It’s Grimm in Portland, Oregon

“These guys, they carry grudges all the way to the grave.  And usually it’s your grave.”

What are there far too many of on the TV?  No, not medical dramas.  Or property porn.  Legal dramas?  Cooking shows? Victorian-sideshows-with-racist-undertones masquerading as documentaries or reality TV?

Well yes to all the above, obviously, but that’s not what I meant.

I meant crime procedurals.

CSI: Everywheresville, USA.  That alone accounts for several million investigated corpses.  Then there’s all the rest, your Without a Traces and Law and Orders etc etc.  In these shows the good guys usually get their man and everyone goes away happy, except when they don’t and Dexter has to step in to chop up said with malice aforethoughter and wrap him in a bin bag and everyone else goes away happy.

As you might expect, liberal America poster city Portland, Oregon does things a little differently.

Nick Burkhardt (David Giuntoli) is just an ordinary cop working homicide and trying to do his job as best as possible when he discovers, courtesy of a dying aunt, that he is a descendant, nay a veritable scion of the brothers Grimm and as such can see the true forms of Wesen (“Vessen”), mythological creatures occasionally given to offing human folk.

Not all the time, mind, just when they lose control of their emotions.  Because otherwise it would just be silly.

The brothers Grimm were in fact recording documentary evidence like 19th century detectives and decapitating bear-men and wolf-men and such, not merely writing down the horrifically violent and often heavily sexualised stories that people used to tell the kiddywinks.

Cinderella?  By all accounts it was a fur slipper before the BGs wrote it down, not a glass one.  Think that ‘perfect fit’ through for just a second.  Just sayin’, dawg.

And so begins Grimm, the wackiest, most overblown, ridiculous and genius trashy cop show ever. Watch it, you’ll hate it: it’s terrible; you’ll love it, guaranteed.  See, it goes like this: 1st five minutes = WTF, next 5 minutes = this is dreadful, next minute = fine, I’ll give it until the next ad break, two episodes later = obsessed much?  You’re officially a write-off.

It’s got people trafficking, jealous lovers, cookies, magic coins, fight clubs, people being poached to make mythological creature Viagra.  Best stock up on monster mace – turns out there’s a fanged beastie in every corner of Portland.  It’s a true original and yet so, so generic crime caper, but with fairy tales.  I only wish I could’ve been a fly on the wall when it was pitched:

Yeah so, like, CSI meets the wolf from red riding hood? Yeah the wolf’s in it, but Burkhardt finds the wrong one first when they’re chasing a kidnapper – they’re called, uh, Blutboden by the way.  Yeah we just made up some words that sound a bit, y’know, German.  Anyway, this one is called Monroe, yeah I know, great name even if it’s not very dog-like but he becomes Burkhardt’s best friend and sort of like a guide.  Geddit?!  We’re gonna’ get him to say stuff like “don’t you dare say heel!” Oh and Burkhardt solves crimes with his partner, Hank Griffin.  I know, right?!  No I don’t know the mythological significance of the griffin, I just think it sounds frickin’ harsh!  He gets dragged around but he doesn’t know what’s going on so there’s all this tension ‘cause Burkhardt wants to tell him and his girlfriend the truth but can’t.  Yeah we’re not too bothered about the girlfriend to tell the truth.  But we could probably write in some references to the Nazis if you guys want, that’s definitely something that could happen.

Hmm? I dunno, do you think Nicolas Cage might be interested?

Sadly not, but Giuntoli plus partners detective Hank Griffin (Russell Hornsby) and Monroe (Silas Mitchell) have a genuine likability about them that’s typically lacking in less luridly ludicrous police shows.  That they wear the material so lightly is probably what makes it even remotely watchable, admittedly.  Mainly it’s about Silas Mitchell.  Bitsie Tulloch is a bit wasted in the girlfriend role that is little more than a plot device.  Then there’s the boss cop (Sasha Roiz), about whom there may be more than meets the eye. 

To recap it’s pathologically stoopid, the CGI is lame, the Wesen designs usually laughable rather than scary, season two opened with one of the cheesiest credits sequences you’re ever likely to experience, the girlfriend role’s a bit thankless but the guys are having a whale of a time (TV and film in microcosm, really).

If that’s not a rock-solid promise of rambunctious entertainment then I dunno’ what is.

Series two features on the channel Watch in the UK on Mondays at 9pm, it’s probably long over in the States but I’m sure you young criminals will all find a way to stream it on t’internet.  For shame. 

