The IT Crowd

Friday, August 24, 2007 by

For all that certain commentators might have claimed to feel “betrayed” by the thought of erstwhile hard-hitting satirist Chris Morris appearing in a warm-hearted laugh track-enhanced sitcom, the first series of Graham Linehan’s The IT Crowd was an unexpected if thoroughly deserved hit.

In an age dominated by ever more “realistic” and for the most part ever more dreary comedy shows, any alternative with a traditional structure and actual proper jokes to the fore was always going to be a breath of fresh air. The IT Crowd was lucky enough to come bolstered by a talented scriptwriter with an impressive track record, a format that allowed it to effortlessly tap into shareable gags about modern office life (“Saw that one coming, mikey73!”), and a strong regular cast who didn’t seem to mind playing ridiculously exaggerated and overstated characters.

One acclaimed DVD release and surprisingly highly-rated repeat run later, the computer support-based comedy is back for a second series. Programmes that exceed all expectations of success can really pose a problem for their production teams when they reach that “difficult” second run. Away from the freedom and comparatively cosy circumstances the first batch was made in – and suddenly exposed to the glare of public expectation – they can come unstuck pretty easily. The history of the television sitcom in particular is littered with examples that suddenly fell apart just when people actually started watching them.

Graham Linehan, however, is a veteran of many previous ventures that never even got near that “difficult” second run in the first place, and probably has a better understanding of what makes such small-scale cult shows work than most. That knowledge has clearly been applied here, as on the basis of this first episode, The IT Crowd seems to have lost none of its infectious momentum.

Typically for the show, there isn’t much of a storyline to this episode. Luckless IT manager Jen manages to score a date with a man she half-suspects might be gay, ends up having to invite her insufferable co-workers Roy and Moss along, and some fairly surreal events ensue. Involved and complicated storylines aren’t really what matters here, though. The strength of The IT Crowd lies in the interaction between the characters, the recognisable nuances of their work environment and their blinkered world view, and most of all the escalatingly bizarre events that routinely unfold in front of their disbelieving but resignedly accepting eyes.

Some reviewers have seen fit to bash this episode for featuring what they consider a set of stereotyped and borderline offensive observations about gay culture. It is true there has recently been an apparent and worrying upsurge in the amount of bigotry and offensive caricature of all kinds contained in the average television comedy show, and with depressing inevitability some of the worst culprits have chosen to excuse and defend plainly inexcusable material by claiming that it was done in the name of “irony”, or worse still by waving away any criticism on the basis that it’s all a big joke and everyone’s fair game and we should all lighten up and see the funny side … and anyway some of their best friends are incontient old ladies.

It is about time the critics were seen to take a stand against this, but The IT Crowd – and this episode in particular – is a strange target for them to start with. Perhaps it could indeed be argued that to imply Heat is only read by gay men and women in their early 20s veers towards stereotyping, but Linehan is an old hand at tackling such contentious subject matter in an even-handed and well-judged manner – witness the excellent “racism” episode of Father Ted – and this observation is soon swamped by a far larger and more overblown parody of the almost self-parodic excesses of bona fide gay culture. After all, could a theatrical poster proclaiming “Gay! A Gay Musical” really be anything other than a deliberately overamped diversion into the realms of sheer surreal ridiculousness?

In any case, the gay stereotyping espoused by Jen comes back to haunt her when, as a direct result, she is accused of looking “a bit like a man”, and it’s Roy and Moss who are made to appear idiots when their prejudice causes them to recoil in indignance at the phrase “United Queendom”. In addition to this, Roy’s own selfish attitude towards the disabled results in him being forced by circumstance to spend the rest of the night posing as a wheelchair user, missing his chance with a much lusted-after actress, agreeing to come and see the show again the following night, and finally being driven all the way to Manchester in the back of a van accompanied by a band of over-enthusiastic “fans of musicals”. Meanwhile, Moss’ selfish attitude to staff toilets sees him forced by circumstance to work behind the bar for the rest of the evening – and bringing things full circle – a gay man’s patronising view of the “jolly” and simple-minded Irish results in him being humiliated in front of an entire room full of people after wresting a paraplegic to the floor.

Alright, so that particular plot point may take some explaining. But what doesn’t need explaining is there’s no way in which this show is mining cheap laughs from ridiculing minorities – the humour is too convoluted, too self-reflexive and simply too plain absurd for that. And also because, erm, it just doesn’t do it full-stop.

On a slightly less controversial point, it’s pleasing to see Noel Fielding as lurking goth network technician Richmond – a minor character from the first series who proved an unexpected hit with the audience and writer alike – is being used so effectively in his inevitable return. Rather than being overused at every opportunity to the point of tedium, as so many other equivalent characters in other series end up, here he makes a short and effective appearance to warn his workmates of the bad omens that surround their planned visit to the theatre. Apparently, it has something to do with him standing on some lego.

It remains to be seen how the series will fare without Chris Morris, who despite his rumoured reservations about appearing in such a show effortlessly stole it from under everyone else’s noses (Fielding included), but whatever he might be working on instead, he’s clearly going to be missing out on a lot of fun. The audience, meanwhile, aren’t. The IT Crowd has gone beyond the novelty value of being a breath of comedic fresh air, and is establishing itself – or in fact probably already has – as a great series in its own right.


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