It’s still funny, but this was where it stopped being funny.
The Thick of It is composed of many things, but cynicism, outrage, anger and disgust are very high on the list of ingredients in the same way that tuna is high on the list when you’re making a tuna casserole. There’s no point in saying that it wouldn’t be quite the same without them, because it just wouldn’t be without them. It’s exactly the same as YesMinister, only completely different: you laugh not only because the jokes are funny but because, not very deeply inside you, you believe that this is exactly what it is really like, only it’s a lot safer confined to 28 minutes and 50 seconds on BBC2 once a week.
The point is that this is supposed to be just that bit exaggerated, a little bit OTT or even mildly surreal, real life taken that bit further than it’s gone this particular Wednesday, so you can maintain the polite fiction to yourself that it is exaggerated and it’s not as bad as this really.
And three episodes like this hit you in the face, one after another, slap, slap, slap, until you’re seeing stars like in some old Tom and Jerry cartoon, and you connect this which was fiction in 2012 with what you see and hear about you in 2023, and it stops being so fucking funny after all.
Things have changed. In Life, as in Art, there’s been a change of Government. Let’s make no bones about it, the Tories are in power now, propped up by the Liberal Democrats (for whom I voted in that Election and never will again: this is personal). The old ‘gang’ has broken up, with Glenn Cullen and Terri Coverley still at DoSAC, working under the new split regime alongside the new masters, Roger Mannion, Stewart, Emma and Phil, whilst Nicola Murray is somehow Leader of the Opposition, with Ollie in her camp and Malcolm Tucker still fucker-in-chief. We flip-flop back and forth between the two camps, Labour in episodes 2 and 4, Tory in between like they got the first episode of the series.
There’s a disconnect here, one of the few places where Ianucci & Co have elided the hard bit, the bit that the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine scripters left out because it was too hard, because over her two episodes we see how shitty Murray is as Leader, ridden by nerves, indecisiveness, insincerity and a blindingly obvious lack of competence that sees her defenestrated in episode 4 and not a moment too soon, but given that she was exactly the same in series 3, how the hell did she get the job in the first place? Plausibility gap the size of the Grand Canyon.
How it’s done to her, the complexity of the plotting that co-opts Ben Swain and simultaneously clears him out of the way to procure the coronation of the sinister smoothie Dan Miller, is all very good. The personal responses of everyone involved, especially Murray herself, are brilliantly expressed. But how she got there to be toppled is the hole in the doughbut for which not custard, not chocolate nor oversweet strawberry jam is even suggested.
In between, we get the brusque, tired, put upon Peter Mannion, DoSAC Minister, giving up his Bank Holiday to attend one of guru Stewart Pearson’s ‘Thought Camps’. Mannion’s the good guy in all this. He might be a Tory, and no-one conceals that, but he’s Ken Clarke to everybody else’s Cameron-and-Osborne. He’s common sense and plain speaking, he’s the hunan being in the room and he’s the living representative of our reaction to Stewart, the one really seriously despicable figure in all this with his bullshit speak and thinking. But he’s a Tory, just like Clarke was and still is a Tory.
And they get the stinking tragedy, the man made homeless by Governent policies who commits suicide by exhaust poisoning the day they’re coming to evict him from his tent. Only Glenn Cullen reacts as you’d hope you would react, sseeing this as a human being, a person destroyed. It’s a cold moment that hits foursquare because up to now the reality of the man’s position has been obscured, deliberately, by giving him a funny name that everyone pronounces like one of tthe Mr Men.
It’s real, it’s bitter, it’s funny, but that’s the problem. The real thing has gotten out of hand. It isn’t funny. It’s the very reverse of funny. And it takes The Thick of It with it today.