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While 2019 has been a banner year for comically devastating TV heroines imported from Britain, Miri Matteson, the hero of the new Showtime seriesBack to Life, is so distinctive that to clump her in with the Fleabags and the Sharons, the Aines or even the Alices, feels like a disservice. Created and played by Daisy Haggard, Miri is impossibly kind and ineffably optimistic. She’s also just been released from an 18-year prison sentence for a crime that’s unspecified at the show’s outset, but is serious enough to compel Miri’s mother (Geraldine James) to hide the kitchen knives the day she gets home.
The question of forgiveness was very much on Haggard’s mind when she was writing the show, the writer and actor told me on the phone from a café in South London. (The first few minutes of the call focused on the fact that, as teens, we went to the same all-girls school, a few years apart, where we were both earnest contributors to the annual poetry festival and where I once saw her play Miss Hannigan in the 1995 senior production ofAnnie.) “Obviously there are some things that people do and ways people behave that you can never forgive,” she said. “But I’d say I believe in second chances, and I am a forgiver.” Her desire with Miri was to create someone whom society had labeled a bad person, but whose actions and instincts complicated that judgment. “It was about presenting a human rather than what we often do, which is stamp somebody with the thing they’ve done wrong.”
Before she created Miri, Haggard had been acting for more than two decades, playing the mournful studio executive Myra Licht in the Showtime/BBC comedyEpisodes, and appearing in installments ofBlack MirrorandDoctor Who. She’s always written things, she told me—the poetry festival notwithstanding—starting with a film she wrote when she was 11 “where you can tell halfway through I hit puberty and it suddenly becomes about lots of good-looking boys with their tops off.”Back to Lifecame about after Haggard met with Harry and Jack Williams of Two Brothers Pictures, the producers behind a wealth of recent British hits (not least of which was a quirky BBC3 comedy calledFleabag). After pitching them what she described as “seven dreadful shows,” Haggard landed on an idea about a woman who’d done something terrible years ago and was trying to return to something like normality. She knew it would be “an unusual mixture of drama and comedy, and a bit dark and weird.” But she also knew that Miri had to be buoyantly optimistic, to keep the show from tilting too far into tragedy. Miri’s spiri
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