Last weekend, Julia Louis-Dreyfus won her second Emmy for playing the terminally flustered second-in-command on “Veep.” Recently Scottish actor Peter Capaldi was named as the newest incarnation of the Doctor on “Doctor Who.” The time is ripe for Americans to belatedly discover “The Thick of It,” a British government comedy show made by “Veep” creator Armando Iannucci and prominently featuring among its sprawling, revolving door cast a very scary, very sweary Capaldi.
“Veep” was imagined as an American version of “The Thick of It,” which ran for four seasons from 2005 to last winter. It also birthed the non-canonical spin-off movie, "In the Loop," which added Americans, including "Veep"'s Anna Chlumsky and a rarely better James Gandolfini.
The basic thrust is the same. Iannucci once described “The Thick of It” as “The Larry Sanders Show” meets “Yes, Minister,” the Thatcher-era BBC classic that lampooned sausage-making. But where each “Yes, Minister” (and later “Yes, Prime Minister”) was like a lovely mini-play, packed with delicious bon mots, “The Thick of It” is like a bull in a china shop, tearing through with some of the coarsest language ever on television. (Among the many writers is a “swearing consultant,” Ian Martin, who helps pump up the creative profanity.)
All of the characters laboring in the fictitious (and vaguely defined) Department of Social Affairs and Citizenship — as opposed to the second-to-top office, as on “Veep” — get their chance to swear and lob insults. (The actors talk semi-lovingly about being shocked by some of the personalized names they’re called.) But none wield this power like Capaldi’s Malcolm Tucker, the head strategist and master spin doctor.
Loosely based on Alastair Campbell, once Tony Blair’s fearsome Director of Communications and Strategy, Tucker is a rail-thin, always moving anger monster who so enjoys belittling people he at one point cheerfully asks his secretary (the only person to whom he’s consistently nice) to get him someone else to shout at over the phone while he waits for other prey to show up in person. (Possibly the best joke on the show is that there’s another Scot — Paul Higgins’ Jamie — who’s even more terrifying and aggressive than Malcolm. At least Malcolm can be charming.)
In the first six episodes, Tucker’s just part of the ensemble, periodically swinging by to dress down and torture the cast. In the first two series, that includes minister Hugh Abbot (Chris Langham). By the two hour-long specials that bridge the second and third series — made while Tony Blair was leaving office — he’s essentially the star, and an eventually tragic one. Tucker very gradually develops into a victim of the system he helped create. He’s more machine than mine, spitting out one-liners with breakneck pace. But even the best grow weary, and his fatigue, with shades of self-hatred, start to show in the third series, with one more to go.
A Tucker-esque character is the main thing “Veep” lacks, perhaps because America is much too nice — or at least better at appearing nice. (The closest thing to a Malcolm Tucker on this side of the Atlantic is Rahm Emmanuel, but he tends to keep his vitriol off-screen.)
No character on “The Thick of It” comes close to Tucker, save Langham’s Hugh Abbot, whose hangdog face and droney, defeatist voice are a perfect contrast to Capaldi’s super-hostility. Langham, a performer who wrote for (and once hosted) “The Muppet Show,” emerged from semi-obscurity to become a star after “The Thick of It.” After winning buckets of awards for the show, allegations emerged about child pornography, which is a complicated issue of which Langham appears to be at least partly innocent. (He’s recently tried to revive his career.)
This would destroy a show so young, but “The Thick of It” is freakishly resilient. The Hugh-sized hole opened up with his departure after the sixth episode was filled by adding more characters, including the conservative “Opposition Party,” led by a similarly hangdoggish, albeit more pissy minister (Christopher Hitchens lookalike Roger Allam). (The lead party is understood to be, but is never specified as, Labor, and they cede power at some point before the fourth series that aired last winter.) The fourth series even messes with convention: for the first half, each episode switches between party, meaning that Tucker, the unqualified breakout character, is occasionally completely AWOL.
In fact, the whole show moves like a machine, in a good way. The pacing is breakneck, as fast as the always stressed, always busy characters. Plots are sometimes difficult to suss out, and sometimes require multiple viewings — which is fine, as that also means catching killer lines that might have been laughed over.
That said, if it’s mechanical, it’s also an accurate reflection of our speedy, hectic times. What “The Thick of It” captures is the way jobs — many jobs, not just those in politics — have become so demanding that careerists can rarely see outside their bubble. Always in fear of losing their jobs, the characters on "The Thick of It" operate in a cloud of stress, without the time to reflect on their actions or even see their (sometimes devastating) impact. Everyone's mean and venal on the show, but it's all part of the business.
At a grim conclusion such as this, it’s important to note that “The Thick of It” is one of the few shows to be consistently, from front to end, gut-busting. If funny is indeed funny, then “The Thick of It” is one of the best, even when it makes you hate the world.