Let’s open The Thick Of It’s second seasonwith a talk about Ollie Reeder, perhaps the show’s most subversive character. Chris Addison looks like the guy the audience should be identifying with. He’s young, he has glasses, he stammers a bit, he cracks jokes—he’s our surrogate! We can’t identify with his stuffy colleague Glenn, the at-sea boss Hugh, or the terrifying whirling dervish that is Malcolm, but this youngster is obviously the audience’s entrance point for the show, right?
Spectacularly wrong. If anything, Ollie is the least sympathetic character on The Thick Of It—the most callous, the most willing to sell his friends down the river to advance his career. This is doubly true for the character Chris Addison plays in In The Loop—but more on that later. I’m not here to compare The Thick Of It to Veep, a show I heartily enjoy, but I don’t love how the slimiest character there (Reid Scott’s Dan Egan) is so obviously a jerk. There’s something delightful about Ollie’s stealth smarm. He’s an awkward idiot from minute one, but he’s not hiding a heart of gold.
The first episode of the second season puts Ollie in a series of tricky ethical binds: he’s seconded to work with Malcolm at 10 Downing Street, a move he initially thinks is due to his rising star in the party, but he quickly learns is because he’s sleeping with someone working for the opposition who might know about a defense-contractor scandal about to burst all over the evening news.
Ollie is essentially there to provide “political intelligence,” although the extent of his relationship with the unseen Emma may well be exaggerated (seems like something Ollie would do). It’s to the show’s credit that it doesn’t take the simple route of making Ollie a completely incompetent fool, though. He’s definitely flustered in trying to keep Emma’s interest on the phone while pumping her for information as Malcolm and his Scottish lieutenant Jamie MacDonald breathe down his neck. Meanwhile Hugh is trying to get him to deflect his own news event (being accosted by an angry woman on a factory tour).
We’d accept it if Ollie just completely crumbled under this pressure, or completely blew it with Emma because he’s a stammering government nerd. But it’s never that cut-and-dried—he just muddles through, which is pretty much what everyone’s doing on this show, and it all settles into something vaguely satisfying, not through tactical genius but because Glenn took a picture of himself on Ollie’s new cellphone.
Defense Secretary Geoff Holhurst, who gave a defense contract to the second-lowest bidder (who happened to be related to him) seems like the obvious scandal of the night, so that’s where Malcolm devotes most of his attention. Because Hugh’s our main character and his plight is more amusing, that dominates the episode, so Malcolm and Jamie mostly deal with the defense thing in the backgrounds of scenes. Several times, we see them just demolishing people (most memorably, Jamie appears to reduce some poor lady to tears) and even though there’s no specifics, we don’t really need ‘em.
Jamie is easily The Thick Of It’s best recurring character, which is surprising, because the concept is just that he’s Malcolm times 10. There’s basically no character: no attempt at shading, no hint at moral complexity. He’s what would happen if you surgically removed Malcolm’s already raging id and imbued it with life, or at least with some sort of kinetic energy. Jamie exists to be wound up and directed at someone, who he will reduce to utter rubble. There’s a lack of subtlety, which is why his approach doesn’t always work, but it’s almost always funny, and it has the (intentional, I’m sure) side effect of making Malcolm seem like somewhat of a human being in comparison.
Perhaps it’s because Jamie has the matter in hand, or perhaps because there’s something about Hugh that appeals to him, but Malcolm ends up getting involved with Hugh’s screw-up, which is basically that his bewildered hangdog face was caught on camera as a woman berated him on a puffy factory visit about cleaning up her mother’s piss. It’s a tale as old as time—the woman is obviously deranged, even if she has legitimate grievances about the country’s health-care system, but the fact that Hugh could only stammer and smile like an idiot in response is enough to make it a news story.
Malcolm’s visit to the offices of ITN (the UK’s second-biggest news network outside of the BBC) is a thing of beauty, as he essentially tries to edit the news in the government’s favor through a breezy chat. First he tries to get two especially “moronic” shots of Hugh taken out, then he resorts to a bald-faced lie—claiming that the woman is running for local office as a member of the ultra-right-wing (i.e. racist) British National Party—that he knows the reporters won’t be able to confirm or deny in time. We see the escalation of how Malcolm handles the press—first he tries to massage the right result out of them, then he screams, then he lobs threats, then he just does whatever he can, no matter how dishonest. It’s all to protect the TV image of a minor cabinet secretary who’s already pretty much derided by the press, but if Malcolm sets his mind to something, he’ll do it.
The whole thing flips back and forth over and over again, as Malcolm and Jamie decide that Hugh’s embarrassment has to lead the news to bury the defense story, and Ollie ends up focusing the whole thing on Glenn, who told the piss lady to shut the fuck up in a moment of weakness (to be fair to Glenn, she is annoyingly single-minded about the whole thing). It’s a great insight of how spin doctors handle a crisis. They can’t change the ultimate truth (the defense minister probably broke the law), so they distract and distort as much as possible until they’re all reasonably satisfied (well, except for poor Glenn).
There’s definitely more production value at work here, and there’s even more to come in the next two episodes, which push Hugh’s character development and the ministry’s status much further along. Then, of course, insane real-life scandal reared its head and made everything very difficult, but more on that later.
- We also get our first introduction to the terrified, wide-eyed Robyn here, who is subbing for Terri (absent in the first two episodes as her dad is dying—perhaps some real-life scheduling conflict made Joanna Scanlan unavailable). More on her next week.
- Robyn fails for the first time here by only getting regional news to the factory visit. “Even JFK’s assassination was a regional event, but it was also very important. Like this factory visit!”
- When on the phone to Emma, Ollie pretends he’s in a Scottish restaurant. “A man’s complaining because they’ve under-fried his Mars Bar.”
- Hugh is the worst at feigning interest—“This is brilliant, I love these… pipes”—and he’s terrified of “real people” like the piss lady. “I know this is what they think people like me think so I hate thinking it but I just find myself thinking that they’re from a different fucking species… Why do they wear clothes with writing on them? And why are they so fucking fat?”