“Smoke And Mirrors” (season two, episode five; originally aired 9/21/2007)
Following season two’s pattern of venturing outside the office, “Smoke And Mirrors” takes us everywhere from the BBC to a reality show to a Rocky montage to Moss’ mum’s Bedroom. It’s almost like Graham Linehan wanted to immediately prove he could throw everyone in all directions after last week’s relatively confined “Dinner Party.” Fitting for an episode with this title, he manages it with the help of some structural smoke and mirrors.
At first it seems like Roy’s magenta lipstick situation is going to last the entire episode. He wanders back from a bachelor party gone wrong (apparently Roy does have friends other than Moss), through the IT department, and into Douglas’ office, where he manages to confuse Douglas into thinking he’s making some sort of gender-bent stand. It’s like the shit on his head all over again, except lipstick has the added bonus of challenging his sexuality! But there’s only so much to do with this slight thread, so it’s a relief when Moss’ blank bewilderment sends Roy to a mirror and into another storyline.
Meanwhile, Jen’s latest Workplace Failure is trying to convince people she didn’t believe the boys when they tell her that typing Google into Google will break the Internet (so no one try it)—and also, what’s up with bad bras, ladies? Moss’ inability to handle Jen using the word “bra” would be a groaner if he didn’t keep fainting and fainting. “I really ought to be able to listen to a woman talk about bras,” he says after his first predictable fall, only to immediately faint all over again. When he wakes up from that faint, Moss’ matter-of-fact bemusement is much more fun than continued hysteria might have been. “The first time I wasn’t expecting you to start talking about bras,” he explains to Jen, “and the second time it came as a bit of a surprise to hear myself talking about them. It’s been a rollercoaster.” And since Moss is often the first character to swerve left of expectations, it’s not surprising that the episode really kicks into high gear once he comes up with—wait for it—the “AbracadaBra.”
The AbracadaBra is not, in fact, the new witchcraft-inspired push-up-bra line from Victoria’s Secret, but a perfectly engineered bra that will never force a working woman working in the workplace to ruin a meeting because her bra went bad. (This is the part where I ask if a “bad bra” is a British-ism or a Linehan-ism, because speaking as a working woman working in the workplace, I tend to just go with “old.”) It’s a given that the AbracadaBra will fail even before it attempts to melt Jen’s chest off, but the build-up to that final flameout (sorry) is a particularly rich showcase for Moss’ childlike brand of determination. Moss announces the AbracadaBra to Jen via voice modulator while she sits feet away; he fashions himself an alter ego to escape the notice of the bra lobby. He goes for an interview about the bra only to give a live interview to the BBC about the Iraq War, because said alter ego’s name is quite close to someone in the Defense Department. He trains with Roy with his gangly limbs flying just everywhere. He calmly shows a panel of reality judges his creation and only barely blinks when it bursts into flames. Also, he wears the flip out of a suit. All in all, not a bad week for Maurice Moss.
For all this activity, though, the episode rarely feels rushed, and even has enough room to tease us with Roy’s random lipstick runner, a spot-on imitation of Dragon’s Den (the original iteration of Shark Tank), and a debate on whether moths could use ladders to get out of baths. Some might wonder how any of that is useful, to which I can only ask, how is that not useful?
“Men Without Women” (season two, episode six; originally aired 9/28/2007)
The setup of “Men Without Women” is a tried and true sitcom staple, as is typical for The IT Crowd. The boss lures someone away from their department with the promise of more pay, while the ones she leaves behind take advantage of their new freedom to do all the stuff she would frown upon only to realize that they miss her. Nothing we’ve seen so far suggests than Jen would take a job as Douglas’ personal assistant even if he paid her in solid gold, but since that would stop the episode in its tracks, she takes the job. When all of his tried and tried again seduction tactics keep failing, he drives her away for good with a final, deeply gross act of desperation.
