The hour-long sixth episode of The Thick Of It’s fourth season (and this is the BBC, so it’s actually one hour long) is a formally audacious effort, but it’s hard to keep it from being kinda… boring. It reminds me of The West Wing’s live debate episode from its seventh season. Watching it, you were technically impressed by everyone’s performances and the theater of the thing. But it was perhaps a little too faithful to realism and suffered as a result. Watching a real-life presidential debate is one thing—you’re tense because you want your candidate to do well. But an entirely fictional one? That won’t get the blood running quite as much.
That’s perhaps a little bit of an unfair comparison, because The Thick Of It managed to slip in a fair bit of humor, even though the entire episode was made up of testimony to the Goodling Inquiry, which sought to identify the government’s role in Mr. Tickel’s death and discuss the general culture of leaking in British politics. Now, there’s not much suspense here, since we know exactly who leaked what and how everyone behaved. So we’re watching everyone on good behavior—the drama comes every time their façades crack a little and we know the Inquiry is getting closer to the truth.
Early on, the joke is that Terri is identified by pretty much everyone as the reason for press leaks out of DOSAC—she’s such an incompetent press secretary, they have to go directly to the papers, the ministers and advisors all protest. Terri’s two times on the stand (the second time with an extremely loose-lipped Robyn next to her) are the funniest moments of the episode. Her efforts to burnish her credentials the first time are amusingly pathetic; she totally crumbles the second time on the stand, with Robyn pointing out the inconsistencies in her story.
The most dramatically effective moments, unsurprisingly, relate to Malcolm, who has the most to lose here. Stewart and the coalition government have already been pretty effectively torpedoed by Mr. Tickel’s death and the leak of the cruel email chain. Sure, they still have damage control to do, but Malcolm should be on the upswing. He’s removed Nicola from power, he has the eminently malleable Dan Miller in office, and the junior coalition party is already feeling them out for some sort of power-sharing arrangement. The only thing that could kill him now is an investigation into leaks. It’s hardly good for your job when a government panel is called to investigate the legality of its core duties.
The first time on the stand, Malcolm pretty successfully stonewalls, passing the blame around to everyone else, throws the Lib Dems under the bus, makes Nicola sound like an idiot. The second time, he gets caught flatfooted by the revelation that he had Mr. Tickel’s private information (his NHS number and National Insurance number, the U.K. equivalent of a Social Security number). But the most intriguing part of the episode happens next.
During Nicola’s testimony, we notice the crowd behind her is more agitated, leaving to check out some mysterious goings-on outside. It seems to have to do with one of the members of the Inquiry, a rather stern Baroness, but although the whole thing obviously has a big impact on her, we never get the details. No doubt Malcolm is practicing his dark arts behind the scenes. In a typical Thick Of It episode, that’s what we’d be seeing. The Inquiry would be much-discussed, but barely glimpsed—Malcolm, Ollie et al. would be running around trying to get their hands on whatever news grenade they could throw into the middle of things to distract the press from the issue at hand.
I applaud the show for taking a different tack. I briefly wondered if the hour-long length meant a Noises Off-style approach—first the inquiry, then everything that was going on behind the scenes. For all I know, the seventh and last episode of the season will do that (although I doubt it, since there’s too much to wrap up).
Still, this is The Thick Of It. I’m really after Malcolm throwing shit at everyone, Stewart blustering while Peter insults and ignores him, Nicola running around like a headless chicken, etc. Notably, this was one of the least profane episodes of the show—a couple snippets of abuse are read out as formal evidence, but even Malcolm had to keep his mouth in check this time around. It’s always fun to watch a show break formula, but it’s also hard for it to not feel like a gimmick, and that’s how this episode ended up feeling.
No matter. I’m excited to see how things wrap up here—not only is the plot dramatically intriguing in and of itself, but it’ll be interesting to see if the show addresses all of the black magic being worked this week, or just blazes by it since there’s so much else to do. One thing I’m still waiting on is for the other shoe to drop re: Nicola. I figured she’d end up throwing Malcolm under the bus here, triumphantly firing one last parting shot. But, perhaps with an eye on a long-term future, she declines to do so. Her threats in the season’s fifth episode may have been just that, threats, but she has one more episode to pull the trigger.
- Stewart doesn’t bring his work home with him—“I’m a husband, I’m a lover, I’m a carpenter, I’m a cook, I’m a flautist.”—and he wants government to be like the Pompidou Center, with all of its inner workings exposed. “Haven’t you created the opposite, Centrepoint, everyone sees it looming over them, but nobody knows what’s going on inside?” “There’s some sort of club in the top floor,” Stewart responds, lamely. Any Londoner should appreciate the reference.
- Peter is glad Mr. Tickel didn’t call him when feeling suicidal. “Apparently, tonally, I have a very depressing voice.”
- Phil calls civil servants the worker ants of government. “We’re more like the soldier ants that defend the queens.”
- Terri says she has all the qualities of a shepherdess. “Firstly, one needs a whistle, and that’s my voice. Secondly, one needs a coat, and that’s my coat. And thirdly, one needs a dog, and that’s a woman called Robyn.”
- Ollie says Malcolm doesn’t intimidate him, “Although he doesn’t suffer fools gladly. Or clever people.”