We’ve talked about comedy a few times before, and The Thick of It, in many ways, extends from those discussions. It is of course ridiculous to talk about British comedy as a monolithic entity, but if one were to try to one could be substantially more wrong than suggesting that the heart of British comedy is exposing the absurd foolishness of structures of authority. The most straightforward, standard issue joke in a piece of British comedy is, in essence, that the inmates are running the asylum – that how the world works is, in fact, determined by idiots who are immune to reason. Far from the comforting fiction that there’s actually some nefarious asshole running the show and screwing everyone, British comedy at its best suggests that the reason everything is completely fucked is that the world is run by blithering fools who aren’t malicious so much as they are wholly and entirely incompetent.
The previous classic of British political comedy was, of course, Yes (Prime) Minister, a sitcom in which the functioning of government is revealed to be inept because of the backbiting between elected officials and the civil service, and the bureaucratic nonsense each side engages in to establish power over the other. Principles and the actual issue of what would be best for the country are wholly extraneous concerns, and it is really the cold war between two groups who are ostensibly on the same side that drives government.
In that regard, at least, The Thick of It is a simpler program – a reversion to the more classical British comedy trope of everyone being an idiot. Yes Minister is ultimately a story about systemic breaks in the structures of power – about the idea that the divide between elected representatives and permanent government employees created fundamentally perverse incentives that rendered government dysfunctional. The Thick of It, on the other hand, is largely about a bunch of incompetent buffoons who cause trouble because they’re fundamentally bad at what they do.
There are, of course, stylistic things to note. The Thick of It is shot in a handheld style with lots of authentic-seeming conversation that puts it as a British cousin to the American mumblecore movement (added to by the partially improvised nature of the final performance). It’s of the style of modern British comedy that goes with long, extended discomfort as a mood, and that doesn’t bother with the unnaturalist structures of comic timing. There are handfuls of scenes that are done as straight-up, typically structured humor, but for the most part it’s a sitcom that isn’t hugely concerned with selecting the moments when the audience is or is not going to laugh.
But under the hood, in its attitudes, there’s something classical about The Thick of It that puts it firmly in the BlackAdder/Jeeves and Wooster/Monty Python’s Flying Circus/The Goon Show tradition of being about stupid people in charge of things. And yet in its own way this paints a bleaker picture of politics than Yes Minister ever could. Ultimately, The Thick of It isn’t just about how the people in charge are buffoons – it’s about how the nature of political power is something that attracts incompetent and selfish nitwits. This is, in its own way, far and vastly more cynical viewpoint than Yes Minister, in that it suggests that it is not a structural deficiency that leads to the absurd and sorry state of the world, but rather that the world is broken so long as people try to run it at all.
It is, in other words, a profoundly nihilistic show. As comedy is, compared to something like Doctor Who, and, indeed, to most dramas. At the end of the day, any drama is about the weight and value of human actions, whereas comedy is, in many cases, about the absurd pointlessness of things and about how we are all basically doomed (and, in most of the other cases, not funny). Certainly The Thick of It is an angry, exhausted howl at the world, which is why it was never funnier than when it started coming true, as it periodically seemed to, particularly in its third and fourth seasons. To start it just had New Labour to rail against, and, starting in 2005, it was so far into New Labour that there wasn’t that much new to puncture. But in its final two seasons it got to watch the steady and inevitable collapse of New Labour and the rise of a whole new flavor of political idiocy, it seemed to get ahead of events, to capture the mood before it even formed. So much so that the show acquired a strange glamour that made it influential and important in excess of its ratings.
Central to all of this was Malcolm Tucker, the inventively foul-mouthed political operative around whom The Thick of It ultimately revolves. Tucker is on the one hand the series’ ruthless bastard, repeatedly demonstrating a streak of cruel and ruthless pragmatism that usually results in him controlling any given situation. He is, oddly, the only character who might not actually be an irredeemable, selfish, and incompetent bastard. He’s just a regular sort of bastard.
He is also, of course, played by Peter Capaldi, and is, at the time of writing, still Capaldi’s iconic role, although this is a statement that will surely be changed for the book version. To be fair, there are reasons for this, first and foremost that Capaldi is phenomenal in the part. He generates a slightly strange demeanor that leaves Tucker inscrutable almost all of the time, even though he’s clearly active and making decisions. It’s a performance with all the density of decision-making and conscious acting of David Tennant (or Matt Smith, or Benedict Cumberbatch), and yet it remains impossible to quite tell what Capaldi (or Tucker) are thinking. It is a performance that is in many ways more alien than the Doctor. (Not for nothing did Capaldi speak of having to banish the character – like some mystical demon called up – in order to play the Doctor)
But Tucker also seems to challenge the underlying assumptions of The Thick of It. He is, after all, not incompetent. Far from it, he’s seemingly superhuman, always able to come out on top no matter what absurd situation unfolds within a given episode. The real message isn’t, in other words, that the world is broken by incompetent buffoons in power, but rather that it is held together, desperately and by the skin of its teeth, by complete and raving madmen like Malcolm Tucker. The other characters are dunces, but Tucker is actually completely mad. And yet it’s hard to treat this as a particularly pleasurable fantasy. One hardly wants to live in a world run by Malcolm Tucker; it seems scarcely more satisfying or comfortable than one run by idiots. Nevertheless, it’s the then reed of salvation and hope the show offers – that in the face of the right kind of bastard we might somehow all be OK.
In that moment, at least, the line between the character and Doctor Who becomes momentarily clearer. Tucker is the same basic fantasy – the hypercapable man who can figure out a way out of any problem with his wits and charm. But where Tucker’s charm requires a swearing consultant, the Doctor is, ultimately, a fantasy of a wonderful hero – one whose charm is, in fact, the very fact that he is fun. Malcolm Tucker saves the world through aggressive and cruel political savvy. The Doctor saves it by being wonderful. That they’re both inhumanly clever is only one distant point of similarity.
And thus as much as this essay is one that’s been essentially demanded and assumed since the Capaldi casting was announced, there’s not actually a ton to say. It’s Capaldi’s best-known role, but it’s not a clue to how he’s going to play the Doctor. Not really. A clue that he’ll do it well, certainly, but not a clue as to exactly what that will look like. In that regard, there’s very little to say.
Somewhat more interesting, then, is the casting of Peter Capaldi as a civil servant and politician – the sort of character who appears in The Thick of It, if not, strictly speaking, a character in the vein of Malcolm Tucker. And the casting of him not in Doctor Who, but in a show that is altogether more cynical and dark, and that comes much closer to The Thick of It’s point of view – that the world is irretrievably broken and that it’s the existence of people that is the real problem. And, perhaps more to the point, the view that ultimately the world is only held together by the persistence of absolute and total bastards. Because, of course, it’s time to return to Torchwood. And after a spectacularly unsatisfying second season that seemed to abandon all case that the first season had made for why this show might be a good idea, Torchwood is about to make a serious bid to be the best thing Russell T Davies has ever written.