“It’s obvious: it was committed by a barefoot man carrying a wolf.”

I Wish I Were A Was

Was is great – he was feeling hungry so he ate a royale with cheese because it was Europe and they use the metric system and accordingly wouldn’t know what a quarter pounder is.  And he had a glass of beer, no plastic cups; an actual glass.

It was bliss.

If I were a was I’d mostly stick to the past participle rather than other, more exotic grammatical forms.  Oh, and preferably I’d be a was in New York in the late 60s so I could watch the Velvet Underground play live.

But occasionally I might decide to be part of a longer word instead, sort of like a collective.  Wasp probably wouldn’t be too pleasant what with people swatting at you and having to keep the local fly population down and all, except in late summer when the fallen fruit starts to rot and ferment and we get a little drunk.  Me and P.

That’s why wasps typically become more aggressive in late summer – because they’re mean drunks.  True story.

Or I could be George Washington, which might be nice, or a washerwoman, which sounds like hard work.

Or I could walk around backwards and be a saw.  Either way I’d be worth six points in a game of Scrabble.

To be honest, if I were a was I’d probably bully were out of sentences – I wish I was a star, for example, because while I might have a reasonable grasp of the rules of grammar, I prefer to ignore them in the hope they’ll go away.  Not unlike bullies, incidentally.  It’s how I was brought up.

Better to be a was than a were – they don’t call them waswolves after all.  Besides, there’s something faintly accusatory about were, a bit high-minded: oh you WERE, were you?  No, I wouldn’t swap being a was for a were any day.

Speaking of swapping, perhaps it might be fun to mix around my letters rather than sticking rigidly with the W A S plan.  I could be part of a swap.  Me and P.

And that in turn leads me to what else I could be if I were a was with a loose approach to letter order.  I could be all kinds of useful objects instead of just being wasted: a doctor’s swab, a lawsuit, an animal’s paws.  Me and P.

Wouldn’t even need to keep all my letters together.  That could be awesome.

Unfortunately I’m not a was, I’m a were.  On the plus side, I’m worth 7 points in Scrabble.  Take that, was.

And another thing, was, stop nicking my place when it comes to the subjunctive mood, was.

Punk.

Seven Reasons Why Seven Psychopaths Probably Won’t Be Terrible (And One Why It Will Be)

Morning after the night before, do I regret fraternising with fanboy agape (lit: the reciprocal human love for God) for Sam Rockwell in my previous-but-one post?  Not even the slightest.

In that semi-coherent daubing, I posited a new Sam Rockwell Academy Award For Superb Awesomeness.  Seven Psychopaths is shaping up to be in the reckoning for this award, along with much of its cast.

Nota bene: the Sam Rockwell Academy Award For Superb Awesomeness can apply to films and people equally.

Without much further ado about nothing, then, here are some reasons why Seven Psychopaths probably won’t be terrible:

1: In Bruges

Martin McDonagh made In Bruges.  Ok, the film was only half as good as people said – Brendan Gleeson representing the good half – but it was a strong debut effort from McDonagh, an odd couple buddy movie and a crime caper that wasn’t anything like as stale as those tags suggest it absolutely should have been.

In Bruges was well-paced with decent flourishes of camera and script.  McDonagh wisely relied on Brendan Gleeson to anchor the film as both elder statesman and moral core.  He gave an assured and nuanced performance, far more effective than the more prosaic qualities of nominal lead, Colin Farrell.

2: The Cast

Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken, Woody Harrelson.  Three actors who can do funny, subtle, hammy scenery chewing and unsettling all at once.  Potential or one time leading men who can do offbeat character performances aren’t all that common, but McDonagh’s found three.  Then there’s Olga Kurylenko, who can act better in English than most former Bond girls can in their native tongues.  It’s not a stretch to imagine her beating you up without much difficulty, and you’d still fancy her even after she broke your leg.

I’ve only seen Abbie Cornish in Sucker Punch, about which the less said the better.

All terribly watchable, especially:

3: Harry Dean Stanton

Yes Alien belongs to Sigourney Weaver and everyone remembers John Hurt’s serious xenomorph-based stomach problems and Ian Holm’s masterclass in stillness performance as creepy android, Ash.  But Harry Dean Stanton perfectly captures the guy we’d all probably be, bitching about money then coming over all snivelling coward just ‘cos some ginormous extraterrestrial insect that bleeds acid wants to hump and/or eat everyone on board.  Bet he regretted looking for that damned cat, too.

