DVD Review: The Thick of It: Seasons 1-4

STUDIO: BBC/Warner | DIRECTORS: Armando Iannucci and Natalie Bailey | CAST: Peter Capaldi, Chris Addison, James Smith, Joanna Scanlan, Rebecca Front
RELEASE DATE: 8/6/13 | PRICE: DVD $79.98
BONUSES: audio commentaries with Armando Iannucci and the cast and crew; deleted scenes for each episode; photo galleries, “From Script to Screen” featurette; “Out of the Thick of It” behind-the-scenes featurettes
SPECS:
NR | 734 min. | Comedy | 16:9 anamorphic | Dolby Digital

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie  | Audio  | Video  | Overall

 

One of the crown jewels in the last decade of British comedy, The Thick of It is a sitcom that has clear antecedents but it remained wildly kinetic and original during its four-season run (which aired from 2005 to 2012 in the U.K.). It has the breakneck pace of classic screwball comedy but is also a trenchant political satire and one of the finest portraits of workplace backstabbing to appear since The Larry Sanders Show.

Peter Capaldi in The Thick of It

Peter Capaldi is Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It.

The ensemble cast is superb and contributions from the crew first-rate, but the show offers the purest example of the comic vision of its creator, producer-writer Armando Iannucci. He has since used the bare bones of Thick to create two other very funny projects — the feature film In the Loop and the current HBO sitcom Veep — but the BBC original is the clear winner in terms of the sheer volume of laughs and brilliantly complex plotting.

The show takes place primarily in three settings: the offices of DoSAC, a fictional government department where an ineffectual MP (first Chris Langham, then Rebecca Front) struggles to keep up with swift policy changes; 10 Downing Street, where foul-mouthed spin doctor Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi) works feverishly to cover up gaffes and evidence of government stupidity; and the offices of the more conservative “opposition party” (Iannucci and company take care not to name the parties, and the fictional prime minister is spoken of but never seen).

Switching back and forth between these three areas is the program’s masterstroke, and while it may seem that viewers should have a solid grasp of British politics, that is not the case at all — it can help to know about the changes in UK leadership, but the show is really about personalities and the conflicts between them.

Thick has previously only been available to American viewers through one-time-only, heavily edited airings on BBC-America (and streaming on Hulu Plus and Amazon). The editing was considered “necessary” because one of the show’s touchstones is its wonderfully creative obscene language — Iannucci in fact hired a “swearing consultant” to contribute newly-coined insults.

Rebecca Front and Peter Capaldi work on a fresh spin in The Thick of It.

Although the show is indeed an ensemble effort, Capaldi steals every scene he’s in — to the extent that the scripters tried to dream up ways to have the Tucker character come up against rival spin doctors who are even meaner than he is.

Capaldi recently received a lot of press as a result of his being chosen to be the next Doctor Who, and he is nothing short of wondrous here, dominating every scene he takes part in, and delivering his most profane lines in a gloriously forthright way. Lest one think he is just an incredibly gifted comic actor, though, the Thick scripters provided him with several tour-de-force dramatic sequences, especially one toward the end of the series in which he delivers a speech to a government board of inquiry.

The incredibly original use of profanity on the show is one of many topics explored in the profusion of audio commentaries found in this giant seven-disc box set. Writer Tony Roche proudly admits he created one of Tucker’s signature lines, “Come the fuck in or fuck the fuck off!” Roche wryly confesses “I’m trying to create a sentence that is basically just the word ‘fuck,’ but somehow still has meaning.”

Roche is one of many participants in the show who appear on the audio commentaries, which are provided for nearly every one of the 23 episodes in the package. There are in fact so many cast and crew members on hand that Iannucci “hosts” the commentaries, welcoming different groups of three or four actors/crew members for each episode. A few of the picture galleries even have commentaries, especially those containing pictures taken by Capaldi.

The most valuable supplement, in terms of discovering how the show was assembled, is a “script to screen” analysis of one scene from an early episode. We see the tape of the scene as it was initially performed, line by line from the script. Then we view the improvised version, in which the actors add new lines and bits of business (most which aren’t funny per se, but add to the situation). Finally we see the final edited version of the scene as it aired, with the show’s “mockumentary” quick cuts disguising the visual jumps.

Iannucci reveals in one commentary that he and his fellow writers would come up with 100-page scripts for each half-hour episode (one of his colleagues informs us that a half-hour sitcom script generally runs 37 to 52 pages). All this hard work is apparent in the episodes, and in the more than an hour of deleted scenes included here. Entire plot strands were jettisoned and some of Malcolm Tucker’s choicest insults were left on the cutting-room floor, but are available here for instant memorization.

A number of great British TV series receive attention on these shores, but many of the recent best comedies aren’t shown widely in the U.S. and instead become cult favorites. Hopefully this box set will draw more attention to Thick of It, which certainly qualifies as one of the funniest and most intelligent sitcoms to appear in this thus far brief century.

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About Ed

Ed Grant has written about film for a wide range of periodicals, books and websites. He edited the reference book The Motion Picture Guide Annual and, since 1993, has produced and hosted the weekly cable program Media Funhouse, which Time magazine called “the most eclectic and useful movie show on TV.”