fun of her (and by extension, him), calling her a beached whale. He seizes up, runs away, and generally acts like a total shithead. She ends up forgiving him, maybe a little too easily, but he looks so soft and warm and happy as he boops her on the nose that I wanted her to marry him.
But the scene that I just can’t shake in The Inbetweeners Movie is a small one that I haven’t seen anyone write about. Simon says, offhand and affectionate, “I’m almost going to miss [Will] when I’m at uni.”
Jay corrects him: “When he’s at uni, you mean.”
“Yeah, but I’ll be at uni too,” Simon says.
Jay’s taken aback. He asks Simon three different versions of, essentially, what, really? “Will you? What, this year?… Oh, what, just because Will’s going?”
“No,” Simon says, “’Cause I want to.”
“Well, what about me?” he asks, as if Simon could answer, “Well, what am I going to do?”
Simon says he doesn’t know, because it’s the only thing he can say.
If there’s a better answer to Jay asking “What about me? What am I going to do?” than I don’t know, I haven’t found it. He’s a boy so sad and scared that he can’t even admit to himself that he’s sad and scared. He bullshits as a coping mechanism – for his dad’s emotional abuse, for his low self-esteem, for the sexual trauma he is implied to have experienced from a neighbour as a child – but, when he asks Simon that question in The Inbetweeners Movie, he’s eighteen-years-old, a legal adult. There’s a ticking clock on how much longer he can keep up the bullshit before his age stops being an excuse. Either his misogynistic bravado will harden, like a mask that changes the face of its wearer, or he’ll have to abandon it altogether, to figure out a new way of living. But when you strip the mask away, what’s left of Jay, and what is there for him to do? With his brains he’d be fucking lucky to get a job throwing shit into a skip.
The question – What about me? What am I going to do? – won’t come up again, including in the second film, where Jay goes on a “gap year” to Australia, by which I mean, he sleeps in a tent in his uncle’s front yard and works as a toilet attendant. But it might be the question at the heart at The Inbetweeners.
Jay tries to do what he always does when he’s uncomfortable, what he did the night that Chloe broke up with him that Simon had understood so immediately. “It’s just that I was going to use my grandad’s money to set us up in business, selling car stereos to Premiership footballers,” he says, wistful, “Neil was going to work in the depot, but me, you and Rio Ferdinand are on sales, like, having a laugh and that.”
Simon doesn’t indulge him. “Oh, right. Yeah, I’m going to do sociology.”