At this point, maladjusted nerds and perpetually single woman are such tired tropes that we can recite the script by heart. The nerds inevitably live in their parents’ basements and have trouble talking to women, and all the single ladies will go to desperate measures to keep a man’s attention. Misunderstandings enter stage left, mistakes exit stage right, and humiliation stubbornly stays center stage with a limelight on, just to make sure you saw it.
On paper, The IT Crowd is guilty of all these things. In practice though, it usually has a self-awareness that keeps its worn premises from actually wearing thin. Take Jen’s shoe obsession from last week. It could have been yet another storyline about those women and their cah-razy addiction to fashion, but it turns the corner into parody by letting everyone else in on the joke and taking it to the absolute extreme. The IT Crowd never has more fun than when it presents a completely routine sitcom premise, lets you get disappointed, and then smashes its foot down on the gas pedal.
“Fifty-Fifty” (season one, episode three; originally aired 2/10/2006)
“Shut up, do what I tell you, I’m not interested; these are just some of the things you’ll be hearing if you answer this ad. I’m an idiot and I don’t care about anyone but myself. (P.S. no dogs.)”
This holds doubly true for Roy’s online dating excursion in “Fifty-Fifty,” which could have been yet another eye-roll inducing display of a man whining about how women don’t like “nice guys,” but instead makes fun of exactly that convention. Roy, whose default setting is “seething,” can’t understand why the woman he took out couldn’t get past the shit—I’m sorry, chocolate—on his forehead when he had been a “perfect gentleman” all evening. His account naturally leaves out that whole part where he clung to the woman all the way up to her doorstep and tried to get into her apartment even though she was clearly uncomfortable, but still! What a bitch. But instead of siding with him as many shows would, the script veers just left of center and acknowledges why this woman didn’t go for a “nice guy” like Roy: He’s not a nice guy.
This isn’t to say that he’s a bad one, but he’s certainly not the knight in shining armor he claims to be. He’s surly, he’s angry, and he doesn’t trust anyone or anything to know more than he does, so if a woman he “bamboozled” into a date didn’t have a good time, well, that’s on her damaged psyche. Again, he’s not an unfamiliar character, but the fact that the show acknowledges it with a wink makes it far more fun.
This is especially obvious in the great scene where Jen calls him on his shit, telling him that the women-liking-bastards thing is a “total myth.” Roy takes this as a challenge and bets her he can get a date with a woman with the world’s rudest online profile. This, he says triumphantly, will prove that all women want bastards (though you know he hates to generalize). That Roy does get a date this way would prove his point if it weren’t for Jen’s seemingly separate storyline, though neither of them realize it.
As Roy thunders around complaining about women’s unfailing attraction to jerks, Jen is flirting with Daniel the security guard (Oliver Chris of the original Office) because he “seems really nice” and has “security” written on his shoulder. This is all well and good until she stretches the truth on how much she knows about classical music, and he uses her as his “phone a friend” on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire (because that’s what you did in 2006). Her wrong answer costs him £30,000. Suddenly, Daniel’s not such a nice guy anymore, and just as suddenly, Jen doesn’t like him at all. If she wanted to win that bet with Roy, all she had to do was point at herself.
Now that I’ve dissected the episode’s gender politics, the real question is whether it’s actually funny. And it is! Mostly. The climactic double date scene is disappointing after the careful setup, starting with the obvious “twist” that Moss sends both Roy and Jen to the family-restaurant-circle-of-hell Messy Joe’s instead of the American bistro he promised. Roy’s inexplicable bastard act as a 1950s greaser is good for a quick scene but it goes on for several, and Jen sitting through Daniel’s glare similarly loses its punch well before a clown literally points and laughs at them. So even before Daniel loses it and beats everyone with a clown shoe, it’s overkill. But the conclusion with Roy and Jen laughing off their terrible nights and calling the bet a wash is unexpectedly sweet. Sure, Roy caps off the evening by slamming a door in Jen’s face, but like I said: he’s not really that nice a guy. It would have been a much more boring episode if he were.
