Synopsis: Government embarrassment, ministerial cock-up, coalition rows, backroom deals, policy U-turns, spin-doctoring, political back-stabbing, wild media speculation, and more time spent with ones family. It can only be the eagerly-anticipated return of Armando Iannucci’s Westminster political comedy. Rebecca Front and Peter Capaldi reprise their BAFTA-winning roles as Nicola Murray and Malcolm Tucker, now consigned to the opposition benches, but still desperate for power. Roger Allam returns as Peter Mannion, the new Secretary of State for Social Affairs, supported by his team of special advisors and thwarted by his new coalition partners. With Chris Addison, Vincent Franklin, Olivia Poulet, Joanna Scanlan, James Smith, Will Smith, Geoffrey Streatfeild, and Ben Willbond.
eyelights: the performances. the expanded setting and character dynamics.
eyesores: the series’ lack of finality.
I’ve got to hand it to Armando Iannucci and his writing team. After losing one of their leads, most TV shows would stumble and perhaps even falter; since the character dynamics of any successful ensemble piece is carefully balanced, it’s difficult to rejig that and regain one’s footing. There are few examples of shows who’ve survived it. And even fewer who’ve had greater success afterwards.
‘The Thick of It’ is one of them.
After Series 2, Chris Langham (who played Minister Hugh Abbot, a central figure) was replaced with Rebecca Front as Nicola Murray, the incoming Minister. The dynamic shifted, but Iannucci did something brilliant – he maximized his options by also showing the opposition side, something he’d started doing during the two television specials (which were actually shot to kill time as decided Abbot’s fate).
This worked wonders: not only did it take the focus off of Nicola Murray, allowing audiences to adjust to her arrival, but it gave us a greater perspective on how deep the dysfunction was running in government. While it’s imaginable that some audiences liked the original formula as it was and balked at watching the show expanding its scope, I like to think that this brought a breath of fresh air in a cramped space.
For starters, there’s only so much one can do with a ragdoll Minister, a couple of nincompoop aides and feral Director of Communication; after a while, the scenarios become interchangeable. Secondly, there’s only so much abuse one can take from Malcolm Tucker before one has to take a well-deserved break. By adding the opposition, this gave us greater story options and said downtime.
In Series 4, however, Iannucci changed things up some more: After ended Series 3 on an impromptu election call, he brings us back years later to find out that Malcolm made the wrong choice, and now his party is in opposition. So the roles have completely reversed, with Nicola as the leader of the opposition and the Peter Mannion, her former shadow cabinet Minister, as the de facto Minister of DoSAC.
“I hate school children, they’re volatile and stupid, and they haven’t even got the vote. Might as well be talking to fucking geese.”
Episode 1: The series begins with the revelation that Peter Mannion is now the Minister at DoSAC. Terri still works there, as does Glenn. Mannion’s party is in a coalition government, so he has a coalition partner in the Ministry – and they are at odds (naturally). Not unlike Malcolm, the Director of Communications, Stewart, is running things. He decides to make Peter do an announcement for a program that he doesn’t understand and that was designed by the coalition partners. Everyone is upset, including Peter, and the roll-out is a total embarrassment. It’s great fun watching the two camps trip all over each other and fling contempt about – but without the intensity of Malcolm. 8.25
“She’s going to have to fall on her sword. Which means that we have to stick one in the ground, trip her onto it and get someone to jump up and down on her back for ten minutes.”
Episode 2: The second episode finds Malcolm Tucker now in opposition with Nicola, who is the party leader – over a technicality. She’s not especially liked, has little support from inside (aside for Helen, her special advisor), and her ideas and policies are openly mocked. Malcolm is skeptical, less intense, seems a bit lost here. He begins to plan Nicola’s downfall, but she’s tripping herself up nicely on her own, making poor policy announcements and embarrassing herself at a funeral. It’s too soon for Malcolm, though; he has plans for her. I really enjoyed this new dynamic and power shift. 8.25
“Classic. The Bohemian Rhapsody of suicide…”
Episode 3: Stewart brings Peter and his staff out to a secluded country facility on a team-building excursion. Glenn and Phil stay behind to keep things running. Then the news arrives that Mr. Tickel, an anti-government protester, has died. Panic ensues because Peter will apparently take blame for it (although I didn’t really understand why). Meanwhile, Peter’s coalition partner decides to use his absence to buy a bank with departmental funds. I got the feeling that a lot of this was too exaggerated, which I didn’t like. And it’s absolutely dumbfounding just how little control Peter has over his life, even as Minister; he’s treated contemptuously, like a child, by Stewart. As for the lame and ridiculous exercises that they’re forced to do at the camp, that kind of stuff would drive me insane. Some people think they’re a good idea, but I think they’re garbage. 8.0
“You are not going to try and talk me down off a ledge, are you? Cause I gotta tell you I am really tired and the pavement looks like a nice, warm, splatty bed right now.”