I only lay all these plot points out because the most annoying thing about “Men Without Women” is that you could guess every single one of them just from hearing the logline, “Douglas hires Jen to be his assistant.” Where season standouts like “Work Outing” and “Moss And The German” gleefully upended expectations, this episode is disappointing because it sticks to the routine with a stubborn vengeance. Sure, there are a couple of nice fake-outs along the way, like when Jen asks what IT would do without her and Roy goes straight to his “Things We Can Do Without Jen Around” list instead of what, in fact, he would do without her. Jen trying to tell Moss that she’s leaving is similarly effective because it takes that usual conversation and tears it to pieces, sending them further and further down the rabbit hole as Moss gets more and more caught up in his own head (“Wait wait wait. Douglas wants me to be your PA?!”). But otherwise, “Men Without Women” completely misses out on the all-out perversion of tropes The IT Crowd usually goes for, and therefore looks like just about any other half-hour sitcom. Basically, I’m always waiting for something different when I watch this episode, and it never comes. The Rohypnol reveal isn’t the hilarious twist the episode wants it to be, not even because the script seems to think that Rohypnol is ecstasy (though that certainly doesn’t help). Frankly, it doesn’t work because it’s a lazy out. The IT Crowd excels when “A” leads to “B” leads to an unexpected turn into “LMNOP,” or “1001001,” or even Wingdings, because why not? “Men Without Women” just leads straight to “C.”
It’s no coincidence that these structural troubles come with the episode that most prominently features Douglas. While Chris Morris’ Denholm was more of an exclamation point for upper-floor scenes, Matt Berry’s boss becomes an entrenched member of the cast in “Men Without Women.” The episode goes all in with Douglas, giving his infatuation with Jen an actual plot beyond hitting on her and disappearing into the sex dungeon from whence he likely came. Instead of making a few perverted quips every other scene, Douglas becomes an actual player in the IT department’s everyday lives. So while it’s admirable that “Men Without Women” gives Douglas more to do, it also acts as a harsh reminder that Douglas is the show’s most one-note character, and if you’re not into his clumsy attempts to seduce… well, everyone, you’ll be rolling your eyes into the next scene. In order to like this Douglas-heavy episode, you have to like Douglas, and the more he’s involved in the plot at hand, it can tip over into excessive just for the sake of it.
It’s not that Douglas doesn’t fit into the world of the show, per se; after all, Denholm Reynholm wasn’t any less cartoonish. More often than not, though, the scripts that go heavy on the Douglas tend to coast on his singular defining characteristic rather than finding a new angle. Literally all you need to know about him is that he has a portrait of himself having an orgasm on the wall and thinks of sexual harassment as “sexy shenanigans.” He very rarely strays off that beaten path. So like Denholm before him, Douglas is best as punctuation, and in small doses (or, alternatively: like father, like son). The son has some good moments in “Men Without Women,” but by the time he’s charging Roy and Moss in his office like a dazed bull in heat, he’s outstayed his welcome.
- All that said, Douglas waiting until he’s in an ambulance to reveal that his hand was up his sleeve the whole time was my biggest laugh of the episode.
- For those curious: Moss’ misadventure on the BBC is based on a real mishap, where a student interviewing for a spot in the BBC’s IT department (really) accidentally ended up trying to talk about a lawsuit live on the air.
- This week’s Best Delivery Award goes to Katherine Parkinson for the following meditation on Guitar Hero: “Oh my God, I didn’t miss a single note! I’m wasting my life!"
- Also, while Ayoade gets MVP for “Smoke And Mirrors,” Parkinson’s commitment to some deeply unflattering physical comedy comes in a close second (e.g. her asthmatic growl of panic at Dragon’s Den, “MY TITS ARE ON FIRE,” etc).
- Roy’s nightmare date: “We get outside, there’s a group of tramps, and she knows two of them."
- A pizza with grapes doesn’t seem that weird. (Thanks, Los Angeles!)
- Next time I’m in a high-pressure situation, I’m borrowing some words from Moss: “I don’t want to do it! I feel trapped, like a moth in a bath!”
- “Prepare to put mustard on those words, for you will soon be consuming them, along with this slice of humble pie that’s direct from the oven of shame, set to gas mark ‘egg on your face.’”