‘Inside No. 9’ Season 8 review – “Love is a Stranger” and “3 by 3”

With so many episodes under its belt, Inside No. 9 can’t be blamed for a few calculable twists and turns. After all, avid viewers have only become more shrewd over the years because of Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton. The series has trained its fans to trust no character and to scrutinize every detail, no matter how fleeting or innocent. So when watching the next two installments of Season 8, “Love is a Stranger” and “3 by 3,” the sharpest of watchers might quickly realize what’s in store ahead of time, all thanks to some glaring and early clues in each story. That doesn’t mean either episode comes up short in entertainment; in fact it’s the knowing that makes these entries all the more fun.

This review contains spoilers!

Claire Rushbrook breaks your heart before ripping it out in “Love is a Stranger.” The lonesome protagonist has turned to dating online recently, but the results are less than desirable. This one particular site specializes in speed dating, and it’s as awkward as it sounds. Rushbrook’s character, Vicky, endures a few too many disappointing and uncomfortable video chats with suitors before she ends up in the same state as she began: alone and depressed. Vicky quickly endears herself to the audience, and even after the episode shows its hand, her character remains sympathetic.

Considering the attention-seeking mention of an active serial killer at the outset, “Love is a Stranger” undermines itself. There are no coincidences in this series, so naturally the audience expects Vicky to have a run-in with the Lonely Hearts Killer at some point. When she’s not being humiliated via video date, Rushbrook’s character is shown entertaining someone at her flat. A closer look, however, reveals these are possibly multiple dates, not one. That revelations makes a hell of a difference when wondering how this story ends.

Live viewers were likely confused when they tuned in for a trolley-themed episode called “Hold on Tight!” To their surprise, though, the episode was apparently pulled at the last second and replaced with a game show pilot called “3 by 3.” Or so they thought. As tempting as it may have been to change the channel, dedicated viewers who stayed correctly reconsidered.

Pemberton and Shearsmith deceived everyone back then in 2018 with the Halloween event “Dead Line,” but “3 by 3” has a greater sense of verisimilitude. On first watch, it’s admittedly not as easy to suss out the deception. TV personality Lee Mack, playing the bantering host, convincingly moderates a straightforward trivia challenge, which for the most part plays out like a cut-and-dry TV quiz among three trios. It’s only when one of the competing threesomes, the Oakwood family, makes suspicious comments about themselves that the audience starts to better recognize the artifice. Not by chance, “Dead Line” director Barbara Wiltshire also helmed this astounding exercise in pseudoreality. It’s not anywhere as layered as her last contribution, although the trickery is more potent and the payoff is arguably more rewarding.

If being absolutely fooled by the story is a requirement, then “Love is a Stranger” could be disappointing for some. Nevertheless, Claire Rushbrook’s performance is the real selling point, not the foreseeable twist. “3 by 3” is, so far, Season 8’s top player and will be a hard one to top.

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