If you were to make a chart of British influence upon the United States, a start at around 100 percent on the morning of Lexington and Concord would drift relentlessly towards the bottom right corner over time, except in one regard — television. From American Idol to The Office to Trading Spaces to Prime Suspect to America’s Got Talent to Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, our appetite for concepts coined in London remains positively colonial.
As some sort of sop to national pride, these efforts are made over in our own image of course, with new performers, writers, and creators (occasional hold-over viceroys like Simon Cowell and Piers Morgan slip in). And, in a fair segment of opinion, including my own, these transatlantic imitations generally result in as satisfactory a replication of entertainment quality as New London, Connecticut’s replication of its namesake’s urban charms.
HBO’s Veep, which ran last Spring on HBO, took an unusual and encouraging tack for one of these import remakes, in retaining both the creator and several of the writers of its UK predecessor, and it proved surprisingly seaworthy. That being said, it is, of course, Not As Good As The Original. Veep is reliably entertaining; the original series, The Thick of It is hilarious. And now advancing into its fourth season on Hulu.
Described by its creator, UK humor impresario Armando Ianucci as “Yes Minister meets Larry Sanders”, The Thick of It offers all the venality of the former combined with, well, all the venality of the latter, and a vein of rampant obscenity richer than the rand. Set in a meaningless UK government ministry, the Department of Social Affairs and Citizenship, during the implied Blair, Brown, and Cameron years (how much like an employee benefits law firm they sound!) it offers a mordant satire of contemporary politics and its relentless consumption with the inanity of public relations. If, like me, you choke on the venerable pieties of The West Wing, or if you merely think that Veep characters are a little under-read, this is a series for you.
The first episode opens, within the minute mark, with Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi), the Prime Minister’s communications head, describing someone “as useless as a marzipan dildo.” By minute three, Tucker’s peremptorily informed the present minister that he’s sacked, and that “I’ve booked you in for the usual soapy tit-wank farewell at number ten.” And we’re off on a journey of startlingly versatile obscenity.
Such is the hilarious routine of the series, with the department’s concerns, a laundry-list of the lowest tier of Blairite (and now Cameronian) third way thinking proving fodder for endless internecine squabbles and PR imbroglios. There’s the “fourth sector partnership”… “a national registry of really extraordinary ordinary people.” There’s “Arts for Hearts and Minds” a program, to, alternately, either route troubled youth into arts programs, or away from them (depending on what the department finds palatable). Considerations? “If we are going to spend taxpayers’ money putting violent thugs into productions of the fucking Cherry Orchard we are going to get crucified.”
Modern political PR, in an age of immediate hostile parsing and scrutiny, is rendered less a platform for winning hearts and minds than a minefield brimming with disaster at every turn of phrase, edited soundbite, and parsed quotation. When later in the series the new minister Nicola Murray (Rebecca Front) announces that the PM is the “right man for the job” she sets off a flurry of speculation that she’s advancing herself for the leadership job. Enter, as ever, Malcom Tucker, and exchanges such as
“Are you lying to me now about not lying to me before?”
“I categorically did not knowingly not tell the truth even though unknowingly I might not have done.”
That and “You couldn’t organize a bum rape in a barracks.”
In a series drawn remarkably deftly overall, there’s simply nothing to rival the comic creation of the Prime Minister’s head of communications, Malcolm Tucker. Spend a few moments with Tucker and you’ll realize that Veep is lacking an explosive and craggy comic anchor. Seemingly modeled on Tony Blair’s press secretary Alistair Campbell (although said by Ianucci to be inspired by Harvey Weinstein), Tucker is a volcanic scotch colossus of obscenity, and frequently for the viewer, the problems requiring his fulminating attention are endless. The internet is full of “top ten Malcolm Tucker quotations” lists, and here are a few samples:
“Wise words from the distinguished elderly gay fucking tennis coach.”
“He’ll fuck you harder than Ron Jeremy, and with less warmth.”
“I’ve got more on my plate than a spinster at a wedding – sorry, that wasn’t a reference to your daughter, by the way, Andrew.”
“I know that she’s in the cabinet but that’s like being disabled at a football match I mean, she’s very close to the action but hardly likely to score a goal. How is that offensive?”
“You took the data loss media strategy, and you ate it with a lump of e coli, then you sprayed it out your ass at 300 miles per hour.”
“You breathe a word of this to anyone, you mincing fucking cunt, and I will tear your fucking skin off, I will wear it to your mother’s birthday party, and I will rub your nut up and down her leg whilst whistling fucking Bohemian rhapsody, right?”
The show boils even between these explosions, with humor both erudite and earthy, from “I don’t want to come across all Mr. Gradgrind but that is your job, isn’t it?” to “So consequently I’m going to be a minor footnote in British political history because I didn’t have an engaging enough anecdote about Charlotte Church’s puppies.”
Mulling over killing Malcolm Tucker, Abbot wonders “What about the old red hot poker up the ass. Edward the second?”
The ravenous British press, the other side of the media-crazed equation, comes in for superb rendering. A columnist, early on, refers to the minister as “the political equivalent of the house wine at a suburban Indian restaurant.” Dialogue continually reflects the perceived wolves beyond the gates. “I thought maybe not The Mail; they might be nice to your face then brand you a man-hating Euro-slag.” “Unfortunately, I heard that that so-called cartoonist is going to be there, you know, the one who drew a picture of you smothering the dove of peace with your breasts.” Of course, when the minister slips out of a meeting to email to email an employee “Christ alive. What a cunt!” and accidentally writes to an eight-year-old, these situations will pile up.
One of the great strengths of the series is that while its situations seem straight out of the realm of caricature, its characters do not. Characters do, at times, register genuine consciences. Abbott resists supporting government efforts to integrate disabled children into conventional schools; Murray struggles to retain normal relations with her wife and family amidst endless debacle. Even the initial Conservative shadow minister-then-minister Peter Mannion (played by eponymous character actor Roger Allam) comes off, as, if something of a toff, at least a relatively sympathetic one. In his endless squabbles with an advisor striving after Cameron-like soft rebranding, it’s Mannion’s fustiness that comes out ahead. Advised to keep his “shirt outside the trousers” to loosen up his image, Mannion replies:
Outside? Not tuck my shirt in? I always tuck my shirt in. It’s part of getting dressed. What, should I not do my flies up either? Let the old chap flop out? Is that modern enough for you?