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The Thick of It

Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi) testifying in a parliamentary inquiry in The Thick of It
(Des Willie, © BBC 2012)

With its debut in 2005—the year before Oliver fled to the other Chelsea—The Thick of It, a British series created by Armando Iannucci, set Bristish political satire on a new path. More than politics, The Thick of It is a show about what it’s like to work for the government, which makes it a very political show indeed. The stage is Britain’s Ministry of Social Affairs, here imagined as a futile office-scape haunted by the prime minister’s black-tongued henchman, Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi), a spin master who appears to subsist on his underlings’ stress pheromones. Inspired by Yes Minister, which, according to Iannucci, “felt like a documentary to a lot of people,” The Thick of It recalls the everyday annihilations and documentary styling of The Office. The show’s unapologetic depiction of its venal milieu also makes the case that British satire has evolved past the familiar jabs and quick-dissolve ironies of news parody.

The show’s first episode established a wobbly vérité style—what a 2012 New Yorker profile of Iannucci called “screwball naturalism”—inextricable from its subject matter. One minister is out and another, Hugh Abbott (Chris Langham), abruptly in. Abbott’s first task as minister turns out to be his only one: maintaining face, at all costs, vis-à-vis the press. “I’m not quite sure what level of reality I’m supposed to be operating on,” Abbott mutters, responding to Malcolm’s plan to eliminate, both from the record and from real life, a public relations gaffe. Malcolm clarifies in his customary, disgusted Highland style: “I tell [the press] that you said it, they believe that you said it—they don’t really believe you said it; they know that you never said it—but it’s in their interest to say that you said it, because if they don’t say that you said it, they’re not going to get what you say tomorrow or the next day, when I decide to tell them what it is you’re saying.”

The world of The Thick of It is hapless, the people in it filled with contempt—for each other, for the press, for the voting public, for themselves, trapped in pointless times. On this level of reality, in other words, satire looks a lot like public life. When Dickens turned from political journalism to politically informed fiction, he developed a social realist aesthetic that suited the stories and ideas of his time. In a post-empire, late-capitalist show like The Thick of It, social realism is the domain of satire—and the realer it is, the more satiric the effect. The players’ ceaseless rococo swearing intensifies the sense of a political theater profaned, soiled, in the ideological red. (Every now and then, watching The Thick of It, I’d recall its BBC origins and think: England really is awesome.) The swearing is also pretty funny, a basic amusement in a show that otherwise replaces laughs with clenched discomfiture. There is nothing agreeable about Iannucci’s satire, nothing inviting or cathartic. Ragged in conceit, the show is startling in execution and effect, in its stubborn, lingering unease. This is train-wreck comedy, entrancing but not entirely pleasurable, less about expansive belly laughs than choking noises escaping from the throat.

The debut of Veep, Iannucci’s attempt to translate his brand of political satire for an American audience, was the occasion of his New Yorker profile. Less of an ensemble piece than The Thick of It, Veep gives its titular star, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, the opportunity to explore the darker humors of the screwball queen she has perfected over the better part of two decades on network television. The show is set in the office of Vice President Selina Meyer, where maintaining the illusion of power requires most of Selina and her staff’s energy. The episodic plots find a policy or public relations endeavor generating small and then progressively greater embarrassments, each one pointing to Selina’s inability—whether through lack of skill or influence, but mostly influence—to get things done. As in The Thick of It, the country’s leader is a shadow presence, much referenced, often pejoratively (I doubt he would answer to “spineless, flip-floppy fuckbag”), but never seen.

Veep, like The Thick of It, seeks a gut resonance with reality. The earlier show was successful, Iannucci has said, because “this representation somehow does connect with what goes on.” The Veep team (whose executive producers include journalist and DC native Frank Rich) stresses the research that went into the show’s re-creation of government offices—inside knowledge gained through tours and consultancies. The furniture, the floor plan, the lingo—“body man” this and “pencil-fucked” that—are meant to evoke in the viewer a sense of the real thing. On a commentary track of the Veep season-one DVD, a producer describes the importance of ensuring that the show’s characters live in a highly credible world. The one-to-one production design is meant to de-glamorize Washington, to cleanse the imagination of an audience fattened for years on The West Wing and other tales of Camelot.

Especially in its first season, Veep feels a little lost in this quest for verisimilitude. The consultant-approved curses land at awkward angles; Iannucci’s signature tone struggles for traction. Though it may get the layout right, Veep relies on the gag of vice president as political neuter—an old Washington joke that has gotten few laughs in recent years. Accurate or not, the concept is steep, the show’s stakes elusive. The Thick of It attempts to mirror British politics, incorporating into its last season the election of a coalition government. In the world of Veep, there are no Republicans or Democrats, only political creatures behaving politically. That its relatively light comedy aims not just to entertain but resonate with viewers, connect with what goes on, puts Veep at a loss, in part because Iannucci’s social-realism–as-satire depends on something ineffable in order to succeed—a kind of cultural affinity, a general willingness, still unpalatable to Americans, to accept in depictions of contemporary politics the level of reality (or irreality) that comes closest to the arid truth.

HBO co-president Richard Plepler told The New Yorker that for Veep Iannucci “softened the voice a little bit, through irony.” The executives had pushed for a more sympathetic lead character—a politician the audience could root for, a woman with clout, dignity, deeply held beliefs. Louis-Dreyfus went on to win two Emmys for playing Selina Meyer, and HBO has renewed Veep for a third season. Despite their different registers, Iannucci has sent transatlantic echoes through his shows: “We’ve been here for three years and we’ve done fuck all,” one of the minister’s policy advisers complains in a 2012 episode of The Thick of It. “In that time Apple have launched two iPhones, three iPads—and their boss is a fucking dead guy.” Early in Veep’s second season, Selina’s chief of staff (Anna Chlumsky) gets burned by her little sister: “You work for the vice president,” the sister sneers. “It’s not like it’s Google.” Corporate power makes a paper merchant of Western government, and paper-airplane folders of public servants. Because it brings this predicament to such relentless life, the British show is by far the bleaker. There are limits to Veep’s realism, and therefore to its satire. Compared with the plaque-colored world of The Thick of It, this Washington still glisters.

Iannucci’s 2009 film In the Loop brings Malcolm Tucker to an alternate DC, where he and the British minister of international development become pawns of the American war machine. In the Loop depicts the political process—specifically the US case for the 2003 invasion of Iraq—as a product of accident and ego. Iannucci imagines the forces that conspired to pass the Iraq War resolution as utterly pedestrian, and global politics as a game of power and status familiar to anyone who has jostled for position in a sandbox or conference room. The State Department’s plotting is vague and vaguely inevitable, and like a lewd rumor the prospect of war takes on a life independent of reason or recourse. Odious talking points pass between fretful diplomats; the Brits discover their own irrelevance. A general played by James Gandolfini emasculates Tucker, mocking the UK’s dwindling power and influence, and the insult is shown to have a decisive effect, leading Britain into war on what is, essentially, a dare.

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