…because you already watch The Thick Of It, you political dawg you. But reviews of TV shows that have already been seen by everyone who could conceivably be reading must work, or how would we account for the continuing success of the great Charlie Brooker?
So, three episodes in, we in the People’s Republic are developing a cautious optimism about the series, after a frankly shaky start. I think my criticism of eps 1 and 2 comes down to this: the previous series (plural of series, anyone? Serieses? Series’? Don’t give a Malcolm’s?) have been marked by beautifully sparing character development and incredibly fast direction. They didn’t have the luxury of an eight-episode contract to introduce characters, spin out storylines or set up long plots. Everything had to be here’s Hugh, he’s like this, bish bash Malcolm bosh here’s Glenn, he’s like this, Malcolm Malcolm boom cha boom, here’s Ollie, he’s like this, dum de dum de dum Malcolm argh it’s Malcolm, and we hope you took all that in because here comes this week’s disaster!
All the drama and character, and quite a lot of the comedy, was achieved with sometimes the most fleeting glimpses of expressions and reactions. Plus the half-heard ad libbing was brilliant. I wouldn’t mind betting that a lot of the ad libs in those first two series was based on material the writers wanted to get across but couldn’t run in the formal script because it would take too long. I still seize up with mirth just thinking about Ollie’s offhand one-liner about blue sky consultant Julius – “it’ll be one of his great ideas like inflatable churches for rural communities”. And then Julius comes in and you realise, yeah, that’s exactly the kind of idea this guy would have. It’s brilliantly observed and it’s just one tiny, tiny two seconds of dialogue with another character talking over it – it’s things like that that make the comedy feel so rich, and force you to watch with rapt attention in case you miss a gem.
In short (she says, three hundred words later and counting), brevity did a lot to make the show what it was. With the first two episodes in the new series, a lot of that quick-fire spirit seemed to disappear. The direction was long and ponderous and might as well have come with big subtitles reading “HERE IS A PICTURE OF NICOLA LOOKING PISSED OFF” and “HERE IS THE NEWSPAPER EDITOR LOOKING SURPRISED AT WHAT NICOLA IS SAYING”. Even Malcolm failed to carry some of his long shots because his rants weren’t punctuated with enough plot development – he has to be swearing for a reason. Just swearing at people because they’ve pissed him off makes him lose that fearful edge.
The ad libbing didn’t seem to have any substance either, all variations on the theme of “We’re in the shit, and it’s not MY fault”, which is probably quite funny if you’ve never seen the show or had a satirical thought about the Labour government cross your mind, but is a bit of a let-down if you’ve been weaned on inflatable churches. It also seems to me that there has been some slimming down on the plot front, perhaps due to the same instinct as the one responsible for building up the characters by focussing…. on…. their…. expressions…. and…. reactions…. for…. an…. achingly…. long…. time… Only one disaster per episode? Not enough, I say! When everyone is essentially in the same scene, worrying about Nicola’s meeting with the Guardian for ten minutes, and then worrying about the aftermath for the next ten minutes, all sense of surprise is lost.
Furthermore, in the words of Sir John Gielgud (probably), where is the motivation, darling? We all knew what Hugh wanted in series one and two. He was a time-serving Labour smugster who, with occasional moments of self-doubt, basically wanted to look as good as possible with minimum effort. He knew there was a game to be played, keeping in with the right ministers, avoiding obvious fuck-ups and serving his time, in the hope that he, followed by the trusty Glenn, might eventually be given a proper department to run. And however awful, self-centred and hypocritical he was, we were still rooting for him.
We may yet end up rooting for Nicola Murray. But she gives us precious little clue about what she wants. What happened to the equality agenda vaguely mentioned at the beginning of episode 1? I think it might be fun to have a minister who actually wants to get something done and has to get round Malcolm to do it – but at the moment the Nicola Murray character is almost completely reactive to events and seems to have neither aims nor a deliberate lack of them.
Most of all, though, we wondered at the setting. These are the dying days of a government being depicted. A satire has got to be current. Where’s the sense that the opposition are breathing down the characters’ necks and that everyone is sooner or later going to have to scramble for position? The first two episodes didn’t seem to have moved on from the old scenario – here is an absurd government obsessed with spin, now laugh if you will. There is so much new material – expenses, civil liberties, protests – out on the ether, and its lack is incongruous in a show whose dialogue is usually so ruthlessly up to the minute.
Saturday’s third episode seemed to break out of a lot of these needless self-constraints. First, it was a scenario that we haven’t seen on TTOI before, a party conference and a brilliantly observed one at that. I was in real cringy tears of recognition before the dialogue started, right at the opening shot of Ollie sitting on his hotel bed in a suit and tie with his laptop. And the John Duggan character, oh my lord, he is painfully good. He is an aggregate send-up of pretty much everyone I have ever met or known of who has worked at Cowley Street (you know who you are), right down to the scraggy little North London beard. The actor deserves a BAFTA on the strength of that episode alone as far as I’m concerned.
The plotting was also a bit more complex, what with Terri scuttling about Eastbourne in a cagoul and Teh Dreaded Bloggers making their first shadowy appearance in a pivotal role. The action seemed a lot faster, with more reversals of fortune and moments where Malcolm’s swearing actually felt contextual rather than bolted on. And, incidentally, I suspect our own Mr Sanders can take the credit for inspiring Punchgate.
But most of all, I felt there were many, many more moments of “Yes! That is what the government is like”. Like when Nicola bemoans the content of her speech as nanny statish and characterises it thusly: “”Death by chocolate” is not just a light-hearted name for a pudding, it’s a serious health issue.” Ha-ha! Oh yes, we’ve heard the like of that.
It all gives me hope that, now that the characters are established to a fault, we might see more of the pace and cleverness of the old TTOI. Maybe Nicola’s equality agenda will come back into it. The Conservatives certainly will, as we know from the trailer; them parking their tanks on the lawn of power is going to send a lot of interesting rockets up the government characters. And I think Malcolm’s already got the measure of the bloggers – we in the People’s Republic look forward to watching him exploit them just like he does the press.