He also boasts a CV and address book most other actors would kill for.  He was probably cast for the anecdotes alone.

4: Tom Waits

Tom Wait is said to be working with McDonagh on a stage musical, which is probably how he got the job on this film, but don’t let that fool you – Tom Waits is the rarest of rare beasts.  There are loads of musicians who do films and vice versa.  Think Britney Spears in Crossroads or Russell Crowe’s albums.  Under no circumstances watch or listen to either.  Waits stands apart – watch him in The Imaginarium Of Dr Parnassus, or Wristcutters: A Love Story.

5: The antagonist has a soft spot for his pet

It’s common enough – hard as nails, macho gangster has an unlikely weakness for something traditionally considered effeminate, in this instance the big softie misses his pet.  And it’s not a manly pet like a bear-dog hybrid; it’s a fluffy little shih tzu.  In order to compensate for being a bit of a girl, he’s got to have a complete overreaction meltdown.  So it’ll play for both laughs and ultraviolence.  Not a bad description of Woody Harrelson, that, either.

6: Mickey Rourke was lined up to play the role but dropped out

Yep, apparently he fell out with McDonagh.  Now Rourke is a phenomenal actor when he really, really feels like it, but when he doesn’t, let’s just say you’d rather watch Justin Bieber on the loo.

Don’t believe me?  Watch Passion Play.

Exactly.

And he was replaced by Woody Harrelson.  I know who I’d rather see.

7: Sophomore Efforts That Weren’t By The Guy Who Did Donnie Darko

AKA: Pulp Fiction.  Less flippant a comparison than you might think – McDonagh and Tarrantino were arguably primarily script men first whose debut features were ostensible genre pieces that had very little to do with their genres, instead focussing on meaty dialogue and relationships.  And Christopher Walken was in Pulp Fiction.  That’s science, that is.

In Bruges isn’t anything like as good as Reservoir Dogs, but it was a strong statement of intent and markedly superior to the majority of debuts.  If McDonagh can build on what he achieved with In Bruges to anything like the extent that Tarrantino built on Reservoir Dogs, this film should be an all too rare treat.

And the reason why it will be terrible:

1:  Colin Farrell

Gleeson is a heavyweight actor in both the sense of focused talent and imposing physical presence.  His conflicted, subtle performance for In Bruges, riven as it was with dichotomies and unspoken emotions, was played against by…Colin Farrell, who played up the cartoonish elements and struggled with the emotional demands placed on him.

Farrell’s pretty and has charisma and charm, and he was excellently cast in Crazy Heart as the sanitised and somewhat superficial, populist singer with obvious star quality.  But the last twenty minutes of Phone Booth alone revealed his limitations as an actor.  Asking him to hold his own against not just Brendan Gleeson but also Ralph Fiennes was just cruel, even if our Ralph delivered a below par performance.

He’s none too convincing when it comes to action roles, although that was hopefully part of the point in casting him.

So, to be fair, he’ll only be a disaster if he’s required to bring some depth to his performance while running around with an AK-47.

__

So then, seven reasons why it probably won’t be terrible, three of which relate to the cast.  It also won an award at the Toronto Film Festival if that helps.

And if it is totally kaka, the world’s due to end towards the end of December anyway, according to people who couldn’t tell you anything else about long-departed South American civilisations, so it won’t suck for that long.

THAT Speech In Full: Lord Of The Rings: Return Of The King

Hold your ground, hold your ground! Sons of Cole, of Lampard, my brothers!  Not Drogba or Malouda because they didn’t vocally support me over that whole racism thing and besides, Drogba’s no longer a Chelsea player.  I see in your eyes the same fear that would take the heart of me, even though I’ve been cleared of all wrongdoing in a court of law.  A day may come when the courage of England’s Brave John Terry fails, when I forsake my friends and break all bonds of fellowship, besides Wayne Bridge’s I mean, but it is not this day when we top the table by 4 points with only Sunderland in 13th with a game in hand.  An hour of woes and shattered shinpads, when the age of Terry comes crashing down!  But it is not this day!  This day we fight, although not the FA’s decision that I’m guilty of racially insulting Anton Ferdinand because I’ve decided not to appeal!  But other than that, by all that you hold dear on this good Earth – your cars and bling and houses and WAGs and Jacuzzis – I bid you stand, Men of Chelsea!

