Inside No. 9 (5 stars)

Inside No 9

Shearsmith and Pemberton are back on scintillating form with their new set of darkly comic half hours

There's always been an element of meta-narrative to Inside No. 9, reaching its seeming apotheosis with their live 2018 Halloween special, 'Dead Line'. There, they chipped away at the blurred frames of reality and fiction, utilising Twitter and technical hitches to heighten the audience's sense that something had gone seriously awry. And yet, Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton have ramped up the post-postmodern ante with the first two salvos in their sixth batch of half-hour twistathons.

The opener 'Wuthering Heist' is, like its title, a playful beast with an absolute torrent of puns and visual gags as a misfit gang of robbers prepare for a very big score on a consignment of diamonds. But above all, the episode takes itself, and us, out of the action to pass comment on the problems inherent with long-running TV series, music copyright issues, and audience expectations that are sweated into the very bricks of a show like Inside No. 9. Featuring our two hosts, parts are also given to Gemma Whelan, Paterson Joseph, and Kevin Bishop, another indication of how much top-notch actors view an appearance on the programme as a badge of honour.

The follow-up episode ('Simon Says') is not quite so self-conscious in its analysis of TV tropes, instead it looks at the often scabrous relationship between writers and fans of a hit drama, especially when the latter feel let down by the former if the show's culmination is seen as a crushing disappointment. Pemberton plays Spencer Maguire, the creator of a fantasy small-screen romp that gained legions of admirers across several seasons before bowing out with a somewhat divisive ending (if you're thinking Game Of Thrones, that's probably their intention).

Into his life crashes uber-fan Simon (Shearsmith) who has his own ideas about how The Ninth Circle should have finished, and has some leverage on Maguire to force the creator into undoing the damage. Lindsay Duncan performs a fine turn as Maguire's agent who may not know her client's work inside out, but is in full agreement with Simon about the lacklustre finale.

Some may have felt that the previous collection (with its tales of football officials, stakeout coppers, and warring magicians) was slightly underpowered compared to the earlier sets. While there's always time for later episodes to bring this season's average down a notch, the first two instalments have our darkly comic ringmasters back on spectacular and devilish form.

BBC Two, Monday 10 May, 9.30pm.