Twenty Twelve is a television series blessed by timing. Every complication and inconvenience that arises within and without the Olympic Deliverance Commission’s offices is given added weight by the fact that similar hurdles have been or are being faced by the commission’s real-world counterpart. As a way of catalyzing comedy, that’s a godsend—the stakes aren’t just high, they’re real, and that helps ground the series at times when it threatens to lose itself in farcical misunderstandings or seemingly unsolvable crises (that will obviously be solved at the 11th hour). There really is an ArcelorMittal Orbit Tower, and people do harbor strong opinions about it. The athletic track that rings the interior of the Olympic Stadium is a legitimate sticking point with the organizations that considered taking over the venue post-games. Girding the city’s transportation system for the strain of Olympics- and Paralympics-related travel has been a tremendous challenge for officials.
But those are all issues that Twenty Twelve has approached in retrospect. The 11 episodes that have aired Stateside thus far benefit from debuting so close to the games themselves, but they also rely on a Newsroom-like hindsight, winking at conflicts that have been resolved and deals that fell apart well before those half-hours aired in the U.K. or the United States. It’s easy to laugh while looking back; it’s harder to do so when a matter of human life intervenes.
Neither John Morton nor the BBC could’ve anticipated that “Catastrophisation” would be slated to air on BBC America little more than 48 hours after an actual failure in the type of taken-for-granted security measures the episode lampoons. Viewed in the wake of the shootings that occurred in Aurora, Colorado this past week, “Catastrophisation”’s humor begins to curdle around the point it’s mentioned that an unidentified person of interest has begun loading Olympic starter pistols with live rounds. By the time Ian takes a bullet in the leg due to the acting security heads’ inability to keep such a pistol out of the wrong hands (in this case, the careless paws of Graham Hitchins), the laughter grows nervous and choked. Timing can also come back to haunt you.
And yet this is nothing to fault the episode for—it just makes for uncomfortable viewing, an unintentional exercise in cringe comedy initiated by the heinous acts of a single person. As we learned from last week’s Great Public Outcry, no one wins in a race to declare a topic “off-limits” from the reaches of comedy; it’s possible to take inhuman lemons and make legitimately humorous lemonade, you just have to choose your targets correctly. (For a semi-self-promotional example, see The Onion’s response to the Aurora shooting.) This isn’t the best time to use gunplay for laughs, but that’s no reason to condemn “Catastrophisation.” The episode illustrates that we’re at our most vulnerable when we’re attending leisure activities like movies and sporting events; you can either let that fact cripple you with the type of fear bred by boogeymen like James Eagen Holmes or Twenty Twelve’s bleeped-out villain (or, you know, his historical predecessors), or you can go on living your life unafraid and laugh through the pain of the perpetually red-knuckled Ian sustaining another injury in the interest of delivering the Games of the XXX Olympiad. You can “endeavour,” as the walls of the deliverance commission offices implore.
With those weighty themes at play, concerns revolving around a multimillion-dollar piece of public art look trifling, but “The Rapper” is the lesser of this week’s two episodes regardless. The episode works with a broadness Twenty Twelve typically avoids, getting into queasy, well-trod territory once Ian turns up at a recording studio and is mystified by the slang and handshaking methods of rapper Mini Steppah. It’s a bit of tired, stodgy-old-white-guy-meets-hip-young-black-dude humor, but the episode thankfully doesn’t linger on that dynamic, focusing instead on the very earnest attempts of several people to disguise the Orbit Tower’s contorted steel exoskeleton with a giant condom (ad).
The “wrapper” plot is a subtly played joke in an episode that doesn’t have much use for subtlety, a half-hour where the visibly jumped-up representative for the American company paying to cover the “Eyeful Tower” just comes out and asks the employees of Perfect Curve, “You guys don’t have any cocaine, do you?” There’s an equally funny runner contrasting Ian, Nick, and Graham’s struggle to get free tickets to the games with the thousands of comps being lavished upon the likes of Robert Mugabe and the son of Muammar Gaddafi. It’s a backgrounded gag that balances out the single entendres of Mini Steppah’s PSA-cum-single—which after a too-convenient last-minute save from Ian’s new assistant Daniel, is retrofitted to push skin-caner awareness—with a little geopolitical satire.
Another matter of timing, one that works in Twenty Twelve’s favor: Mirroring the first three episodes of the series, a tremendous number of days pass between “The Rapper” and “Catastrophisation,” enough to skip through Ian’s entire divorce proceedings and really, really necessitate the completion of Graham’s plan to help Londoners and tourists alike navigate around the games. The heat is truly on the characters now, which means less space to deal with distractions like Mini Steppah, and hopefully more attention devoted to, say, making sure there’s enough open road for nations who’d like to bring their own “ground-to-air [bleep]s” to the games. And with Ian temporarily waylaid going into the final two episodes, the show should hit its “just shy of panic” groove next week. Time is on the side of the series, if not so much the side of its characters.
“The Rapper”: B-
- Please don’t construe my mention of the Aurora shootings as a way of capitalizing on a tragedy; I’m writing this a day after the shootings, and it’s incredibly difficult to watch the events of “Catastrophisation” outside of the context of what happened in that theater.
- Twenty Twelve is highly adept at giving its characters personal mantras that grow funnier with each utterance. Joining Siobhan’s mindless “Totally”s and “Sure”s this week are the formal bookends of every clipped piece of dialogue from police officers Rachel Crane and Bob Buford: “Absolutely, yes, thank you.”
- The bleeps in the security meeting during “Catastrophisation” are used to Arrested Development-like ends of humor-by-obfuscation, expertly deployed to fall away by the time Graham drops this gem: “Unless they’re mounting their ground-to-air [bleep]s on bikes, we’re [bleep]ed.”
- Siobhan’s PR tics are beginning to get to Nick: “What’s not to understand, guys?” “Well, you, love.”
- A bright spot from “Catastrophisation” that exaggerates on real-world happenings: The inability to find a single, permanent tenant for the Olympic Stadium has Kay investigating interested parties in increasingly dire situations, like a defunct dog-racing track. The greyhound enthusiast with whom she meets provides David Tennant with his funniest bit of narration for the night, describing Brian McLoughlin as a “life-long Irishman.”