Unflinching BBC show The Thick of It takes more from The West Wing than most think
Long before penning his harsh biopic of a 26-year-old billionaire, Aaron Sorkin was known for his warm and fuzzy portrayal of the American presidency in The West Wing. TWW is from a time when Americans wanted a TV show that told them how great a Democratic presidency could be, filtering down real-life complexities of running a major government office to forced conversations about the founding fathers, privacy rights and race relations.
But as quaint as The West Wing was, it became the first show to appeal directly to political junkies everywhere. Politics geeks could now engage with television that at least tried to relate substantive arguments within a world that thrilled them. Sorkin treated politics in TWW the same way Gene Roddenberry treated science in Star Trek: as a clever device used to get into his characters’ heads.
In its abrasive British counterpart The Thick of It, creator/director Armando Ianucci obscures his perpetually flat characters’ motivations with the dizzying haze of British politics, forcing you to rewatch the show’s dense episodes and specials again and again to truly get how much of an evil mastermind Malcolm Tucker really is.
According to a London Times feature that came out when his film In the Loop released worldwide, Iannucci said he probably meant Malcolm Tucker to have been a “starry-eyed” Josh Lyman-type character earlier in his life, but Malcolm got more and more cynical, manipulative and bitter as he rose through the ranks. The Thick of It even pays homage to TWW at several points with lines like “I can draw you a chart of the chain of command” and “This is not the West Wing, and you’re not Josh, Ollie.”
Watching the episode “Access” from The West Wing (S05E18), I can see where Iannucci got at least the initial idea for the show’s style: the shaky cam, the black title screen, two-camera style, the jump cuts, the unusually angled shots, background action, the swishpans, etc. The episode, though, is weighed down by a glacially slow pace and its Frontline-type interviews and score.
And that’s what The Think of It is: a foul-mouthed and unflinching adaptation of The West Wing set at a break-neck pace in a much less important (and fictitious) sector of the UK government, the Department of Social Affairs and Citizenship (aka DoSAC). With this premise comes tons more creative freedom, and the chance to use colorful expressions such as “He’s as useful as a Marzipan Dildo” or “Come the fuck in, or fuck the fuck off!” Now this is politics done right.