For those of us of a certain disposition the return of The Thick Of It is a relief as much as anything. Finally, we have something to watch on the TV that isn’t a DVD or 40D Youtube video. I also utterly lost interest in Curb Your Enthusiasm after the end of Series 4, so there is very little in the way of new comedy that ever piques my interest right now.
I have to confess to being very, very excited before the first episode aired. All the previous series were so brilliant that of course my expectations were sky-high and over the last couple of weeks I’d watched the whole lot (plus In The Loop) by way of preparation. As you do.
So of course when you build something up so much in your mind the first episode of a new series is always going to be something of a letdown, however good it is. I’d read beforehand that Malcolm Tucker, one of the great comic creations of all time, wasn’t to feature. He was the reason the show is not merely good, but genuinely, life-changingly brilliant. It is his lines that had me choking on my lunch when I first heard them and still had me sniggering days after. The supporting cast are of course exemplary (especially the incomparable Jamie, whose absence I still mourn) but ultimately it’s The Tucker Show.
But Thick has to reflect reality, to a degree at least, or it ceases to have any satirical resonance. It was of course originally envisioned as a commentary on New Labour, with their obsession with spin and utter intellectual barrenness.
But now (New) Labour are out of power, the focus by necessity has to shift to the Coalition and away from Tucker. So the first episode, which hasn’t received a great response from what I’ve been reading in the last couple of days, has to be viewed in that context.
First episodes have to set the scene. Introduce new characters and relationships. And in this case the central relationship isn’t between a Tucker figure and all of the ministers he has to whip into shape. It’s between two parties who despise each other (despite the lack of any substantive political differences of course……). The new DoSaC nominally has Thick veteran Peter Mannion in charge, but of course we have a Lib Dem junior minister too, Fergus Williams, who is An absolute dick.
I did find Fergus almost unendurably irritating, if I’m honest. But that probably means that the role is probably being played perfectly. I can well imagine a largely impotent junior Lib Dem minister being nothing more than a shrill irritant. His new adviser Adam Kenyon, who in the specials was the Daily Mail night editor, is a great character with great lines and a huge amount of potential but moving jobs from the Daily Mail to advising the Lib Dems does seem a tad unlikely.
Roger Allam has to play his role very differently now Mannion has taken office. Did it work? Well he wasn’t as funny as in the last series and especially the specials, but I think he is the butt of the jokes now. His role has shifted. He is stressed, has to work long hours to keep up with his more energetic Lib Dem colleague, feels like yesterday’s man and is constantly under the media spotlight.
His performance in front of the school students was excruciating. Maybe a little too excruciating, and a little out of character for probably the only remotely admirable figure in the show. I’m the first to argue that the Tories are out of touch, but I think the writers may have laid it on a bit, well, thick, this time.
One could say something similar about Glen. His desperation and sycophancy isn’t entirely out of character but his performance in this episode was a little bit over-egged for my liking. I just can’t imagine someone with that amount of political experience following his new bosses around like an attention seeking teenager. He was far more cynical hitherto. And I preferred it like that.
I think one of the aspects of pre-coalition Thick, as pointed out by the Telegraph, was that there was a hierarchy of fear and mockery, with Malcolm (and for a while Jamie and briefly Cal Richards) at the top. There was a genuine menace in Tucker and his expletive-ridden scheming, which was why the scene when Terri stood up to him in Series 3 was so electrifying. Partly it was the writing. Partly it was the mesmerising performance of Peter Capaldi. But partly it was just the natural dynamic of the show. The jokes and insults, as well as being funny, revealed the power relationships
And that element has gone, for now anyway. Everyone is just trading insults as vaguely equal partners now, which is fine, and there were some great moments, but it has meant the show has (for now) lost something. Part of why I was excited by the Cal Richards character is that I thought he could take on the role of Tucker in the new series. Maybe my horizons are narrow and I should be embracing the new, more egalitarian approach. Maybe.
That said, I did enjoy it rather more when I watched it again on Sunday morning (yes, I did watch it twice in 15 hours. And?) Phil had some great lines “the, er, er, er Wanker ?” and (Stewart) “had the morning off when Steve Jobs died” were brilliant and had me laughing for ages after. The Steve Jobs line in particular was all the more amusing for its plausibility.
Anyway, Tucker is back next weekend and I’m convinced it will get better. Of course his role will change a lot now Nicola is leader but that will be fascinating. His fall and rise in the last series were gripping and it was good to see his character fleshed out a little.
So to sum up, a middling start by its own ludicrously high standards (which means that it pisses all over 95% of all the other comedy shows ever made) but after initially being a little underwhelmed I still think this could be a great series. I can’t wait for the next episode.