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Tuesday Morning Foreign Region DVD Report: "The Thick of It: The Specials" (Ianucci, 2006)

Armando Ianucci's fierce, funny In The Loop made the festival circuit earlier this year and last before getting a U.S. release from IFC in the summer. As I've observed elsewhere, this monumentally profane, ingeniously structured satire, depicting the power-plays of two cadres of out-of-the-spotlight British and American politicos in the run-up to a war in an unnamed Middle Eastern country, would have been a reasonably big studio production à la Network, with major stars and wide distribution...had it been made in the 1970s. As it is, the film is packed with first-rate actors—including, on the American side, David Rasche, Anna Chlumsky, and Sopranos star James Gandolfini, arguably the cast's biggest name—and is the brainstorm not of a latter-day Chayevsky but a group of ultra-sharp British writers led by director Armondo Ianucci, who have been honing this material in the form of a BBC television series titled The Thick of It. The show's first season ran in 2005, a couple of specials followed in 2007, and Ianucci and company are preparing a second season of the series now.

If you enjoyed In The Loop and want to explore its origins, you'd best have a multi-region DVD player—the two sets of discs encompassing series one and the specials are Region 2 U.K. discs from BBC 2. I can kind of understand why the series haven't been deemed fit for import. While In The Loop's U.K./U.S. relations are designed for either-side-of-the-pond comprehension, Thick's concerns are veddy veddy British indeed. Explorers here need to ready themselves for extremely thick accents and rushes of colloquial language, elisions that don't occur in American English, and arcane cultural references. I think you can handle it.

While it might seem logical to start from the beginning of the series, for my money the best point of entry is the specials set, particularly the first special, "The Rise of the Nutters," which plays like a bit of a dress rehearsal for In The Loop. Indeed, Loop almost transposes whole a "Nutters" subplot involving a betrayal between two young lovers. One of them is played in both the film and the special by Chris Addison, although in each case he's playing a different character. Doesn't matter that much, because here, as in Loop, the main attraction is the furious abusive spinning of PM spinner Malcolm Tucker. "He was so nice in Local Hero," many cinephiles might exclaim upon seeing the older but just as wiry Scottish actor Peter Capaldi bellow, pace, and seethe. Here he's a malevolent force of nature here, a Tasmanian devil of dissembling and prevarication. On the series proper, he has something of a regular foil—as in victim—in inept MP Hugh Abbot, played in the series by Chris Langham.

As it happened, necessity was a mother of invention as far as the creation of the specials was concerned—Langham was tied up in court on child pornography charges, leading Ianucci to concoct these couple of "Hugh's-in-Australia" specials rather than go full on with the second season. The absence of Langham is seen by some fans of the show as a bit of a liability, but if you're coming to the show from the perspective of having enjoyed In The Loop, there's no worries. Just sit back and enjoy the backstabbing.

And the swear words. "Inflatable cock" and "wank" this, "wank" that, and of course the less-acceptable-in-the-United-States "cunt," and more and more and more. No sex or violence, but the discs nevertheless carry the 18-and-older classification. It does get a little exhausting, not because of the swearing per se but because of the relentless unpleasant emotional intensity behind it all. Hilarious as these shenanigans are, they reveal an unremittingly bleak view of human nature. There's not one sincere friendship to be found. The notion of fellow feeling is as foreign to this particular culture as dog-breeding is to Afghanistan's.

If all the you-can't-tell-the-players-without-a-scorecard complexity of the varied department/ministry positions and players and opportunities for one-upsmanship and so on sound difficult to follow, well, they are. Ianucci and his co-writers, however, are quite aware of this; it's a feature, not a bug, because the world they're depicting is genuinely head-spinning. A typical strategy for helping the viewer to keep his or her head above water is to merely whip a situation into a galvanic comic frenzy that climaxes with an off-with-his/her-head explosion (or some such), leaving the viewer far to busy laughing his/her ass off to become overly concerned with the ever-tedious question "What just happened?" The brief calm that follows this storm sees the surviving players lining up for the next scrimmage, as it were.

Some have complained that Loop, with its near-reality show hand-held camera style, isn't particularly "cinematic." As a lover of mise-en-scene myself, I'm not sure how to address this claim. Except to say that on both the big screen and small, the form does right by the content. Particularly given that these stories often take place in screens within screens...within screens. Characters are as likely to be screaming abuse at a television set of a computer monitor as they are at actual flesh-and-blood adversaries. That the headlong rush of the narratives makes the distinctions between such confrontations increasingly blurry, that kind of all to the point then, no?

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‘Are you an American or an Ameri-cant?’ ‘What does that mean? That’s not even a word!’ Having never watched the television show before seeing In The Loop, I delighted in catching up with The Thick Of It on DVD. The mix of scathing comedy with frightening political observation is a superb achievement and a credit to both the writers and the cast, who improvise some of their dialouge. A slice of British comedy gold that deserves to reach further shores.

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