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    Friday, July 20, 2007

    The thick of it

    By now, everybody knows about the droll, cringe-inducing pleasures of the original (and still best) Office. It's rightly joined the pantheon of modern comedy landmarks. But fewer people stateside are in the know about Armando Iannucci's The Thick of It, a show that takes a similar approach and shares a similar humor as that beloved mockumentary of Wernham-Hogg's desk jockeys. Rather than office politics, the show takes on the mire of politics proper, zooming in on the ludicrous, undefined and fictional Department of Social Affairs. Instead of buffoonish boss David Brent,we get the slightly less buffoonish Minister Hugh Abbot (Chris Langham), who's at once lovable and bumbling and self-serving. But even with their differences, any Office fan is guaranteed to love The Thick of It, which pays off with nearly comparable dividends.

    As with the best of British humor, it's not afraid to be dark and depressing in the pursuit of laughs. It's also not shy about being offensive and sexual and misanthropic and honest and believably mundane, wihch pretty much ensures it'll never surface on network here. (Indeed, our own domestic maestro of comedy, Mitch Hurwitz of Arrested Development fame, was working on a remake that ABC passed on.) Abbot and his inner sanctum of assistants, advisors and underlings are well-meaning but consummate line-toers. They think of their constituents as simpletons and a lot of times they're proven right. They survive on a uniquely English brand of skepticism and cynicism, and the situation never fails to rise to their ground-level expectations.

    Hugh Abbot: the man, the myth, the fool

    The crux of every episode is some major malfunction at headquarters (with Hugh usually to blame) and Abbot's army struggling to contain it. There's a level of absurdity at play that they could keep getting into such ridiculous binds and escaping them even more ridiculously, but probably not as much as real-life citizens would like to pretend. It's all about spin and theatrics, climbing up the social ladder where every rung is another PR disaster. it's about how few degrees to the PM you can claim and how many pins you can stick in the voodoo dolls of the opposition. And of course, it's about admitting your mistakes as soon as the media tide turns, but repeating the very same cycle the following week.

    Besides the disarmingly incisive writing, the other major strength of the show is the acting. Since it's shot in a modest verite style, it'd be easy to overlook the performances as similarly offhand and natural. (The British voters haven't though, presenting Langham with both a British Comedy Award and a BAFTA.) So much of the acting is noteworthy, from Abbot's Special Advisors, Glenn Cullen (James Smith) and Ollie Reeder (Chris Addison) to his Director of Communications, Terri Coverley (Joanna Scanlan). Most showy and over-the-top is the brilliant scenery-chewing, -swallowing, and -digesting of Peter Capaldi, who plays Malcolm Tucker, the PM's Press Coordinator. Tucker is a Scottish terror with a mouth like a gas-station urinal. (Tellingly, the show even has a special swearing consultant to keep the scripts at the cutting edge of obscenity.) He makes Ari Gold look like June Cleaver, and that's when he's in a good mood.

    A rare moment of calm for Cullen, Coverley and Reeder

    The Thick of It is ultimately a very apt title for a show so eager to dive into the depths. It nudges and winks at the inanities of democratic government and makes us laugh at the sheer artifice of the system. And it kindly reminds us that there are even worse fates than working nine-to-five in an office. Like, say, being in office.

    (Currently, all six half-hour episodes and the hourlong Christmas special are available on YouTube here and here. Another one-off episode just recently aired in Britain, but like the special, it didn't include Langham in it. He's under investigation for some serious crimes, so the future of the show is unresolved for now. Alternatively, you can also order an import DVD of the first six episodes here.)

    Part one of episode one

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