Sam Rockwell: A Hagiography

Hagiography – noun, plural – phies

  1.  The writing of the lives of the saints
  2. Biography of the saints
  3. any biography that idealises or idolises its subject

There was at one stage an embryo that grew in a womb and which was birthed as a bouncing baby boy.  It was decided shortly thereafter that the boy was a ‘Sam’, a name that means ‘His Name Is God’ or ‘God Has Heard’.  This was clearly auspicious.  

Sam the embryo-that-was with the auspicious name makes for a nice story – the high school dropout turned rebel outsider who came good.

It’s a lie.

Sam Rockwell wasn’t born in the conventional sense, but the truth has been covered up, until now.  One night a comet, nearing the sol side of its orbit, shifted some asteroids into one another.  Well one thing led to another, as it does in space and on dates, and some of the debris and a few smaller asteroids were flung Earthwards where they caused a meteor shower.  The sky lit up – more pyrotechnics than a Rammstein gig.  One meteorite made it to the ground without burning up.  It caused an electromagnetic pulse that took out all the electronics and communications in a tri-county area and caused millions of dollars worth of other infrastructural damage, somewhere in Southern California.  When the authorities reached the crater, there, sitting at the very epicentre of destruction, was Sam Rockwell drinking a cocktail. 

The rest, as they say, is history.

You want a biography, use Wikipedia.  You want an accurate biography with facts in it, don’t use Wikipedia.

If the Academy Awards had any integrity, which they don’t because Braveheart won Best Picture, there would be an annual Sam Rockwell Academy Award For Superb Awesomeness. 

I’ll stop there before this mess digresses into a general, unfocused rant about the Oscars and what criteria they can possibly use to choose Best Picture.  Shakespeare In Love. 

I know what you’re thinking.  You’re thinking why Sam Rockwell, why not all the other deserving men and women?  For example, why not Christopher Walken?

Walken is elevated beyond the realm in which trinkets and baubles can be accolade enough, like a super-evolved, supra-dimensional higher being made entirely of pure energy and facial tics.  That’s why.

Now we’re not about to call Sam Rockwell a saint.  This is a hagiography in the sense of unbecoming, fawning adulation.  The sort of thing one tends to regret the next morning when one has sobered up, rather like the Academy probably did when they woke up to realise they’d given Best Picture to Chicago rather than The Pianist. 

I know what you’re thinking now, you’re thinking that if we’re going to hagiographise and rhapsodise, shouldn’t we, you know, get on with it?

No we shouldn’t.

I think it’s what Sam Rockwell would’ve wanted.

Great art doesn’t bother explaining itself; it’s inscrutable.  You hardly expect me to point out how that applies to Sam Rockwell.  …And you can’t get much more hagiographic than that. 

Fine:

Moon, being the only part of Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, Martin Freeman aside, that the film-makers didn’t mess up, adding some element of subtlety to the lead role in Choke, being a grade A shit in Green Mile, not being shit in Green Mile, not letting on that he clearly only did Iron Man 2 for the money, improving every film he’s in, whatever the quality of the film, let’s gloss over that one where Daniel Craig David (bo selecta!) fights aliens while dressed as a cowboy, let’s not gloss over that other cowboy one he appeared in with the ridiculous title, suppressing his natural ability effortlessly to upstage other actors in Frost/Nixon, being described by Roger Ebert as his generation’s Christopher Walken (go-to guy for ‘weird’), being so much more than that faintly damning praise, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Lawn Dogs, being a serious professional without admitting it or being too luvvie about ‘the craft’, Moon.

Aaaannnd breathe.

Just don’t call him a poster boy for indie cool, because that’s the sort of phrase that ought to make one wonder whether we should ever have gone to the trouble of evolving from single-cell organisms.  The Academy’s judgement certainly doesn’t inspire hope for our ability to develop into more complex creatures: Dances With Wolves.

 Next time on Frood: back to foul-tempered histrionics.

When Carlos Tévez Claimed He Was Treated Like A Dog By Roberto Mancini

Wel…come to Manchester, it is dark early and it rains.  One restaurant, shut away in the dark I miss my children and wife in Argentina, let me go free, set me free Mannncheen.  E.  I want to run and I play well, but the rednosed old man with angry in his voice won’t let me, he won’t buy me from these chains, so I must be force to play for the Blues COME ON you Blues. They say Welcome, but the dark is too soon at night and my family is forever cold.  They say Welcome but their eyes say you Carlito, you we do not trust, they give band for arm. Say this is not chains, but the smooth man new he does not believe.  My family.  Inter has better light, PSG better food problems, I want to run and eat and chase and score goalaaaaccticos.  New man is otter-smooth.  He send me to see family, I write in words I want to leave, Carlito begs smooth man to set free, but smooth man says no you Carlito, you bad and rips cloth from sleeve. 

