I wouldn't watch Psychoville too close to a rewatch of The League of Gentlemen; the character of Mr Jelly here is blantantly Geoff Version 2, with the same voice and characterisation. Also, it takes adjusting to that writers Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton multi-role only some of the characters; which considering that the characters all meet up at the end makes sense. Still, that was a major part of why The League of Gentlemen was so good.
The plot doesn't really stand up for the first two episodes; too uncompelling. It's the standard set-up of five people receiving mysterious letters saying "I know what you did" and then "You killed her". It's such a cliche that you might be tempted to switch off after Episode Two, if not before. The thin plot is really just an excuse to have a bunch of odd characters involved in spooky/comic goings-on but you can't afford to be careless with plot when your show has the set-up of a thriller, comedy or not.
We have a cast of freaks of course: a midwife (Dawn French) who insists that her doll is a real baby; a millionaire (Steve Pemberton) with an obsession for collecting Beanie Babies; Mr Jelly (Reece Shearsmith), a clown who is bitter about being mixed up with nemesis clown Mr Jolly; a telekinetic pantomime dwarf (Jason Tompkins) in love with the actress Snow White; and mother-and-son murdering duo Maureen (Reece Shearsmith) and David Sowerbutts (Steve Pemberton). But simply making everything a bit weird and freaky does not constitute good writing. If I make up a character who has Babybels for eyes and drools jam, that's imaginative and freaky but it doesn't make it good. TLOG (yep I abbreviated it because it may crop up once or twice in this review) was at its worst when the characters were so freaky that they bore no resemblance to people (such as the doctor obsessed with party games).
For the most part, the actors are suffocated by the artifice, remaining cartoons. Shearsmith and Pemberton are still very funny and 'become' the different characters far more than other sketch-show comedians have done. But their knack for playing normal people made monstrous and for playing women as women rather than men in drag is not on display here, with just one drag role. It's hilarious but underplays their acting talents. Maybe this is out of courtesy to the other actors but surely the onus is on the other actors to make themselves shine out. Saying that though, Dawn French does a good job: she is darkly comic and feels like a plausible person- albeit with surreal elements. There is also a strangely endearing bond between David and Maureen, that's both comic, cringy and downright creepy (Episode 1 implies an incestuous dynamic). They also get to be in my favourite episode, number 4: a homage/parody of Rope, guest-starring Mark Gatiss (yay, the trio of performing League members complete). It's well-written, blackly comic; how a comedy horror/thriller should be done. It has a focus lacking in the rest of the series.
The problem with writing a comedy-horror-thriller is that the comedy is lying in wait to undermine the suspense. There's always the chance that plot and logic will go out of the window because hey, it's funny. Like the ending of Crossroads. I feel that this problem plagues the first three episodes; it's only after Episode 4 that the horror and creepiness comes through. Contrary to other viewers, I don't think the show is dark enough at the beginning; I've seen darker things on CBBC; an influence that permeates the show. Every character has some link with childhood, whether it's toys, entertainment, or a mother-son bond. Of course perverting childhood touchstones is a staple of horror and dark writing, but Shearsmith and Pemberton don't go that far. It's frustrating because black comedy is all about straddling that line between what is 'acceptable' and what is 'too far'. We do have some serial killer song-and-dances but we get that sort of thing in Horrible Histories. It's a far cry from TLOG, which pretty much lived on that line.
I know I sound like one of those boring old fans who'd prefer them to churn out the same things ad nauseum, as if Shearsmith and Pemberton are somehow obliged to replicate past successes and try to fill in the missing half of The League (and I'd love to see them collaborate on something as a twosome). But apart from being very obviously a comedy horror rather than a comedy with horrific aspects- and I don't deny that there is some hilarious stuff towards the end- Psychoville doesn't uncover any new strengths.
EDIT: I gave the show three stars rather than two because the second half of the show does what the first half should have done and with the benefit of a DVD, you can simply skip episodes one and two. Also, the show was always going to suffer by comparison to TLOG; it would be a lot more fun for people coming in completely fresh.