There’s nothing radically different about The Thick Of It’s third season. Apart from a new star, there’s the same general cast, the same format (something bad happens, Malcolm yells, chaos ensues), the same free exchange of ideas and concepts (read: swearing) between everyone. Still, there’s a cleaner edge to the show, now firmly ensconced in the fancy sets we saw at the end of season two (which were not used during the specials for whatever reason) and featuring a different breed of lead character in Nicola Murray (Rebecca Front).
After the whole Chris Langham mess, Front is a steady hand—never a star, but she’d been a key part of a lot of great, underseen U.K. comedy including Armando Iannucci’s news-parody collaboration with Chris Morris, The Day Today, the second season of sketch show Big Train and the pitch-black (even by British standards) sitcom Nighty Night. She brings a fresh, new energy to the show and an honestly more interesting dynamic with Malcolm. No disrespect meant to Langham’s performance as Hugh—which was both brilliant and crucial to setting the tone as the series began—but it was the right move to go in a different direction instead of hiring another haggard middle-aged man who seems like he’d rather throw himself off a bridge than interact with the public.
Nicola is brought in as a last-minute replacement after Malcolm’s original choice (or choices) all decline the DOSAC post. She’s much harder to get a read on—Hugh’s befuddlement was clear from the get-go, but while Nicola is a little overwhelmed, prone to nervous laughter and generally jittery (she refuses to go into elevators for fear of death) there’s nothing too broad about her. I don’t know if Iannucci and his writers consciously wanted to go for a more well-rounded character, but that’s what we’ve got here.
The dynamics between Hugh and Glenn, Ollie and Terri were always pretty clear, but here everyone’s jockeying for Nicola’s attention. It never seems like anyone’s job is really in danger, but Nicola at least has everyone on their toes during her roll-out in episode one. As she’s quickly informed that there’s really no money to do anything at all, and Malcolm reveals that she hasn’t been vetted at all, Nicola realizes just how last-minute an appointment she really was. “What you're telling me is, basically, I'm going to be a woman with a computer and some pens.”
Her revelation to Malcolm that she’s enrolling her daughter in an “independent” (private) school is the most interesting plotline in the first of this week’s episodes. Malcolm’s antenna is immediately up when he realizes Nicola has an 11-year-old (the age upon which Brits enter secondary school, a kind of middle school/high school combo) and his worst fears are quickly confirmed. “You are saying that all your local state schools, all the schools that this government has drastically improved, are knife-addled rape sheds.” While the subject of a politician’s choice of schooling is almost never an issue in America, it has long been a crucial one in the U.K., especially for members of the Labor Party, and any time any of them sends his or her kid to private school, it’s a media feeding frenzy.
Malcolm is his usual terrifying self this episode—still figuring out Nicola, but not afraid to show his teeth. As Ollie notes, “he thinks of himself as a sort of thin, white Mugabe.” But there’s definitely a hint, a modicum of sympathy at work here, very carefully, and successfully, deployed by Peter Capaldi. Malcolm always had pity for poor old Hugh Abbott, but there was no question he’d happily toss him overboard at a moment’s notice. But, realizing that the school question is the most sensitive topic possible in politics, he actually seems a little sorry to be forcing Nicola to send her kid to state school. Just a little (and there’s more on this in future episodes), but it’s there. Sadly, she has to pick that option, as Malcolm can only defend her on one front, and she has a husband working for a company with a DOSAC contract.
Nicola gets a little more room to blunder in episode two, where she’s told DOSAC has lost crucial immigration info from the last seven months (which would surely be a national security issue, but that’s not even touched on) and she has to work not to blurt it out when meeting with the Guardian editorial staff. This episode moves a little slower and deploys essentially the same plot twice. First the DOSAC gang are afraid to reveal their error to Malcolm (who arrives poking his head around the door saying “LITTLE PIGS, LITTLE PIGS!”), and then they’re afraid to reveal it to the papers.
Of course, they manage to do both, and we get a clearer picture of Nicola’s flaws here—she’s nervous in the public eye, too concerned about coming across as “sour” or “smug” (something a female politician has to deal with more than a stuffed suit like Malcolm) and a little quick to fly off the handle with reporters. Malcolm’s around for pretty much the whole episode and watches in horror as things fly out of control before he can even begin to protect the office. “I don't even have the energy to pretend I already knew,” he sighs when he finds out about the immigration screwup. “Which is for the best, because I'm going to need all my fucking energy to rip all of your fucking bodies to bits with my bare hands and sell off your fucking flayed skin as a sleeping bag. To a fucking normal person!”
As retribution for the lost data, Nicola wants Robyn’s head and asks Glenn to provide it, but out of either loyalty, love or stubbornness, he refuses and sacks someone else, leading a deflated Nicola to just collapse in her office chair, unsuccessful even at firing someone for screwing up. “She looks like I feel when I visit Sheffield,” Glenn notes. There’s some different material coming in future episodes, but right now it’s basically the same old Thick Of It, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
- Nicola is Malcolm’s final pick for the job. “If she says no, the only other candidate’s my left bollock with a smiley face drawn on it.”
- Nicola steals Glenn’s awesome chair, which Malcolm quickly wants thrown away for being too ostentatious. “Should I just get an upturned KFC bucket?” “Just a fucking normal chair, not a fucking massive vibrating throne.”
- At one point, Nicola walks in front of a campaign poster (screencapped above) and Malcolm complains about the media fallout. “That’s an incredibly homophobic headline, you massive poof,” he screams at one editor.
- Malcolm is furious at Nicola’s fear of elevators, the final straw after her crooked husband and private-school daughter. “You’re a fucking omni-shambles. You’re like that fucking coffee machine. From bean to cup, you fuck up.”
- Malcolm has good advice on how to fix a paper jam: “Kill a kid an hour until it sorts itself out?”
- Nicola pretends to be fine with mocking media coverage. “That was a bit annoying. And hilarious. Like Russell Brand. You want to hate him, but he’s funny.”
- Malcolm summons Nicola to Number 10 as ominously as possible. “It might be advisable to wear brown trousers. And a shirt the color of blood.” But, always the gentleman, he asks Terri and Nicola if they’ll be offended by the “violent sexual imagery” he intends to use to insult them. Instead, he settles on “You have laid your first big fat egg of solid fuck.”