Bad Carlito, you stay.  Bad Carlito does not understand smooth man, smooth man has many bitter words, Carlito is afraid and does not hear.  I stay on bench and everyone angry with Carlito, you BAD…carlito, like whisper, I run and feel free and warmth of sun, but chains drag me through back – I am not free, Carlito must play, but smooth man say ‘no’ Carlito, Bad Carlito you belong me.  Smooth man pull on leash and I can’t breathe: you too fat, Carlito, you slow, Carlito.

I run away so hard I end up back in Manchester where the light is very thin and it rains.  They smile and say Good Carlito, have a treat; you thin, run very fast. Carlito home to shout COME ON you Blues, my family does like it, they say Welcome and their eyes are full. Carlito is BAC-k, Good Carlito, no chains that hurt my throat and hold me down in mud, COME on you Blues, Welcome home, Carlito.  Welcome To Manchestuuuuuuuurrrrrr.

Defacing Art In The Name Of Art

Jumping the Shark: The moment when a tv show or other cultural phenomenon or politician or anything else you want, really, begins an irrecoverable decline in quality, becoming parodic and relying on gimmicks and stunts to maintain viewer or consumer interest.

London’s Tate Modern is home to a number of Mark Rothko’s Seagram murals, originally painted for New York’s Four Seasons restaurant in 1958.  One of these works, Black on Maroon, was defaced over the weekend by a man alleged to be Vladimir Umanets, an artist who’s one half of a movement called ‘yellowism’, yellow being the colour of rank cowardice.

Apparently, writing a sentence on a work of art by one of the 20th century’s better-known artists was not at all an act of shameless self-promotion by one of the 21st century’s not-at-all known artists.  It would be narcissistic in the extreme to do such a thing, even if it does get your name in the papers and more people to your exhibitions.  In fact it’s cruel even to suggest such a cynical motive.

No, this little act was a selfless show of giving – it was intended to raise awareness of what’s going on more generally in the world of contemporary art – itself no stranger to shameless self-promotion.

And thus the jumped shark eats itself.

Quoteth the Guardian: “I believe that if someone restores the [Rothko] piece and removes my signature the value of the piece would be lower but after a few years the value will go higher because of what I did,” he said, comparing himself to Marcel Duchamp, the French artist who shocked the art establishment when he signed a urinal and put it on display in 1917.” 

That’s right; el Guardian says young Vlad considers himself to be basically exactly the same as Marcel Duchamps.  Duchamps was associated with the ‘readymades’ series, which included said (signed) urinal, a copy of which is on display in the Tate.  And your local drinking establishment.  

Young Vlad’s act of vandalism was in itself a work of art, duh.

Duchamps was making a clever point about art theory – is it art because it’s in a museum or gallery and it has a signature on it – and whether something could be a work of art if it wasn’t specifically created as a work of art.  Or that’s what I understood the bugger to be doing.  Maybe he was just taking the piss.  But, and here ladies and gentlemen lies the world of difference, Duchamps created his own work rather than scribbling on someone else’s.  Or put another way, it’s hard to see our young Vlad as anything other than a twat with a pen.  

But you should try to, because he was, of course, definitely making a point about contemporary art, albeit possibly unwittingly.  This makes young Vlad heroic rather than pretentious.

Me, I’m a fan of Rothko, same as I am Mondrian and others routinely held up as examples of the ‘my kid could do that’ school of art. 

Your kid probably couldn’t do that, although they could doubtless make something that looks a bit like that.  Just ‘cause it’s abstract doesn’t mean it’s worse than a watercolour of a bowl of fruit.  But nor does it make it better.  Or more meaningful.   

I love Rothko’s paintings, which are deceptive – the mark of a great artist, whatever the medium.  But he played his part in making it ok to toss off any old wank and call it art so long as you have some spurious point to make about, like, stuff and the world and that.  And a good PR on speed-dial.  

NB: it should take at minimum twice as long to explain the theory behind the piece than it took to create the piece.  Ignore also: Damien Hirst.

