Even for an English television show, the first season of The Thick Of It is truncated. Just three episodes aired on BBC Four (a cable channel the BBC used as a dumping ground for prestige American shows like Mad Men and Curb Your Enthusiasm) in 2005 before it was renewed for a second season later that year. Combined with the paltry production values (the entire season seems to be set in three rooms and a hallway), you can tell how much faith the Beeb initially had in the show. So, weirdly, two weeks into my recaps, I’m reviewing the season finale, and it feels like one too, with Hugh’s job in serious trouble over an unused London flat he owns.
The development feels weirdly rushed, mentioned in a sotto voceconversation between Glenn and Hugh in one of the episode’s opening scenes and rushed to full-blown scandal by the middle of the episode. It’s a reference to a common problem for U.K. politicians—many own homes in both London, where they work, and their constituency, which can be anywhere from the capital to the far-flung reaches of Scotland. Hugh is apparently championing a bill to reform the practice but is guilty himself of having two homes just 20 miles from each other, one of which he never uses because of his insane work hours.
Glenn formulates a plan to keep reporters off the scent by listening to offers on the flat, but not accepting any, so they can pretend they’re trying to sell it. But the English press are no slouches when it comes to matters like this, and they’ve been putting in multiple fake offers and watched them all get rejected: a brilliant double-dose of deception. The third episode utilizes journalist Angela Heany well, and sets her up for future plots by moving her from the Evening Standard, a local London rag, to the Daily Mail, one of the country’s most popular national papers—one with decidedly more teeth.
Angela’s change of workplace sets up a great showcase for the show’s deft touch with turn-on-a-dime drama: The scene where Malcolm realizes the reporter is going to ambush Hugh and then runs across the city, powered by his own screaming. As I mentioned in my last review, Malcolm can be an all-powerful cure-all for the show, a deus ex machina who every week uses his unlimited influence over the press to solve Hugh’s problems. But as he’s protested, he’s just one man—he can’t turn back the tide, and he can get carried away himself, berating Hugh for failing to sell his flat while Angela looks on from an un-soundproofed “goldfish bowl” room 5 feet away.
The situation develops rapidly enough that if Hugh doesn’t go, one of his advisors will—which leads to Glenn and Ollie first both offering to fall on their swords, then arguing that the other one is much better-suited to it. They’d all love to see Terri go, but she’s a tougher figure to pin the blame on (civil servants aren’t so much regarded as having their boss’ best interests at heart). Then Hugh gets a lifeline—a Parliamentary inquiry, in the hands of a friendly lord. Hugh’s joyful reaction tells you everything. Armando Iannucci is making a pointed reference to the multiple controversial inquiries into the Blair government deemed by some as “whitewashes,” especially the Hutton Inquiry into the death of weapons inspector David Kelly (Wikipedia it—it’s a fascinating tale whether you believe the conspiracy theories or not).
But the joke’s on Hugh as the report hits him hard, and we get a mirror of the opening scene of the series, with Malcolm talking Hugh into quitting when the time is right rather than getting shoved. Hugh is convinced, but before he can go and be shot of the job, his smarmy junior minister Dan Miller beats him to the punch and gets a mountain of praise from the prime minister in return. It seems Hugh can’t do anything right—not even resign.
That’s a lot of plot for a half-hour episode of television, and it’s remarkable that it makes any sense at all since half of it is occupied with Malcolm screaming and swearing at everyone until the next crisis presents itself. Ollie and Glenn’s kvetching feels a little more petty, and Hugh is such a zero this week that there’s really no one for the audience to glom onto except for Malcolm. Perhaps just because he’s the best at his job, or maybe he’s the most emotional, but he’s definitely who you feel most involved with. Hugh is sympathetic too, but the solution for his troubles is so obviously losing his job (or just falling down dead).
The next three episodes do a better job of fleshing out everyone else, but it’s apparent that Malcolm is the star of the show, a status that only grows in future episodes. Everyone else is varying levels of pathetic: Hugh so tired and disconnected, Glenn so ineffectual and stuck forever in middle management, Ollie so morally malleable and ridiculously overconfident. Terri is presented as a constant thorn in her side, so we’re predisposed to dislike her, but her advice is obviously more on the mark than anyone else’s—but in that irritating way, like when your mother turns out to be right after shooting down some damn fool plan of yours.
I originally planned to review “Episode 3” and the opener of season two here, but there was enough to say about the “finale” that I’ll leave season two to the next two weeks. The BBC then aired all six on one of its network channels, BBC2, which is how the show found a wider audience. Just when things were going smoothly, a shocking scandal in real life intervened to throw everything into chaos—but more on that later.
- Dan Miller is a great caricature—friendly, smarmy, nice but vaguely sinister. “If you’re going to make an omelet, you’re going to have to have some frank and honest discussion with the eggs!”
- Hugh’s tie may have little hippos on it. “I think they’re just unidentified amusing creatures.”
- Hugh and Glenn run interview scenarios. “Where’s the Nazi gold, you donkey shagger?” “I’m very pleased you asked me that, Angela, because let me just say right away that this bill is going to do an extraordinary amount of good… ”
- Hugh was so blindsided by Angela’s interview, he may have forgotten to clarify that he doesn’t have a problem with Asian people. “I think I denied being a racist. God, I hope so.” “You didn’t say you’ve got lots of black friends, did you?” “No. Well, I haven’t, I haven’t got any.”
- Malcolm says Hugh can still resign—well, go a bit early. “You know, steely jawed, faraway look in your eyes!”
- When Malcolm’s in the room, his abuse can ricochet onto innocent bystanders, like this gem to Ollie: “Feet off the furniture, you Oxbridge twat! You’re not on a punt now.”