Flash forward to 2014: disgusted by the GOP's descent into insanity and Presidential incompetence, I'm now cynically apolitical. Sorkin's current show, The Newsroom, seems naive when it's not absurd or insulting. Darker, but melodramatic shows like House of Cards (itself a BBC retread) and Scandal don't cut it either. So thank God for BBC Four's The Thick of It, Armando Iannucci's ruthless satire which makes Yes, Minister seem benign. Its grittiness pointedly rebukes the Sorkin vision of government as good; instead, it's a cesspool of treachery and avarice.
Airing from 2005-2012, The Thick of It focuses mainly on the fictional Department of Social Affairs and Citizenship (DOSAC), in an unnamed but presumably Labour government. The Department's run first by cynical Hugh Abbott (Chris Langham), then inept Nicola Murray (Rebecca Front), each prone to media gaffes and PR disasters. But the protagonist is Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi), the Prime Minister's Director of Communication, who uses media savvy, intimidation and deceit to keep government working smoothly.
Suffice it to say, The Thick of It is deliriously funny. Iannucci cut his teeth on The Day Today and I'm Alan Partridge, mixing absurdist wit with largely improvised humor. Some of that carries over: the show employed a large writing staff but we're told the cast frequently polished the dialogue. Among the writing staff is Will Smith, who also played hapless Opposition aide Phil. The show employs handheld camera work a la The Office but relies on visual gags like Peter Capaldi's girly run.
And the language! Iannucci proves an artist in profanity. The average episode registers more F-bombs than Martin Scorsese's entire oeuvre, but it's the creativity that stands out. Any truck driver can spew cuss words: calling someone a "big fucking spunk lolly" takes more thought. Certainly the wit isn't expended on swearing alone, Iannucci and Co. employing wordplay, nicknames and esoteric cultural references equally well. Lest we forget, this show gave us the delightful neologism "omnishambles."
|"I have an application here that throws grenades into people's dreams."|
Malcolm Tucker is the show standout character. An utterly ruthless figure, Malcolm has a nightmarish control over government and media, planting stories, burying information and destroying obstinate politicians. In one show he proclaims himself "the heart of government" without apparent irony. Besides his utter ruthlessness and endless profanity, Tucker's an unelected official accountable to no one; hence no need to act ethically or even appear nice. Peter Capaldi gives Malcolm charm and grace which only makes him scarier.
Yet Iannuci and Capaldi humanize Tucker, shading small but telling details into his character. Most obvious is his relationship with his secretary Sam (Samantha Harrington): one lovely scene shows them bonding over a birthday cake. On several occasions he defends Glenn (James Smith) against mockery, and proves sensitive to Nicola's fractious home life - up to a point. We even see glimmers of repressed idealism: he justifies backstabbing Nicola because the Party's out of power, hence unable to help people. Malcolm's ruthless but rarely cruel, his conscience run to ground by a lifetime of spin.
And Malcolm seems downright honorable next to his rivals. One recurring nemesis is Julius Nicholson (Alex Macqueen), the baldy "Blue Skies thinker" who Malcolm habitually underestimates. His ludicrous diction ("Is there a special school only you and Brian Sewell attend?") and expensive eating habits inspire ridicule, yet Nicholson's dangerous for his connections and lack of scruples. There's also PR man Steve Fleming, a frothing psychopath devoted to destroying Malcolm. Malcolm more easily handles Ben Swain (Justin Edwards), an ambitious junior minister repeatedly sabotaged by his own stupidity.
|Bald-on-bald cottaging: Nicholson and Fleming|
The first two series are a mixed bag. Compressed into three episodes each, they're self-contained without developing arcs or depth. Malcolm emerges a fully-formed force of nature, but Ollie, Glenn and Terri provide only rough sketches. And frankly, Hugh Abbott isn't very compelling. Already craven and cynical, he lacks the depth or contrast to spark off Malcolm. Some moments work beautifully: Malcolm sacking Abbott's predecessor say, or Hugh enduring a harangue by an enraged constituent ("Do you know what it's like to clean up your own mother's piss?"). But it's largely dry stuff, indicative of a show finding its feet.
Thick of It hit its stride with hour-long specials Rise of the Nutters and Spinners and Losers. Produced in 2007, they analogized Tony Blair's resignation and Gordon Brown's surprise ascension. The PM's resignation sends the Party into upheaval: Malcolm struggles to keep his job, despite the treachery of his lieutenant Jamie (Paul Higgins), Ollie's cozying up to Ben Swain and Nicholson's power play. It's two absorbing hours of backstabbing, culminating in a delicious payoff.
The specials also introduce Thick of It's most sympathetic character, Opposition leader Peter Mannion (Roger Allam). An out-of-touch Tory with an illegitimate child, Mannion nonetheless possesses a rigid moral compass. Pressed to exploit a crisis in Nicola's family, Mannion announces he'd rather lose an election. Such principles enrage adviser Stewart Pearson (Vincent Franklin), who combines cynicism with Dilbert-inspired koans like "knowledge is porridge." Their mutual loathing provides endless hilarity, especially an episode where they're trapped at Stewart's "thought camp" retreat.
|Peter Mannion: "Any thoughts from within your fucking dream yurt?"|
Despite Malcolm's efforts, in Season Four Mannion's party takes power through a coalition with faux-Liberal Democrats. They're even more dysfunctional than Labour DOSAC, with Liberal Dems Fergus and Adam (Geoffrey Streatfield and Ben Willbond) openly undermining Mannion. Nicola becomes opposition leader, her incompetence expanding along with her responsibilities. Malcolm determines to replace Nicola with Dan Miller (Tony Gardner), a smug but competent backbencher, while grooming Ollie as his own successor. Everything hits the fan when a homeless man named Mr. Tickel commits suicide, initiating an inquiry into government press leaks.
The penultimate episode centers on an hour long inquiry, clearly modeled on the Murdoch phone hacking scandal. Many shows use similar set-ups (speaking of The West Wing), but The Thick of It's version transcends gimmick. We're so familiar with these characters behind-the-scenes, it's discomforting to watch their public conduct. Phil protests friendship with Adam and Fergus, even as they roll their eyes at his idiocy. Stewart spews impenetrable aphorisms even under oath ("If you think you're too small to make a difference, you've never spent a night with a mosquito!"). Glenn takes the opportunity to trash Ollie, whom he describes as a spineless mollusk. And Malcolm is defiant, until a late revelation renders him speechless.
The finale seems a foregone conclusion. Malcolm lays bare his soul to Ollie, admitting his job has cost him a normal life, indeed made him barely human. Then Ollie takes over as Malcolm's indicted for perjury. Glenn and Stewart make dramatic exits, Nicola is humiliated beyond redemption, the survivors scramble off to spin the latest news. It's the perfect end to an unremittingly bleak show. No matter who's in the power government doesn't change, idealism floundering in a Nile of shit.
Note: I'm considering expanding this post into a series, so I can explore my favorite shows without dragging it out over endless individual episode reviews. What do you readers think? Would more TV write-ups interest you?