Foul Play: The Thick of It—Series 4

FILM, Home Video
New to DVD: Now into its fourth series, Armando Iannucci’s foul-mouthed political satire still bites.

I came to Series 4 of The Thick of It as someone who had seen a few early episodes, and liked what I’d seen, but had never been a fan. Having now watched the seven episodes from Season 4, it is my firm intention to dig out the other DVD sets from my collection to see exactly how we got here. I don’t think it deserves the superlatives I’ve seen others offer, but Armando Iannucci’s The Thick of It is a substantially above average comedy with sting, recommended for those with a taste for satire and a tolerance of foul language.

The BBC perfected the “creatively insulting boss” genre with the masterful first series of Lenny Henry’s Chef! in 1993 (released in a box set last year). Liberal use of the f-word (and an R16 rating, against Chef!’s PG) appears welcomed by many fans of the show I know, and it is creatively used, but also seems to detract from the content on occasion. While the show isn’t a shock comedy, at times it feels like it is trying to be one.

The Thick of It follows the laudable British practice of intermittent series release. The idea that you shouldn’t write anything if you haven’t anything to say seems especially pertinent to satire, and The Thick of It benefits from the new political environment shaking things up. Two series consisting of three episodes each were released in 2005, followed by two one-hour specials in January and July 2007 (at the time of Tony Blair’s replacement by Gordon Brown), and a third series of eight episodes in 2009 (leading up to the election). This fourth season deals with the power dynamics of a coalition government, with Malcolm Tucker and his party—after three seasons in government—firmly entrenched in Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition.

I suspect there is something to be gained from having watched the earlier seasons before starting this one, but each series is very much a product of its time, so unfamiliarity—particularly when they dealt with different political environments—shouldn’t stop you from seeing this latest one. It may be that you need to be ensconced in the British political system to fully appreciate all the barbs, but even those with little knowledge of the current political environment can enjoy the writing, and the perverse interactions of the characters.

For someone who had only seen intermittent episodes, Peter Capaldi’s Malcolm Tucker character seemed to be the heart of the show. The first episode of the fourth season downplays him considerably, focusing on the new government. Unfortunately, his government counterpart, Stewart Pearson, is a much weaker character, annoying not only to other characters on the screen (especially Minister Peter Mannion, a substantial improvement over the early seasons’ Hugh Abott), but to viewers as well. The focus turns to the opposition in the second episode, and following episodes alternate between those focusing on the government and then the opposition. It’s a study in contrasts, which both works, and doesn’t, as the episodes focused on the opposition are simply stronger.

Just as Yes, Prime Minister (having fallen into the trap of placing greater emphasis than the earlier Yes, Minister on the same character traits, and variations of the same jokes) found its strongest episodes were those that were plot-driven, the fourth season of The Thick of It hits its stride when things actually happen. The plot-lines around the leadership of the opposition, which form the central core of the to-be-continued fourth episode and the latter half of the season, are interesting and important in ways that repeated ministerial incompetence over largely inconsequential matters aren’t.

The creative peak of the fourth season is the hour-long episode six. Added to the season while it was being filmed, it takes place entirely in the hearing room of a Leveson-esque enquiry into Government leaking, with the dialogue solely in the form of the enquiry’s proceedings, and sets up some important plot-lines for the final episode, as well as a future season or special should one come.

There is a good selection of extras, with a focus on audio commentaries. I only sampled the commentaries, but it seems likely that those interested in the behind the scenes will gain a bit from listening to them. A mix of participants provides commentaries on each episode, with a bonus second commentary on the first episode.

A selection of deleted scenes (presented as a single block on each disc, relating to that disc’s episodes) appears as well, frequently showcasing the writing abilities of the actors, who sometimes provide multiple ad lib attempts at the varied insults the show is best known for, and reminiscent in style of the exceptional live episodes The Drew Carey Show aired throughout its run. It is unfortunate that more of the supposed two-hour long first cut of the enquiry episode isn’t included, but what is there is worth a look.

DVD Info + Special Features
BBC/Roadshow (NZ$39.95)
Region 4 PAL
1.78:1 Aspect Ratio (16:9)
2-Disc Set
Audio Commentaries
Deleted Scenes
Graeme Edgeler writes on proportional representation and other political topics at acclaimed Public Address blog Leagle Beagle.