Thursday, September 13, 2012

Culture Shock 09.13.12: 'Thick of It' is back with some more bite

After spending the previous season as a supporting player — and in the opposition — it is Peter Mannion's time to shine.

Peter Capaldi as Malcolm Tucker in "The Thick of It."
And if you believe that, you're alone because not even Peter, the new minister for the fictitious Department of Social Affairs and Citizenship, believes that.

The parties change, but the challenges and humiliations of government remain the same as the wickedly brilliant British political satire "The Thick of It" returns for a fourth season, following a three-year hiatus. And this year, for the first time, it's also airing in the U.S.

New episodes appear on Hulu on Sundays, and if you want to catch up with previous seasons, Hulu, which is co-producing the new season along with BBC Two, has those as well.

Stuck leading a worthless department staffed with civil servants who would just as soon be laid off, and having to share power with a junior minister from another party, Peter (Roger Allam) has been put out to pasture. He's a relic of the 1980s, with '80s suits, '80s hair and '80s ideas.

That especially puts Peter at odds with the prime minister's modern, tie-hating, chai-drinking PR man, Stewart (Vincent Franklin), whose chipper Zen exterior conceals a cutthroat political operative.

In the previous season, Peter was about the closest thing "The Thick of It" had to a sympathetic character, but now that he's in power — such as it is — he's more bitter than ever.

The political situation echoes the current real-life climate in Great Britain, where the government is composed of an increasingly fractious coalition of Tories and Liberal Democrats, while Labour labors in opposition.

That means Peter also must deal with Fergus (Geoffrey Streatfield), a junior minister from the coalition party. And their rivalry gets even more heated when Peter is instructed to launch Fergus' new initiative, which requires Peter going to a school.

"I hate schoolchildren," is Peter's response. "They're volatile and stupid and they don't have the vote." That's Peter: ever practical.

It goes without saying that things go disastrously wrong from there, with fantastic results for us.

Shot in documentary style, "The Thick of It" is a cross between "The Office" and the 1980s British comedy "Yes, Prime Minister," and it relies as heavily on improvisation as it does the snappy scripted dialogue of series creator Armando Iannucci (HBO's "Veep") and his writing team.

Allam, who as others have noted seems to be channeling the late Christopher Hitchens with his performance, is in particularly top form.

Now if you've already been following "The Thick of It," or you've seen the equally hilarious spin-off film "In the Loop" (available on Netflix instant) you'll notice one character has been conspicuously absent so far — the foul-mouthed political shark Malcolm Tucker.

That's because Malcolm (Peter Capaldi) is conspicuously absent from the season four debut. But just because the former prime minister's public-relations mastermind and party-line enforcer is out of power doesn't mean he's out of mind. And the preview for this weekend's second episode shows us that Malcolm is scheming to get back into Number 10. But first he must deal with the opposition's new, unlikely party leader, Nicola (Rebecca Front), whom we last saw as the previous head of the Department of Social Affairs and Citizenship.

If Nicola was in over her head as minister of a minor department, then as party leader — well, you can guess. And sharks prey on the weak.

Besides, it wouldn't really be "The Thick of It" without Malcolm calling people names I can't repeat here.

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