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.