Profanity and politics are an unlikely combination to create one of Britain’s most popular recent comedies. Two major fads seem to have taken over American television in the past few years. The first is a British Invasion with shows like Sherlock, Doctor Who and The Office landing on the shores of American entertainment. The second trend is the rise of political television such as House of Cards and Scandal, which seems to correlate with the rise in political dissatisfaction as a sort of outlet for escapism.
Successfully fusing both of these genres is The Thick of It, a 24-episode political comedy featured on Hulu, the online streaming service. A satire that skewers the world of media spin and bureaucracy, it mixes scathing comedy with insightful critique.
The show’s recent claim to fame comes from two sources: its numerous accolades in the British Academy Television Awards and the recent hiring of its star, Peter Capaldi, as the new Doctor in Doctor Who. Coming in at a time when producers want to steer Doctor Who towards its darker, classic origins, Capaldi is trained to handle the task with his role in this dark, bleak comedy.
While ostensibly a show about politics and the media, The Thick of It is stylistically similar to The Office. Filmed in the similar cinéma vérité style, it simulates the look and feel of a mockumentary. Much of the humor similarly comes from the foibles of the workplace.
The show’s setting is the British government, a place where no one seems to like his or her job. No real politician is safe from skewering or parody. Many of the episodes are centered on actual events in British politics and media.
For example, the two hour-long specials revolve around the sudden resignation of Prime Minister Tony Blair and the various political gangs that formed in the aftermath to quickly select a replacement. Some of the funniest moments are exaggerated recreations of truly awkward, sleazy or just plain bad interviews with real-life political leaders.
While it may seem daunting to watch a show about a foreign nation’s politics, an intricate understanding of the British Parliament is unnecessary. Any confusion regarding references can quickly be cleared up with a Google search and the politicians that certain characters parody are often famous enough to be recognized by Americans such as David Cameron and Gordon Brown.
A steeper learning curve would actually be the size of the cast. Characters disappear and reappear throughout the show’s run and sometimes characters that only appear in the first season are referenced in passing during the final one. To make things more difficult, some of the most important characters are completely unseen and only discussed by other characters, such as the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. The show is similar to Game of Thrones, the HBO fantasy epic, in this regard and demands an unusually high amount of attention for a comedy.
One of the recurring themes in this show is the collapse and decay of political power. In the final season, the show spirals into the depths of a Greek tragicomedy with the entire main cast making a series of decisions that invariably propel many of them into their own demise. It is a fitting coda for a show about how people’s working lives can leave them a husk of their spirited selves.
Unlike House of Cards, the Netflix political drama, the show is never vindictive towards politicians. It is less about selfish, power-hungry people and more about how political and media institutions make it impossible to effectively run a government. Much of the show’s conflict comes from the impossibility of managing public policy in an environment of constant media spin and information leaks.
In many ways, the comedy is a twisted version of The West Wing, the nineties political drama by Aaron Sorkin. Contrary to the spirited optimism of the characters in that show, The Thick of It features civil servants scarcely interested in their job, politicians obstructed by media’s total lack of interest in actual policy and spin doctors willing to crush members of their own party for the sake of their tribal agenda. There is an underlying theme throughout the show that the pressures of public service are the poetic punishment towards those who believe they deserve power.
Some viewers may be uncomfortable by the show’s constant stream of swearing. Since a large portion of the dialogue is improvised, it can sometimes work to the detriment of the show. Often, however, it is used to great effect, enhancing moments of tense suspense and making already witty scenes even funnier.
Content aside, the show truly shines through its actors. The lack of music and greater improvisation skills make comedic timing critical to nearly all of the punch lines, and the ensemble successfully delivers on every joke. Peter Capaldi is a particular standout, playing an unholy combination of a British Karl Rove, George Carlin and King Richard III.
While facing a potentially steep learning curve due its political references and large cast of characters, this is a hilarious show for anyone interested in both subtle and ostentatious comedy, especially the kind that builds on itself with each episode with inside jokes and characterizations. Doctor Who fans will also enjoy getting a preview of the actor and some of the personality traits that may be present in the new Doctor coming this Fall.
The Thick of It is a pointed satire that manages to educate as well as humor its audiences on the nuances and foibles of society’s institutions.