“The Red Door” (season one, episode four; originally aired 2/17/2006)
“You should have seen me. I was magical. Here’s me saying some pretty important stuff to a group of people circled around me…”
Now that Jen’s feeling comfortable in the office, she suggests some organizational changes like clearing the window they didn’t know they had, evicting the birds nest in Moss’ hard drive and, most disturbingly, opening the mysterious red door behind Roy’s desk. We already saw how much Roy and Moss hate even the possibility of change when Jen arrived, so their insistence she not disrupt the basement’s “delicate ecosystem” is perfectly in line with what we’ve seen. And then Jen opens the red door and meets Richmond.
After the more straightforward farce of “Fifty-Fifty,” the introduction of Noel Fielding’s soft-spoken goth marks a sharp turn into absurdity for The IT Crowd. In fact, the episode looks different even before Richmond enters the picture, with The IT Crowd’s first cutaway gag featuring Roy smuggling a giant square computer monitor onto the bus. Then it gets meta, as Richmond reveals his rise and fall at Reynholm Industries by looking off into the distance at his flashbacks—with the confused IT department looking on, straining to understanding what he’s staring at.
For the most part, the episode’s experiments with these new narrative devices fall flat. The episode assumes Richmond’s flashbacks are worth spreading throughout the episode (they’re not) and leans too much on the premise that goth makeup is inherently hilarious (it’s not). The structure twists that don’t lean on the “goths are people, too” conceit are subtler but effective, like when Jen tells Denholm she knows about Richmond, but is muffled since she’s too short to lean over his shoulder in the traditional way.
Elsewhere, Roy’s first onscreen venture to fix an IT problem upstairs goes horribly wrong when he gets stuck under two women’s desks and enlists Moss to help him get out with minimal social damage. It’s as straightforward a sitcom plot as there is, and so none of Richmond’s narrative trickery makes it over to this storyline. But Richard Ayoade has so perfected Moss’ neurotic idiot savant dynamic at this point that he makes his quick scenes here count. From his misguided attempts to distract the women away to his freaking out at Jen about his stranded best friend and why is Richmond out of his room?!, Ayoade’s commitment to even his silliest lines is a treat to watch (and will certainly come in handy later).
Meanwhile, Fielding’s best moments are actually his quieter ones with Jen, which draw humor from the pair’s unique personal dynamic rather than his goth gimmick. Their polite debrief over tea is particularly fun, as Richmond confesses he has no earthly clue what the machines he’s supposed to look after do. “What’s going on there? I don’t know,” he says, motioning at the panel of blinking lights. “Is it good that it’s doing that? Occasionally it doesn’t do that and I think I should tell them, but often I just look away.” Fielding is great in these bemused moments, as when Jen asks if the band Cradle Of Filth is a literal cradle of filth and he chuckles, “Oh no, that would be horrible.” The world’s most polite cave-dweller is funny enough on its own; the goth twist feels a little like Daniel beating the shit out of a clown with its own shoe.
- I have turned grading off for the moment. I don’t think I’ll turn it back on again, but weirder things have happened, so stay tuned.
- Wait, just kidding, I (always) have more thoughts on gender politics. Roy and Moss’ inherent distrust of Daniel seems to be confirmed when he tries to talk about “the match” with them. Then he offers to kill their spiders for them, and you can practically see Roy’s “BUT I’M NOT A LADY!” blinker go haywire. It’s a glorious thing.
- I’m half-convinced the online dating storyline came out of Graham Linehan hearing the delightful way Chris O’Dowd pronounces the word “bastard.”
- Roy/Jen watch of the week: Even besides for the pseudo-romantic ending of “Fifty-Fifty,” the woman Roy gets a date with looks an awful lot like Jen, doesn’t she?
- Roy and Moss, trying to make sense of an attractive woman responding to their ad: “Oh my God, what did we write again?!” “It started with, ‘shut up.’”
- “Do you remember the Internet at this speed? Up all night and you only saw eight women.”
- “That referee was just an idiot.” “Yes. He was certainly the villain of the piece.”
- “Haven’t you got it yet? That’s what I do. I lie, and I lie, and I lie!”
- “Oh my good gracious. Look at that. I can’t explain it. You’re just going to have to come over here and look out this window for a while… I have to say, you’re missing out. Jiminy Jones. The nature of the thing that is happening has changed slightly, rendering it yet more interesting! Someday, I’ll tell my kids about this.”