Twenty Twelve debuts tonight on BBC America at 9 p.m.
It takes several years and hundreds of people to plan, execute, and coordinate an international event like the Olympics. The story of the forthcoming 2012 Summer Olympic Games officially begins on July 6, 2005, when the International Olympic Committee chose London to host the Games of the XXX Olympiad, but the groundwork for that selection traces back to 2003—when London was among nine cities vying for the chance to host the games—and beyond. As such, there’s a sense that one gaffe, one slip-up could sully the entire endeavor. This extends outside the realm of security and athlete safety: Critics were prepared to brand the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics a failure based solely on the shaky launch of the event’s mascot—an event that occurred before the previous Summer Olympics had technically concluded. Countless hours of labor and tremendous heaps of money are invested into every edition of the Olympics, so even when it comes to the matter of grinning blue blobs, the stakes are astronomical.
It that light, it doesn’t take much to give gravity to any of the decisions made by the main characters of Twenty Twelve, a mockumentary treatment of the run-up to the 2012 games written and directed by People Like Us creator John Morton. Centered on the fictional Olympics Deliverance Commission, the series is relieved of the task of creating high-pressure comedic situations for its characters, because there isn’t a single aspect of their jobs that isn’t a high-pressure situation. The first of three episodes debuting on BBC America tonight (the network’s British big brother premièred Twenty Twelve spring 2011) centers on the unveiling of a clock that will count down (or is it up?) to the opening ceremonies, a broadly comic symbol of the time crunch felt by Head of Deliverance Ian Fletcher (Hugh Bonneville) and every member of his team. That team includes characters who will be familiar to American viewers by appearance (Jessica Hynes, channelling the frantic edges of Spaced’s Daisy Steiner through public-relations professional Siobhan Sharpe) and in tone (Karl Theobald gives infrastructure guru Graham Hitchins an obsessive, oblivious, and easily flustered vibe reminiscent of The Office’s Gareth Keenan).
Whereas other mockumentaries use the format to illuminate the on-camera/off-camera personalities of their subjects, Twenty Twelve uses it to display the hidden, constantly whirring parts of a giant machine. (Not for nothing does David Tennant’s narration in the first episode describe the Deliverance Commission as the “engine room” of the London Olympics.) What do the cameras discover? Despite (or because of) the elevated levels of stress and the intense scrutiny under which they work, Ian and his co-workers are just as apt to bungle a simple assignment or get caught in red tape as any typical office drone. What makes the workday nuisances of Twenty Twelve interesting, however, is that when Graham makes a mistake, he turns the streets of the English capital into a giant parking lot.
Where a lesser series would be content with taking the “Can you believe the clowns running this show?” route, the Deliverance Commission workers frequently show that they deserve their stations. Sure, Ian catches his hand in the hinges of his collapsible bike every now and again, but he also knows how to save face when he fails to deliver a group of delegates from the 2016 Rio games to their destination on time. Siobhan’s a chattering caricature of a PR wonk, but she’s blindingly quick on her feet. Head of Sustainability Kay Hope (Amelia Bullmore) has a hard time articulating why her position matters, but she knows it matters. The humor of Twenty Twelve doesn’t come from its characters’ lack of competency—it comes from watching the highly qualified barely overcome the obstacles impeding a show that will be viewed by the entire world.
Though time is one of Twenty Twelve’s greatest obstacles, the series has no difficulty condensing or expanding it. One hundred and twenty-six days pass between the first and third episodes (the latter of which tracks a week in the life of the deliverance commission), yet the second episode takes place over the span of a few hours. That’s one of the liberating qualities of the mockumentary format: Where one episode might find the show’s unseen, fake documentarians stringing together scenes from a workweek where the construction of a multi-building aquatic center is given the same weight as the composition of the London games’ four-second “audio logo,” another narrows the focus to a harried afternoon aboard a directionless bus. Serving as the continuity glue to this episodic approach are the members of Morton’s cast, who nail the quirks and tics of their characters within the series’ first conference-room scene and continue to dig deeper into those characters as the series rolls on. And while all of the onscreen action occurs on the job, Morton is wise to include links to the outside world via the principals’ ever-present cell phones, which provide hints about their home lives (backgrounding those quirks and tics by extension) without stealing too much attention from the task of, say, making sure Olympic swimmers have a place to swim that pleases the architect who designed it—without disturbing potentially historic archaeological findings. Ian and company are gold medalists in compromise as well as competency.
They could stand to have a little more space between themselves and Tenant’s voiceovers, however. Rather than choosing either narration or talking-head confessionals to provide the series’ below-the-surface information, Twenty Twelve goes with both, forcing a show whose mere premise is bristling with energy to fly into the occasional manic fit. It’s nice that the show’s energy level can match its machine-gun patter, perpetually ringing phones, and “get it done yesterday” storylines, but it makes for some exhausting passages within the first three episodes. The third episode brings Tenant’s role closer to that of Ron Howard’s Arrested Development narrator, but elsewhere, he’s intrusive.
Twenty Twelve does a clever bit of stage-setting (and copyright dodging) by putting so much emphasis on the year the London Olympics will take place. Morton is obviously attuned to the apocalyptic connotations of 2012 A.D., and like people who’ve read far too much into the calendar-making skills of the ancient Mayans, the characters of Twenty Twelve fear and await that ominous-sounding 12-month period in equal measure. In grand comic tradition, disaster is waiting around every corner, and it’s up to the Deliverance Commission (a name that has its own larger-than-life connotations) to not be the runner who stumbles at the starting line, the cyclist who takes a spill and ends up wiping out half the field of competitors. Like the sporting events Morton’s characters are helping to stage, it’s easy to see this job as a life-or-death situation. In many ways, that makes it easier for his team to deliver a quality comedy—and just in the nick of time.
- BBC America has chosen a curious strategy for broadcasting the two seasons of Twenty Twelve—the first three episodes air tonight, before the show moves to its regular timeslot, Saturdays at midnight, where the remaining episodes will air beginning June 30.
- Olivia Colman breaks my heart as Ian’s doting assistant, Sally: She’s clearly in love with her boss, if unrequited love can be measured in giant sandwiches and slices of chocolate fridge cake (the latter being some sort of fudgy dessert favored by the Brits). As for Nick Jellet (Vincent Franklin), the other Deliverance Commission staffer not mentioned above: He’s as interesting as an accountant ought to be.