Incidentally, if you can’t see the multiple levels of self-awareness and irony in young Vlad’s heroic act, well clearly you’re not a hipster – I bet you’ve never even heard of Dalston.  You probably wear glasses with actual lenses in them.  

Then again I’ve taken a look at some of young Vlad’s ‘work’.  Perhaps I’m wrong and he’s just rather stupid and vain and self-important. 

We all recognise in others the faults we despise in ourselves.

And on that note, I better get my felt-tip pens out – I feel a trip to the Saatchi Gallery coming on.

Book Jam: The Party

“Call me Ishmael,” I said to the girl.  “So”, said Estella, “I must be taken as I have been made. The success is not mine, the failure is not mine, but together the two make sense.”

I understood her pain – I have always felt that you never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.  My friend Jame Gumb also understood.  He said “It puts the lotion on is skin or else it gets the hose again.”

I left Jame and Estella to it.  They danced down the streets like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”

Watching them leave the party I recalled how I first entered this society, months ago. Like more than one Englishman in New York, I looked upon Americans as hopeless children whom Providence had perversely provided with this great swollen fat fowl of a continent. Any way one chose to relieve them of their riches, short of violence, was sporting, if not morally justifiable, since they would only squander it in some tasteless and useless fashion, in any event.  I believe that on the first night I went to Gatsby’s house I was one of the few guests who had actually been invited. People were not invited–they went there. 

Walking back, I chanced upon a conversation between two of the guests, though I did not know their names.  He said, “Everyone suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known.”  She said “It is hard to forgive, and to look at those eyes, and feel those wasted hands,’ he answered, “Kiss me again; and don’t let me see your eyes! I forgive what you have done to me. I love my murderer—but yours! How can I?” 

I did not know what to say to this…there is an idea of a Patrick Bateman, some kind of abstraction, but there is no real me, only an entity, something illusory, and though I can hide my cold gaze and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping yours and maybe you can even sense our lifestyles are probably comparable: I simply am not there.

All these thoughts made social discourse impossible. Lacking a response I simply nodded noncommittally.  But he carried on “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

I was bored now when Emma Bovary suddenly began to sob on my breast; and my heart, like the people who can only stand a certain amount of music, became drowsy through indifference to the vibrations of a love whose subtleties I could no longer distinguish.

We walked off together.  “A plague on both your houses”, shouted Mercutio.  He loved Big Brother.

__

 …Answers on a postcard…

Getting Stick For The Thick Of It

Stop the presses, it’s funeral time.  Crack out that W H Auden poem John Hannah recites in Four Weddings.  Armando Ianucci has lost it.  Seriously, he’s spread himself too thin.  Veep was a minor misdemeanour, but that was American and they have previous convictions for adapted British comedies.  So we can forgive him Veep.  But the new series of The Thick Of It just isn’t much cop, and that’s not forgivable; that’s a crime.  Stick a knife in him, he’s done.  All that needs to be decided now is who gets to do the eulogy.

Well let’s not prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone just yet.

Even the puffiest of puff pieces have been mildly ambivalent about season four of The Thick Of It.  Once it was appointment television, a show that could do no wrong; that could even survive the worst possible scandal in the form of a major actor’s personal life.  Now it’s considered little more than a fart in a frock.  You’ll appreciate what I did there.

The Thick Of It’s not so sharp, so they say.  But it’s not really as blunt as all that.

Real politicians are desperate for legitimacy, kowtowing to the media gods in the hope that Murdoch et al will play nice and the public won’t actively despise them.  But TV is a mirror that reflects our prejudices.  Consequently, new coalition partners the Inbetweeners are the sort of gauche, insincere schoolboys society assumes all politicians to be, especially the ones who trade their principles for power and are accordingly found wanting by the court of public opinion.  

There’s a tangent here about our priorities (or those of the media). About what it means when Theresa May MP as home secretary can flat out lie/be utterly ignorant about the importance of cats in asylum and immigration proceedings, for which she is the minister ultimately responsible, and not get fired because of it, but when Andrew Mitchell MP swears at a policeman while riding a bike nothing less than a public inquiry will do.  Maybe a flogging too.  

The Thick Of It makes this point intelligently – we never really found out, for example, whether Ben Swain might actually be a competent government official, we just know that he’s a burke who can’t stop blinking when under studio lights.  It might be The Office transported to Westminster, hence the little people in big jobs, but just take one look at some of the ‘scandals’ that have done for our MPs.  Duck houses and crisp packets, the mistress in a chelsea shirt, the sniggering innuendoes about close male relationships and late night visitors.

