In case the trailer didn’t already give it away, Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin is a comedy. Its dialogue bristle with sharp, satirical thorns. It is at turns witty, goofy, absurdist and madcap. It is also like one of those works of art that, when you first look at them, seem to depict a rabbit or a beautiful young woman – but then you realise that you’re actually looking at a duck or an old crone, and once that realisation has set in, it’s difficult if not impossible to again see what you thought you saw at first. Once that moment has set in, The Death of Stalin becomes something much darker. The verbal humour remains, but it is revealed to be the poisonous icing on a meal that tastes of ashes and death.
If The West Wing occupies one end of the galaxy of TV shows on politics, The Thick of It is pretty much at the opposite end. The two shows share a couple of things, not least of which their complete insistence on being about words first and foremost – but if The West Wing maintains a fundamental idealism about politics, The Thick of It is the horrific Mr Hyde to its Dr Jekyll.
It is also one of the most witheringly foul-mouthed, funniest comedies I’ve seen in a long time.
Watching an episode of each series side by side, it’s difficult not to come down with a case of TV whiplash: the BBC series practically squelches with cynicism towards British politics, the political establishment and the individuals who make it up. Whenever there is a moment where a character’s fundamental decency comes through for a moment, it’s soon covered with generous lashings of craven baseness, selfishness, cowardice and stupidity. I’ve rarely seen anything as misanthropic, and as sweary, as this series.
The strange thing is: usually I would avoid any such programme like the plague. I tend to find genuine cynicism facile and tedious, I’m way too much of a pinko liberal do-gooder wannabe, and swearing for the sake of it bores me. Yet The Thick of It‘s Malcolm Tucker, one of the most memorable television creations… well… ever – he elevates swearing to an art form. Watching him have a go at someone makes me dream of an operatic duet between Peter Capaldi’s Tucker and Ian McShane’s Al Swearengen. It’d be fucking Verdi. People used to say that David Mamet (God bless his little converted-to-the Tea Party socks…) uses swearing as if it were a jazz riff – well, working from that, Malcolm Tucker is Charlie Parker. He knows when to improvise like a nightingale on speed and when to go for the kick-in-the-nuts simplicity of the oldest put-down in the book.
In fact, I was so dazzled by his verbal-vulgar dexteriarrhea that it took me several episodes to realise that he isn’t smarter than everyone else in the series – he’s simply a potty-mouth virtuoso with the instincts of a shark.
Even with Malcolm Tucker as its main asset, the series is not flawless. Any individual episode is basically identical to any other episode – the plot details change, but they don’t matter. It wouldn’t work in 40-minute instalments – the episodes are short enough for the audience not to register that everything’s caught in an eternal loop. (Ironically, In the Loop is the title of the series’ movie spin-off, and that one works pretty well at way over 40 minutes.) The series knows, though, why it works and it plays to its strengths, at least for the first season. (I’ve yet to watch, or even obtain, any season beyond that. I saw and enjoyed one episode from season 3 on a long cross-Atlantic flight and vastly enjoyed it, almost choking on the god-awful British Airways food trying not to laugh too loudly.)
It’s best, though, to end this with a few choice words from the Master himself.