As a teenaged Sports Illustrated subscriber, I was mystified (and saddened) by the magazine’s annual “Where Are They Now?” issues. It made no sense that William “The Refrigerator” Perry’s first appearance on the magazine’s cover in a decade-plus would find the defensive lineman laying bricks, rather than proudly wearing the orange-and-navy of the Chicago Bears. That dude was a Super Bowl champion! He took the final verse on “The Super Bowl Shuffle”! He had his own G.I. Joe, for crying out loud! Yet, despite these achievements, Perry, like all of the other athletes profiled in SI’s walk down memory lane, had to give up the game at some point. The human body wasn’t meant to play football until the standard retirement age, and bank accounts aren’t infinite, even for a guy who used to run with Hawk, Scarlett, and Snake-Eyes. That harsh truth went double for the Olympic athletes mentioned in the “Where Are They Now?” pages—not only were they subject to the same anatomical wear and tear, but, depending on what sport they played, they weren’t allowed to be paid for their accomplishments. In effect, they were left to toil in obscurity by forces they couldn’t control.
That’s a difficult spot in which to find humor, but Twenty Twelve is all about the comedy of circumstances beyond its character’s control. They crack wise about Mayor of London Boris Johnson needing to have his shirt sewn into his pants because guys like Johnson and Sebastian Coe can wipe away all the Olympic Deliverance Commission’s hard work with a simple phone call. These are the people most-qualified for the job of making the Olympics a reality, but it’s the people above them—notice how often “upstairs” is mentioned in tonight’s episodes—who make the final decisions. In effect, there’s little separating Ian, Siobhan, Kay, Graham, and Nick from the Dave Welbecks of the world—their public-speaking skills aside.
The story of Welbeck (played by Spy’s Darren Boyd), a silver-medal-winning middle-distance runner, takes up a majority of Twenty Twelve’s fourth episode. Were it not for the series’ broad scope and grand subject matter, it would be jarring for a previously unknown character to occupy so much screentime in the middle of season. The first three installments of Twenty Twelve established the ability of John Morton’s cameras to zoom in and out on the trials and tribulations of the deliverance commission, however, so we’re fully prepared to zip from a meeting between Ian and Siobhan to Dave’s car, en route to a speaking gig as part of the 2012 games’ “Raising The Bar” initiative. It’s an outreach program engineered by the deliverance commission, but Dave is hardly the person to inspire national pride in the uniformed schoolchildren subjected to his deliriously discombobulated PowerPoint presentation. The sequence is the series’ finest comedic setpiece to date, and it launches a fantastic running gag as well: Siobhan’s magical ability to bolt from Dave’s presentations. Eventually, she teaches the trick to Ian, who probably wishes he could disapparate from any number of the meetings, interviews, and phone calls seen tonight.
It’s difficult to fault Ian for his frustration: It seems like each day presents a new distraction from what the Olympics are about—which, according to Nick and Graham, is either “sport,” “archery,” or “diversity.” Twenty Twelve’s most potent satirical point takes root in the trivial nonsense that attaches itself to what was once a simple gathering of elite athletes. There’s an attempt to inject some legitimate sporting spirit into the deliverance commission’s activities in episode five, but Ian and Sally are the only ones truly invested in entering the London Marathon to, you know, enter the London Marathon. For Kay, preparation for the Marathon is an excuse to inspire jealousy in her ex-husband; Graham, meanwhile, looks to prove that the mind is the strongest muscle in the body—a quest which ends with him getting fleeced by a stranger. Running (har har) parallel to this plot is the search for someone to head up the 2012 “cultural Olympiad,” an ill-defined task that attracts all manner of buzzword-spouting charlatans. It’s only fitting that, after all three top candidates are eliminated from contention and offered the curator’s position, the entire cultural Olympiad is purged from the London games’ budget. The hollow gestures and foo fah that accompany events like the Olympics are emerging as Twenty Twelve’s biggest target, one made physical by monuments like the big green clock or Kay’s bio fuel-powered wind turbine.
Also in the archer’s sight: The basic powerlessness of Ian’s team. As occurs with the physiques of athletes like William Perry or Dave Welbeck, the Olympic body eventually rebels against itself; an event meant to bring people together in the spirit of peace and cooperation is ultimately subject to the whims of a single person. The deliverance commission has been populated by the best people from their respective field, but they still answer to good ol’ “Seb,” whose proclamation from on high at the end of the fifth episode throws the final wrench in the cultural Olympiad works—and fills Ian’s training-for-a-marathon-lungs with smoke. (“In these sorts of situations, the thing is to look for the positive,” he tells the documentarian in one of the episode’s best lines. “For one thing, I’d started to think I’d lost any appetite for cigarettes completely. Turns out it’s as strong as ever.”) Morton was wise to choose Ian as his central character, rather than someone in Sebastian Coe’s position. The existence of someone who can reverse the progress made by the deliverance commission sustains the tension necessary for Twenty Twelve’s dry, sardonic satire.
It’s painfully funny that one of the senior staffers of the deliverance committee is devoted to “sustainability”—and not, as she’d remind you, “legacy.” Ask “The Fridge,” ask Dave, hell, ask divorcée Kay herself: True sustainability is impossible. All your preparations, all your training, all your immaculately curated PowerPoint slides are eventually subject to factors you haven’t even begun to anticipate. But while Twenty Twelve may be a realist’s comedy, its characters make the best of that reality. “Let’s face the music,” Nat King Cole sings at the beginning of every episode, “And dance.” Until next time, Ian Fletcher will be doing just that at the local pub.
Episode four: B+
Episode five: A-
- The camera has a lot of fun in the show’s fifth episode: For instance, the fantastic spy-shot-within-a-spy-shot that pans up from a meeting between Ian, Siobhan, Kay, and Nick to catch Graham peering into the conference room with a pair of binoculars. (Someone’s feeling left out from the selection process for the cultural Olympiad curator.) Elsewhere, when Ian ducks into a bathroom stall to take an important call from Seb, a meandering survey of the men’s room begins, ending with Ian declaring that the documentarian doesn’t have to pretend like he’s not eavesdropping.
- The fifth episode is definitely the show’s funniest yet, thanks in small part to Nick’s fixation on the phrase “guys on stilts.” It’s the perfect combination of vague and specific details—not to mention a hilarious representation of what a guy like Nick would think of the acrobatic arts—and the glee it inspires in Vincent Franklin is infectious. Bonus points for its connection to Ian’s reluctance about seeing The Lion King, a “guys on stilts” musical if ever there was one.