The US and British governments, tied by history, are said to have a special relationship. So do US and British TV. Earlier this year, HBO debuted Veep, a series that attempted to translate both British government and British television to the US, by making an American vice-presidential version of Armando Iannucci’s profane government satire The Thick of It.
I watched the entire season of Veep, and it had its moments. But it never lived up to its inspiration, for several reasons I wrote about in my review. One of the chief ones, though, was that the setting of The Thick of It—a minor British cabinet ministry, where hapless political lifers endured humiliations to try to preserve their position—just had a certain dynamic and hilarious indignity that Veep didn’t quite replicate.
But whether you agree with me about Veep or love it, you owe it to yourself to see The Thick of It—which you can, online, because Hulu now have the first three seasons available. And if you’re already a fan, you can now start on season four, whose first episode debuted on Hulu yesterday. (The website is posting the new episodes weekly as they air in Britain, gloriously unbleeped; bleeped-for-cable versions will air on BBC America in the future.)
Whereas Iannucci’s Veep exists in a Washington mainly divorced from any concrete US politics, season 4 of The Thick of It plays off the political changes in the UK. In particular, the show—which has shifted characters over the years to match changes in real-world government—has fun with the coalition partnership between Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in the UK, in which politics make strange, or estranged, bedfellows.
Conservative pol Peter Mannion (Roger Allam) is now the minister heading up the backwater department of Social Affairs and Citizenship. But not alone: he’s paired with a “coalition partner,” which doubles the gleefully cynical show’s opportunity targets for back-biting, maneuvering and political self-preservation.
In the first episode, Mannion is drafted to publicize a new government-smartphone-app program, despite knowing nothing about technology, a problem he compounds by embarrassing himself in front of a class of tech-savvy students. (“I hate schoolchildren. They’re volatile and stupid and they don’t have the vote. I might as well be talking to fucking geese.”) The ensuing snafu—compounded by an inadvertently quasi-racist comment—gets Mannion into a PR tangle as his “partner” gladly watches. “We’re such good friends,” the sad-sack Peter comments on the forced arrangement. “Like Ike and Tina Turner, or Caligula and his horse.”
It’s the political specificity of The Thick of It’s situations that give it bite. And the way it draws its various characters gives it a kind of poignance for all its hard-hearted cynicism. Political satires like to depict pols as self-interested, cold professionals who have traded in their ideals, and that’s plenty true here. But Mannion and the various staffers are also simply imperfect people, fallen short of their ambitions and stuck in what are–for all the perks and access to power–often lousy, exhausting, crappy jobs, which grind them down and smother their personal lives.
They can be sympathetic, or at least pathetic. It’s hilarious and cringeworthy when Mannion, asking students to volunteer to create apps for the government, struggles to answer a student who wants to know what he himself contributes to the project: “I take the science that you made earlier and I … apply it … in scenarios that are cost-effective.” You get the feeling that Mannion is confronting not only the limits of his knowledge about technology but the ineffectuality of his own job–one that, regardless, he clings to desperately.
In the middle of a loud and often dispiriting campaign season, a show like The Thick of It is a gift to Americans: the chance to both feel bad for and laugh at politicians—all at another country’s expense.