In such an atmosphere where the most minor peccadillo is verboten, when looking foolish is a worse crime than being foolish, it makes sense that Nicola Murray’s opposition leader would want to practice how she walks.  Let’s not forget that The Thick Of It has always been about the spin of modern politics in which appearance is deemed more significant than substance.  David Cameron pitching up on a late-night American chat show isn’t an anomaly – it’s a symptom.

If anyone’s the target of The Thick Of It’s so-called satire, it’s not just politicians, it’s also you and me.  As they used to say about the mafia, our silence is complicity.  

On the subject of spin, season four finds Malcolm Tucker in reduced circumstances and reduced screen time.  It’s never confirmed but implied that Nicola Murray is party leader by virtue of Malcolm’s support for her.  The closest he’ll get to a win-win is a leader so unsure of herself she needs him to hold her hand, thus cementing his position as power behind the throne.  Otherwise, he’ll simply cast his dark spells and remove her, impressing and/or intimidating the heir apparent, thus cementing his position as power behind the throne.  Machiavelli would be green with professional envy.

Previous seasons have kept the party leaders firmly off-stage, a neat conceit that served during the ‘power years’, but has been daringly jettisoned during the ‘opposition years’.  Make no mistake, Malcolm plays bully and anti-hero, but we’ve seen both his power and his powers diminished over the show’s run, mirrored in the way the cast list has grown, eating into his screen time.  

We shouldn’t cheer him – he’s unelected, unaccountable and yet wields an enormous amount of influence.  A man who will go to any lengths to protect his own position regardless of who he destroys to do so.  Who is indistinguishable from his job: a pantomime villain, a caricature; all spit and venom and negative characteristics.  It’s jarring when it’s revealed it’s his birthday in season three – this is no human being.  And yet there are occasional unsettling moments of pathos that leaven the performance.

‘Less Malcolm’ isn’t a criticism then, or shouldn’t be – it’s part of the point.  The new season hasn’t rested on its laurels – it’s taken creative risks rather than replay the hits and count the money like all those reformed bands from the 70s.  Besides, we’re into the second half now, and it seems likely that Malcolm will shift into action and reclaim his limelight birthright.

If there is one little quibble to be made it’s the non-appearance of Alex MacQueen’s Lord Adonis  Julius Nicholson.  Maybe that’s just me.

But the real reason why the show has been criticised for being underwhelming is entirely because of how well loved it is.  Like every other sentiment humanoid who’d seen the show, I was weeping with anticipation.  I tried to placate myself with In The Loop and Veep, but those were as methadone scripts to recovering addicts in comparison.  Nothing was ever likely to live up to that level of expectation.  Or could.  A victim of its own success then, hoist by its own petard – hardly its fault or Ianucci’s.

This season has had a couple of relatively duff episodes, as did the earlier ones – the show has always run the gamut from ‘I see what they did there’ amusing to pants-wettingly funny.  In general it’s well written, fantastically performed and it’s made a few changes to keep it fresh, which have largely worked – who’d have considered James Smith’s Glenn Cullen to be the show’s moral compass before?  Who wouldn’t now?  Plus, more Stewart Pearson, more Peter Mannion MP and more of their bickering – what’s not to love?

Wait for it on DVD, all you doubting Thomases, watch it again and reassess.  I guarantee you’ll wonder why you ever said it wasn’t as good as what it was.  “What’s this? I’m supposed to be commenting on a suicide, not a fucking camel race.” 

Indeed.

A working demonstration of Kant’s antimonies there for all you pseudo-intellectuals, I’m sure you’ll agree.

Getting Sick Of The Thick Of It

Satire.  When it’s not done well it stinks worse than Sacha Baron Cohen’s The Dictator  a pile of rotting fish on a hot summer’s day. 

So to Westminster’s most celebrated and anticipated televisual assassin.  Ken Clarke Peter Mannion MP is now firmly ensconced in DOSAC with a couple of Liberal Democrat Inbetweener phantasms for some cheap laughs.  Can I get a “COALITION!!!” from the back there? Nicola Murray MP is the, presumably by default, leader of the opposition, dithering over the party’s policy direction and concentrating on how to walk properly.  Somebody give her a violin – she’s fiddling while Westminster burns!!!  Like the Labour Party!!!

And here was you thinking that ‘fiddling’ was something to do with onanism.

