The Thick Of It starts playing with its format as its gets deeper into its third season, particularly calling on Malcolm to be more than the attack dog we love by pretending to be nice in the third episode (after “accidentally” assaulting Glenn) and actually being vaguely nice in the fourth episode. As I mentioned in last week’s review, there’s a lot more to his relationship with Nicola than there ever was with Hugh. Because this is a show that runs on the jaded, shriveled hearts of most of its characters, it’s risky to go to more touchy-feely territory, but the writers manage it without getting at all gooey.
Before we get to anything touchy-feely, the third episode of the third season is more of a straight farce—set at the party conference (like the Democratic/Republican National Conventions, except annual and even duller)—where we watch Malcolm steal Nicola’s anointed heroine of the year and then find her too much of a handful for the Prime Minister. The hotel setting makes for an even more claustrophobic feeling than usual—all the action takes place in hallways or Glenn’s room, where his tiny “nano-kettle” makes everyone feel like giants. At one point, Malcolm drags an idiotic party worker into a bathroom to berate him, but gets frustrated at the lack of space for pacing.
We’re also given our first real look at how the Internet is dominating the news cycle. In “Spinners And Losers,” as the Mail tries to figure out what to put on page one, it’s hard not to think how differently things are done just a few years later. Malcolm can mostly corral the media apparatus, but blogging and Twitter (which he seems relatively unaware of) have expanded the journalistic universe beyond anyone’s control. He’s using it to his advantage by the end of the episode, but it’s still interesting to see the show evolve with the times.
Glenn still remains blissfully behind the times (he screws up the printing of Nicola’s speech), and everyone gets very worried if he’s even near an electronic device. But he does stick to the old-fashioned notion of honor after Malcolm steals heroic (and slightly cranky) widow Julie and torpedoes their plans. Sure, it doesn’t work, but it’s nice to see Glenn stick up for himself because Ollie shrinks in Malcolm’s presence and all Nicola can do is lock herself in the bathroom or scream “FUCK MALCOLM FUCK MALCOLM” over and over.
The funniest thing about this episode (aside from the blissfully moronic one-shot character John Duggan, who is “depriving a village of a twat,” according to Nicola) is that things end rather well—Nicola’s speech lacks jokes, but it goes over nicely, and Malcolm convinces the press that he and bloody Glenn are pals. When you think about The Thick Of It, as chaotic as things get in an individual episode, that’s usually the end result: Things are sorted out and people are mostly happy, or at least safe in their jobs for another week. Sure, they had to do horrible things to achieve that success, but it’s funny how often the result is in Malcolm and DOSAC’s favor.
The same goes for the next episo, which revisits the topic of Nicola’s 11-year-old daughter, who was sent to the local comprehensive school rather than a private school for PR purposes. Now the drama of the situation is laid on a little thick: Nicola’s daughter has transformed into a full-fledged bully and is facing expulsion inside of her first semester. It’s perhaps unfair to the English public-education system to portray things so simply, but the show can just about get away with it because we don’t know what area of the city Nicola represents. Because she’s obviously an MP in London, it’s plausible that she represents a tougher area with less choice—the example that springs to mind is Diane Abbott and for all I know the storyline is directly inspired by the controversy that surrounded her.
Nicola’s family drama rears its head as her opposition counterpart (the much-missed Peter Mannion) and his staff plan a visit to DOSAC to measure the drapes, as it were. News of Nicola’s wayward daughter is spreading like wildfire, but no one can use it because it would come off as petty and personal, although Peter’s “blue sky” PR fool Stewart is doing his best to figure out how to leak it anyway. The return of the opposition is very welcome, and their interaction with the DOSAC bunch gives us some fun match-ups: Malcolm tears poor quivering Phil a new ass over Nicola’s daughter, while Peter tries to exploit Terri’s obvious crush on him for information (but she’s even more out-of-the-loop than usual).
With the explicit Mannion screensavers, Glenn and Ollie running around like giggling children, and Phil’s laughable “implementation matrix,” this could be an even more farcical episode, but Nicola’s situation plays out with a little more subtlety in an excellent showdown with Malcolm. Sure, he’s deploying the usual mix of bullying, intimidation, and rousing war talk to get Nicola to come around to his way of thinking, but there’s a sense that he really believes the bill of goods he’s selling about Nicola being a fellow soldier and Peter being the enemy.
Even though we just saw Peter pledge not to use Nicola’s troubles against her (and he was clearly being honest there), Nicola resolves just one scene later to hit him wherever it hurts, because that’s the only way she can survive and get things done. Or so she has convinced herself. Malcolm dangles the carrot (Nicola can move her daughter to a private school, but quietly) along with the stick and everyone ends up with what they want. But Nicola’s rant about Malcolm’s obsession with conflict (an obsession the other side certainly shares) preventing any kind of real political change has already been forgotten, even though it was right on the money. Malcolm has won the battle, but it’s really just so he can live to fight another battle, and another after that.
- Nicola doesn’t want to come across as “Mrs. Sour Power Vinegar Tits sucking on a lemon.”
- John says he’s just following orders and does a Hitler salute: “Just in a non-gassy way. You’re not Jewish, are you?”
- “This is politics as it is, isn’t it? It’s The West Wing!” “You’re not Josh, Ollie.” Nice jab at how obsessed with that show British political nerds are.
- Glenn and Nicola eat battered sausages on the beach: “That is literally mashed-up Dalmatian head and sawdust, you know that?”
- Malcolm has an even better nickname for Nicola—“Where’s Dame Ellen McArseache?,”and a good one for Mannion, too: “I know about your fucking meeting with that aging flamenco guitarist.”
- Stewart “imagineers” scenarios where they can hit Nicola on the daughter issue: “Knowledge is porridge.” “Oh Jesus Christ, Stewart, that doesn’t even fucking rhyme.”
- Malcolm’s rant against Phil is a thing of beauty: “I would rain down upon you so hard, you’d have to be reassembled by fucking air-crash investigators.” I also like him calling Phil a “mincing, fucking cunt.”