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