Episode 4: Malcolm’s planning to replace Nicola and he takes advantage of her absence to ask Ben Swain to resign to shake up her leadership. He also gets Ollie, who’s remained as Nicola’s advisor even after their party was turfed from office, and is in the hospital for an appendectomy, to work for him. Swain plays both sides to get the best possible deal for himself and Ollie gets Glenn, who stayed at DoSAC, to help out. Meanwhile, Nicola gets the news while she’s stuck on a train with the press in tow and tries to discretely fix the problem from where she is. It all goes to hell and she eventually resigns. Wow, what a coup by Tucker! And what an episode! 8.25
“When this inquiry lands, you better have developed a very flat stony face with no expression. But that’ll be easy for you, it’s your fucking cum face, isn’t it?”
Episode 5: In the aftermath of Tickel’s suicide, and the ensuing inquiry into it, Peter wants to quit – he signed off on a policy that lead to this death. Unfortunately for him, it’s too late to resign, and he wishes that he hadn’t been talked into staying the course earlier. So, instead, his team attempts to do damage control, widening the inquiry so that Nicola will also be trapped in the net. Ouch. That’s cold. Meanwhile, now that she’s stepped down as party leader, Nicola is taking some serious abuse from Malcolm, who no longer pretends to respect her. He’s unbelievably harsh to her. In fact, it’s so mean that it’s no longer funny; it’s pure abuse, and it left me very uncomfortable. Malcolm calls Ollie in from the hospital to help him with his insidious plans. Meanwhile, Glenn and Terri leak an email that Peter’s coalition partner gave them to publicly humiliate him; they’re both in a desperate fit to get out of DoSAC, and are more than happy to oblige. However, the leak creates a $#!t storm that catches everyone in it, leading the PM to start an inquiry into the leaks – which only exacerbates things at DoSAC. This episode is a madhouse of nervous energy. It’s great fun. 8.25
“Well, everyone leaks. Many, many people who have appeared here in front of you have leaked, but they’ve just lied about it to you.”
Episode 6: The episode, which is set a year later and spread over many days, is twice the length of a regular episode. It’s a series of excerpts of the inquiry called by the PM in episode 5. It’s shot as a live broadcast, and all of the main players show up in turn. It’s all about the exchanges between the witnesses and the panel. And the reactions – not just between them, but also from the press behind the witnesses. Amusingly, the witnesses frequently lay blame on the person who’s due next at the inquiry, creating a chain of blame. Very nice. On top of that, stories about some of the inquiry members are being leaked in the press, clearly to draw attention away from the inquiry itself and discrediting them. Ouch. It’s an excellent episode, but it’s a bit long. 8.0
“Ollie, look at me! I’m not pulling anything out of my magic hat. The rabbits are falling to pieces, the fucking heads are coming off and frightening the kids. So somebody else is going to have to help out.”
Episode 7: In the aftermath of inquiry, and the blame game they all participated in, there are deep tensions running between the various staff. Meanwhile, Malcolm is about to be arrested for his involvement in the leak. Stressed, he makes a terrific speech to Ollie on how the job has eaten him up, taken over his life, and warns him about taking his place – that it could happen to him too. On the frontlines, DoSAC is freaking out because of delays in processing arrests at police stations – so, to divert attention, they’re trying to get Malcolm in the sightline of the media. So he tries to duck them by drawing attention to the newly-minted opposition leader’s visit to another police station. While this is happening, Glenn has a meltdown and quits, speaking his mind about each of them to their faces in a diatribe that is well due after all the abuse he’s taken. Then he decides to do the honourable thing and turn himself in for the leak – then convinces himself not to. Ha! What a loaded episode, and a fitting way to end the series. 8.0
It is said that Iannucci doesn’t think that another series is in the offing. That wouldn’t be at all surprising, as he’s played around with quite a few different scenarios already, and it’s a wonder what else he could do to keep it fresh. Having said this, it’s quite unfortunate, because the series was only getting better, more diverse. As well, there’s the no small matter of the ending, which doesn’t provide full closure for fans.
I suspect that there will someday be a return of ‘The Thick of It’ in some form or another. Granted, Peter Capaldi is currently busy being Doctor Who, so who knows how long until he can free up, but at the very least there’s a final special that can be rung out of this series, to revisit the characters a one last time and tie up the loose ends. I look forward to that possibility. As challenging as it can be at times, this is an unforgettable show.
Dates of viewings: August 26+28, 2016