Much like the life of man or woman, brilliant comedies have three distinct stages: the astonishing, witty and original first series, which gleefully burns comedic stale tropes at the stake and dances round them laughing and naked; the second/third series in which the humorous zenith is scaled and it stands aloft a blustery peak, emanating a guttural roar of feral triumphalism; and the inapposite decline, in which the comedy palls, only a little but it does pall, and it starts to resemble the slothful, moribund antiquities it so once jubilantly usurped.
Often the change is imperceptible like the vague twitch that heralds the irremediable wane into Parkinson’s, but it’s still apparent, and this new series of The Thick of It bears all the pitiable signs of irreversible infirmity. It’s still very, very good but is absent of the peerless excellence of the first couple of series.
Some comedies terminate after two or three series – The Office, Fawlty Towers, Father Ted (which was due to finish anyway) – some even bail out after one – The Day Today, which starred the brilliant Rebecca Front who joins the Thick of It as Hugh Abbot’s (Chris Langham, a career now less likely to be revived than the late Dermot Morgan’s) replacement Nicola Murray in the Department of Social Affairs and Citizenship.
The promotion of Murray to the cabinet at least offered some hope that the cascading bile of Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi) could be repelled, especially as she repudiated his rancorous bullying with a stark wit, sarcastically answering his concerns over her 16-year-old daughter who has left school that she did so because of her heroin habit, a Nigerian boyfriend and dalliances with prostitution.
But by the end of the episode Murray had crumbled under the onslaught of Tucker’s tongue that performs the same role in fictional politics as a battering ram breaching the gates of Jerusalem during the Crusades. But in the intervening period between her defiance and capitulation, Murray was seen to be just another manipulative cog in the political machinery.
Hugh Abbot, for all his faults, offered the viewer a lifeline into this alien world of honed amorality; Murray doesn’t achieve that, she’s just another parasite sucking the life out of the reciprocating parasites that surround her. She pits the underlings left over from Hugh’s tenure (we call him by his Christian name because we liked him) against one another, hinting that some, but not all of them will be kept on. This means that Ollie (Chris Addison) and Glenn (James Smith) bicker tiresomely as they fight for their jobs, while under Hugh there was a depth to their antipathy, as if rooted in a genuine rivalry rather than shoulder-charging each other out the way in a desperate rush for the lifeboats. But Glenn’s pining for his £600 desk chair that was appropriated by Murray and then consigned to the skip by Tucker was funny.
Murray seems to be cruel and astute because it is in her nature to be so, but it’s these traits that estrange her from the viewer. Hugh was a feebler, more junior facsimile of Jim Hacker from Yes Minister. Over the course of the half-hour episode, Hugh’s principles to do the right thing (i.e. what the public would expect of public servants) were slowly corrupted by the diabolical vulgarity of Tucker and he would eventually meekly succumb, but do so hilariously.
With Murray locking horns with Tucker, and Ollie and Glenn duelling with backstabbing daggers, the repetitive street-by-street warfare is concentrated into a single, inanimate frame common to the Beano where a big scrap is illustrated by a big cloud of dust with the only visible human presence protruding fists pummelling the adversaries.
This isn’t to say that Tucker’s diatribes have lost any of their inventive extrapolation of Anglo-Saxon oaths, but merely that they now serve less of a purpose; degraded into a Soviet-style parade in Red Square, casting eyes-right to the half-dead dictators glumly watching on from the frozen Kremlin balcony whenever there’s a brilliant quip such as: “The only other candidate [than Murray] is my left bullock with a smiley face drawn on it!” Or: “Are you saying all the schools this government has improved are knife-addled rape sheds?”
Perhaps the problem lies in the exposure of MPs as even more corrupt and inhumane than was previously imagined, and that in trying to keep pace with the surreality of Parliament the narrative has become detached from the besieged pathos exhibited by the characters in the previous series. The plummet isn’t yet terminal, but we would savour someone in the show with whom we could identify, someone we could actually like.