From the beginning, The Thick of It was a hyper-caffeinated, richly written, and semi-improvised caricature of British politics. A party in permanent crisis mode, assisted by a cynical cadre of civil servants, asserts its policies and tries to maintain its dominance while writhing under the constant gaze of the press. Malcolm Tucker constantly recalibrates the variables in this equation, solving them on the fly for each new problem or policy, and basically bullying his way through every moment of the never-ending news cycle.
This mercurial, potty-mouthed wraith is said to be based loosely on Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s director of communications and strategy. In any case, Tucker shuttles between the 300-year-old Downing Street offices of the (unseen) Prime Minister and the less venerable Department of Social Affairs and Citizenship, appearing as suddenly and unexpectedly as a vengeful ghost.
Tucker’s rules of engagement with the press are laid out in the show’s first episode. In a typical bit of arm-twisting, he forces the inept yet diligent social affairs minister, Hugh Abbott (Chris Langham), to endorse a policy he had first proposed, then rejected—on camera, no less. Abbott asks Tucker an eminently reasonable question: Won’t the press eviscerate him?
“Fuck them,” Tucker replies. He then follows up with a kind of spinmeister’s credo:
Look, this is what they run with. I tell them that you said it. They believe that you said it. They don’t really believe you said it. They know that you never said it . . . . But it’s in their interests to say that you said it because if they don’t say that you said it, they’re not going to get what you say tomorrow or the next day when I decide to tell them what it is you’re saying.
Within the economy of information linking government and press, Tucker (whom Abbott considers a “bad Gandalf” in his mastery of the darker political arts) knows it’s a seller’s market. And even with twenty-four hours a day to fill up with news, there’s little impetus to make sense of it. (Jon Stewart made this point in a recent Daily Show segment mocking just how often cable news anchors use the phrase, “We’ll have to leave it there”—as though their outlets didn’t have all day, every day, to check the unsubstantiated facts that pepper on-air debates.) According to Iannucci, the government and press’s dysfunctional arrangement is rooted in sheer terror.
“Politicians so live in fear of being caught saying the wrong thing,” he says, “that they spend half their time trying to control what it is they say, when they say it, and how they say it—and the rest trying to take back or reinterpret what they’ve said. I felt this reached its height during the presidential primaries when Hillary Clinton said she ‘misspoke’ over the claim she had had to crouch under sniper fire in Bosnia, and they found out she was actually walking around and kissing a little girl. You can’t satirize that because it’s funny enough as it is.”
In many ways, The Thick of It is the surly, unruly, and deeply cynical offspring of Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing, which walked us through the corridors of power with soft lighting, smooth camerawork, and the finely honed wit of classic screwball comedies. The Thick of It, on the other hand, is shot with two handheld cameras, which barely manage to keep up with a multilayered flurry of insult-driven banter. The constant cutting gives the show a sped-up quality, as though time itself is being sold down the river.
“I want to feel like we’re sort of eavesdropping on reality,” Iannucci says of this quick-and-dirty style. “We’re seeing something we shouldn’t really be seeing. Or we’re getting the first slightly unedited rushes of a tape that was only made for private viewing. I want to get that slightly raw, manic, unpolished sense of nervousness.” He puts his actors in much the same position by shoving them in front of the cameras before they’re completely familiar with the script, hoping to catch “that slightly panicked look in their eye, which is genuine.”
Panic and paranoia are the overriding tropes of The Thick of It. The first two seasons focused mainly on the ongoing struggle of the newly installed Abbott to keep his position, especially during the cabinet reshuffling that dominated the second season. And one of the holiday specials brilliantly captured a long night of endless spin as politicians, advisers, and enforcers jostle for position during the search for a new prime ministerial candidate. (We also see the increasing anxiety of the Daily Mail editor as he tries to make sense of the madly conflicting reports he’s getting from his inside sources.)