When thinking of ways to describe British sitcoms, the inevitable word that comes to mind is “broad.” Subtlety is rarely on the menu. If someone’s going to do a funny walk, they will more than likely do a series of ridiculous saunters, gallops, prances, and foxtrots to the delight of a hysterical studio audience. But in this age of self-reflexive single camera comedies, the devil’s in the details. Ricky Gervais’ Office may have allowed room for spectacularly awkward set pieces, but it more often placed its bets on heavy silences laden with subtext and blink-and-you-miss-it reaction shots. It winked less than it peeled back corners, allowing the audience just enough room to glimpse the ennui underneath. It was no surprise, then, when Gervais let his feelings on the Britcom’s evolution out through a biting parody on Extras. “When the Whistle Blows” was portrayed as an aggressively wacky working class sitcom that relied on wigs and catchphrases (“Are you ‘avin a laugh?”), a deliberately soul-sucking exercise for a writer who takes pride in finding humor in more nuanced places.
The IT Crowd has no illusions about being subtle, nor does it have any aspirations to be. But as previously discussed, it does have some level of self-awareness regarding its place in the Wacky Britcom canon, delighting in taking conventions past the point of believability into a full-on three ring circus. Sometimes, as with “Calamity Jen” and “Fifty-Fifty,” the heightened circumstances works like gangbusters. Other times, it takes a swing at parody and ends up squarely in “When the Whistle Blows” territory. This week’s pair of episodes represents a confusing combination of both.
“The Haunting of Bill Crouse” (season one, episode five; originally aired 2/24/2006)
The setup of “The Haunting of Bill Crouse” is a familiar one. Jen goes on a bad date with a gross co-worker and enlists the IT guys to fend him off he should come looking for her. It’s been well established at this point that Jen has no trouble lying (mostly because she has the most trouble telling the truth), and Roy doesn’t register anything that won’t affect him directly so he can’t be bothered to care. But Moss, as the requisite character who is terrible at lying, immediately goes into a tailspin. When Bill Crouse comes by looking for Jen, he only barely manages to stammer out “she’s dead” between panic attacks. This sets the stage for a series of misunderstandings that sends Jen into her own office wake, Moss down a reluctant path of further deceit, and probably, Bill Crouse into therapy.
There are several great images from “The Haunting of Bill Crouse,” all fittingly tied to Jen and the titular haunting. A supposedly dead Jen whips down a hallway on a shopping cart and screams into Bill Crouse’s office; she crashes her own wake to the horror of her grieving coworkers and an Elton John impersonator; she stands outside Crouse’s house in the rain and begs to come in as he shrieks in terror. The episode’s a great opportunity for Katherine Parkinson to show off Jen’s entire personality, from nervously optimistic on her date, to overjoyed at finally being recognized, to bluntly furious at Crouse’s (and Moss’) nerve. Richard Ayoade also does the most with his rather thin part propelling Jen’s story forward, particularly Moss’ exasperation with his own web of lies (“sure, why not”).
But otherwise, “The Haunting of Bill Crouse” doesn’t quite go far enough to qualify as a parody of the misunderstandings we’ve seen a thousand times before. Where other episodes have pulled out a last minute twist or flipped a convention on its head, Jen’s supposed death never goes anywhere that unexpected. It also suffers from “you’d have to have been there” jokes, the ones that feel like they killed in the writers’ room (or in The IT Crowd’s case, Linehan’s head) but never quite land in reality, as when Crouse keeps telling people he was the last person to have slept with Jen. Add in Roy’s frankly embarrassing storyline of trying to get a date with an attractive woman only to end up with a snaggle-toothed stalker straight out of a campfire story, and “The Haunting of Bill Crouse” feels less like what The IT Crowd is capable of and more like a day in the life of When the Whistle Blows.
“Aunt Irma Visits” (season one, episode six; originally aired 3/3/2006)
But suddenly, we’re already at the first season finale! British television, ladies and gentlemen.
On the surface, there’s really no reason why “Aunt Irma Visits” should work better than “The Haunting of Bill Crouse.” Its premise is even more cliché, tackling Jen’s period and the guys’ discomfort with such Lady Problems. Jen’s “symptoms” make the office a living nightmare, especially when they transfer over to Roy and Moss (and apparently Richmond, though it’s rather hard to tell). Feelings are hurt, tears are shed, masculinity is threatened, etcetera and so on.
For the most part, though, “Aunt Irma” works where “Bill Crouse” doesn’t simply because it takes everything one step further, using exaggeration to satirize shows that obliviously tear down those cah-razy women. So Jen isn’t just moody on her period; she’s a literal fire-breathing monster. The IT basement isn’t the only place Jen’s hormones affect; the entire IT community of maladjusted men goes out of its squirrely mind. Roy and Moss don’t just try to cheer Jen up; they throw on robes and towel turbans and watch the hell out of some Beaches.
But even while “Aunt Irma” is as cartoonish as The IT Crowd gets, it also has a surprisingly rich undercurrent of emotional payoff. Denholm praising everyone but the IT department for the company’s improved computer system is great fun as a monologue of sorts for Chris Morris, but it ends on the most melancholy note to date. Jen looks sadly into the crowd, at the celebration that could have been hers, and protests, “but we did all the work!” Then, when Roy pokes at Monster!Jen to find out what’s wrong, she deflates and admits that she just misses having friends. Roy and Moss may spend much of the episode working through their horror at experiencing Aunt Irma (or “falling to the Communists,” as it were), but they also try to help Jen feel more comfortable by assuring her she has friends in them. It’s almost sweet, really.
This season was never going to end on “sweet,” though, and so we get one last gag sequence for the road. The IT department, drunk and giggly, crashes an office party and pair off on the dance floor. Roy and Jen make it their mission to get blackout drunk while Moss gets busy with his former psychiatrist, who’s also a dead ringer for Roy’s mother. Then, as was inevitable, everyone wakes up in unfamiliar places in a haze of boozy regret and total horror. Jen ending up with Moss and Roy with his mother’s doppelganger would be twisty enough. But it’s the “To be continued…” card that truly underlines the cheekiness of this finale. It’s clear even before the second season confirms it that these stories will never be continued, and that’s okay. Ironically, “to be continued” signals the end of any attempt at serialization. The IT Crowd is officially a live-action cartoon from here on out, and we’ll be in good hands as long as it commits to skewering clichés rather than indulging them.
- Update: I originally had "Denholm with Richmond" in the string of morning-afters before it was pointed out to me that this happens right after "To Be Continued." But the winking "this ultimately doesn't matter, we're just going to move right along" aspect is still very much at play there, so I stand by my original point.
- Whatever, Jen. Smarties cereal sounds delicious.
- “Elton John’s” tribute to Small Paul is touching, really: “You're no longer around, you're in the ground / We're all the same height when we're lying down…”
- Related: “…I don’t think that’s Elton John.”
- I come from a long line of food hoarders (my uncle once reflexively stabbed my aunt’s hand with a fork when she tried to taste his food), but I would have stormed out on a dude who refused to share his tapas plates.
- The voice modulator they use for Monster!Jen is particularly great when she’s calming down: “Well, I try to stay in shape, you know.”
- That all being said: has anyone in the history of ever referred to her period as “Aunt Irma”?
- Next week: we dive into the second season and leave the basement for a much-anticipated “Work Outing,” featuring musicals, wheelchairs, and Shenanigans (capital S very much necessary).