Oh wait, my bad.

Of course The Thick Of It isn’t about satirising the government so much as it is riffing on the idea of little people in big jobs, the small and petty, mendacious and incompetent, lurching from one minor disaster to another.  It isn’t even about that so much as it’s about the inventive use of spittle-inflected vitriol, with profanity serving as makeshift punctuation.  This especially from Peter Capaldi’s Malcolm Tucker, also known as the reason why most people watched the show in the first place. 

Which is good, because if it was about actual political satire we’d have a version of Ted Millibland the school prefect and Ed’s Balls on the one hand and on the other some Bullingdon club posh twat jokes. Last and certainly least, Nick Clegg, the physical manifestation of middle-class guilt, although I prefer to think of him as the white pussycat that Bloefeld fondles in the early Bond films. 

And we’d all have long since died of boredom at the smug wit of Bremner, Bird and Fortune   Ian Hislop   all involved.

Previous seasons and the specials had an odd plausibility to them.  No one watches an ostensible satire for verisimilitude but nevertheless the characters, their actions and panic-stricken reactions rang true.  Or put another way, there’s nothing particularly novel about the furore surrounding Andrew Mitchell MP and ‘Sweargate’, gleefully reported at interminable length by a tabloid near you.

Part of this plausibility lay in DOSAC itself: the unloved runt of a department is a good backdrop for the machinations of bitesize Napoleons, half aware of their own insignificance but acting otherwise.  The department remains, but new occupants the Inbetweeners are too openly grotesque truly to be funny, lacking even a pretence at caring about their jobs.  This falls flat if only because the vast majority of our politicians are plainly desperate for legitimacy, for whatever minor laurels they can claim from the public, whatever the media might say.  Also, with so many new and extraneous characters to cram in, screen time is at a premium with all involved competing to draw the biggest guffaw.  To be clear, this was never a show about subtlety, but whereas before characters ploughed distinct comedic furrows, now it’s all become a bit homogenous.

Nicola Murray as head of the party is a promotion too far – the old conceit of never seeing the party leaders was a good one, offering a worm’s eye view of politics from no hopers, outsiders and the fringes.  The suspicion is that the writers promoted her in order to tear her down as a deconstruction of the politics game in action, and a sure promise of comedy.  Presumably it would have been too difficult to write in a pair of fratricidal brothers for the regular characters to comment on in the usual Thick Of It approach to traditional satire.  Me, I’d have promoted Nicola Murray to shadow home secretary instead – the woman who gave us meaningless fourth sector pathfinder babble trying to adopt the more visceral, tabloid and crowd-pleasing bloodlust of those who would be responsible for criminal sentencing.

This sort of fiction is arguably hamstrung by a requirement of plausibility – the comedy is only partly in the exaggeration of everyday scenarios and should rarely go to the tawdry extremes of reality.  When the likes of Call me Dave Cameron appears on David Letterman, one might wonder if real life isn’t absurd enough without also having to watch it for entertainment purposes.  The prime minister on a chat show was just a bit of fun, yeah?  Chillax…

Can’t picture Obama on Jonathan Ross though, can you? 

But the main thing about The Thick Of It is that the swearing isn’t as good, the lines less quotable.  The whole thing is a bit stale, an increasingly loveless marriage, maintained for the sake of the children – you and me both – when as amicable a divorce as possible might be the healthiest thing to do. 

TV shows have a sell-by-date like any other perishable good.  The Thick Of It was described as the swearier successor to the altogether far more poisonous Yes, Minister, but the characters felt somehow more endearing than in that show, even the gimlet-eyed spider Malcolm Tucker.  In my view it’s embraced the satirical elements a bit too fully, dropped the ball where the show’s strengths are concerned and ended up less likable as a result.  It’s become bad-tempered but resigned to its fate: Peter Mannion commentating on Fergus’ “air tits” speech – “it’s making me hate politicians.”  – a laudable sentiment to be sure, but less fun than “You’re like a sweaty octopus trying to unhook a bra.”

The positive is that there’s more of the peerless Vincent Franklin’s Stewart Pearson, the Tory’s blue sky Malcolm, and one of my favourite characters.  As he’d probably put it:  that’s constructive feedback via the compliment sandwich matrix.

So, The Thick Of It Then – the whole thing’s a bit shop-worn, a bit silly and the swearing’s second-rate.  It was once the new Yes, Minister, now it’s merely a less crap Veep.

It’s still more believable than the political news though.