The Thick Of It Series 4, Episode 1: No Malcolm, No Problem

Don't be put off by the lack of Tucker and co. The Thick of It is still as sharp as ever...
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Don't be put off by the lack of Tucker and co. The Thick of It is still as sharp as ever...

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The second season of the Mighty Boosh was brilliant. Original and surreal, it catapulted a previously obscure, surreal sitcom into the public spotlight. Suddenly Howard and Vince were famous names. Noel Fielding and Julian Barratt were suddenly major celebrities. In the gap between seasons two and three, my brother named his rabbit ‘Vince’ in honour. The third series was one of the most eagerly anticipated I can remember, placed in a primetime slot on the BBC. With two such talented writers and performers at its helm, it should have been brilliant.

It was awful. Not ‘Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps’ awful, but awful in the way that later series of Friends and in particular later series of Little Britain were awful. It committed a cardinal sin by relying on the same tropes and jokes we had seen so many times before. Vince did ‘Vince things’. Howard did ‘Howard things’. We were meant to laugh at it all again. We didn’t.

Given that history, it was with a certain amount of trepidation that I sat down to watch the first episode of the new series of ‘The Thick of It’ on Sunday afternoon. In the three years since the series last aired, it has entered the British consciousness, with Ed Miliband’s description of the most recent budget as an ‘omnishambles’ the most famous example of its absorption. It has become famous. My biggest fear for the new series was an opening sequence of Malcolm Tucker screaming ‘cunt’ into the latest iPhone interspersed with shots of a harassed looking Nicola Murray. In other words, I was dreading a rehash of all of the things which made the show great, but would now drag it down to the level of other series which ran out of new ideas and tainted your memory of the brilliance of the originals.

My biggest fear for the new series was an opening sequence of Malcolm Tucker screaming ‘cunt’ into the latest iPhone interspersed with shots of a harassed looking Nicola Murray

Happily, my fears were unfounded. The makers made a very brave decision for the first episode of the new series to dispense with Malcolm, Nicola and Ollie, its most famous faces. It showed a confidence in the new characters (Fergus and Adam), and the newish ones (Peter, Phil and Emma), and by extension in the ability of the writing team to keep the show funny without falling back onto established tropes. In this sense, they deserve a great deal of praise. A great deal of care has clearly been taken to avoid repeating the mistakes of other sitcoms and the jokes of previous series. The recasting of Nicola as the leader of the opposition is another positive sign, creating a new dynamic between her and Malcolm which provides the scope for the writers to extract different laughs. Watching Malcolm bully hopeless junior cabinet ministers was great fun and would probably still be very funny but it is pleasing that the creators have rejected this easy option and given themselves a new writing challenge.

All this is very well, but it would have counted for nothing had the episode not been very funny, and it just about was. Certainly, it did not compare to classic episodes in earlier seasons. Fergus and Adam are not the strongest characters, with Fergus’s rant to Terri particularly bizarre and too reminiscent of Glenn's 'I am a man' speech. The plot, essentially ‘minister presents stupid policy embarrassingly and then makes cringeworthy apology’ was not exactly groundbreaking. However, the last half of the episode had enough laughs to leave you pleased by the end, particularly in Peter Mannion’s presentation of the ‘silicone playgrounds’ policy, which was a great piece of acting. Stewart Pearson’s management-speak deserves a mention, even if its impact is slightly diminished in comparison to the superb satire on blue-sky thinking in the excellent Twenty Twelve.

The Thick of It is back and it is in as good shape as ever

All in all, there are a lot of reasons to be positive about the rest of the series. It isn’t going to be lazy, it isn’t going to be stale, and it certainly isn’t going to taint your memory of previous series. There is enough promising material and enough signs from the first episode to suggest that there could be some classics on the way. The Thick of It is back and it is in as good shape as ever. We should thank our fucky stars.

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