The IT Crowd

Friday, March 3, 2006 by

From the creator of Father Ted! From the producer of The Office! Occasionally guest starring Chris Morris! If the quality of Channel 4′s new sitcom, The IT Crowd, had purely been down to the pedigree of Graham Linehan, Ash Astalla and, indeed, Chris Morris, it would have been the show that emptied pubs on a Friday night. But something got lost between CV and screen, leaving us with a mysterious hybrid of both the best and worst parts of each contributor’s particular school of comedy.

As the punning title implies, The IT Crowd picks for its subjects the various misfits of an IT department. Roy (Chris O’Dowd) and Moss (Richard Ayoade) are the underclass at Reynholm Industries: while all the good-looking, high-flying other employees are out partying or enjoying their spectacular views of London’s skyline, Roy and Moss are down in the basement, being ignored, mistreated and generally abused.

Into their lives comes Jen (Katherine Parkinson), who despite claiming to know simply masses about computers is pretty much in the, “Have you tried turning it off and on again?” school of tech support. What she does have, as Roy and Moss soon discover, is something worth far more than mere IT know how: she has social skills. Heading up the department as its new “Relationship Manager”, Jen tries to help Roy and Moss get lives and improve the department’s standing in the company – mainly as a way of extracting herself from the company dead zone into which she’s inadvertently wandered.

The IT Crowd is very much in the same style as Linehan’s previous work and it would be easy to draw up a list of similarities between the show and Father Ted, Black Books and even Hippies. Yet it isn’t just a simple retread of previous territory, with only the names changed. Roy and Moss are new and distinct Linehan characters, not just carbon copies of each other: Roy is an aimless drifter who looks down on the clueless employees who bother him with trivial problems, while Moss is a borderline-autistic mother’s boy who’d rather send an email to summon the fire brigade than pick up a phone to speak to another human being.

Linehan avoids the trap of simply mocking the two characters for being geeks, and instead makes them both sympathetic. Given that most viewers in real life are more likely to be on the side of the beautiful people rather than the IT department, it’s a reasonably brave decision, particularly when the show mocks the lack of IT savvy among those viewers.

Jen gets similarly thoughtful treatment. Linehan, clearly regretful about how much he under-used his female cast in shows such as Big Train, works overtime to ensure that she isn’t just a fallen angel: she has her own distinct line in problems, including the inveterate lying that landed her in the IT department in the first place. The show’s better plots – notably her shoe-shopping expedition – actually revolve around her rather than her underlings.

The most obvious line of continuity with previous shows is Linehan’s particular brand of silly and surreal humour, which can be both a blessing and a curse. But there are enough notes of authenticity in the depiction of office life to see Atalla’s influences as well. The show doesn’t hit the highs of The Office or even Are You Being Served?, but The IT Crowd‘s still no slouch at workplace observational comedy.

Of course, the big test for any sitcom is whether it makes you laugh. On that front, The IT Crowd needs more than a little work, with at least three episodes having a distinctly sub-average joke count and the others lagging in their middle sections. Mostly these joke deficits occur because of a lack of polish in the scripts and the frequent dead air left by the leads. The occasional veering away from the good-humoured Linehan school of comedy towards the cringing of The Office doesn’t help either. Yet even the worst couple of episodes have the occasional moments of genuine humour.

Of the regular cast, Chrises O’Dowd and Morris give the best performances, with Morris’s mercurial, variably-accented boss favourably recalling John Barron’s CJ in The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin. Parkinson, while appealing at times, usually ends up shouting a little too much and in a strange, strangled manner that’s probably unique in British acting history; Ayoade’s performance lacks nuance, but isn’t so bad he undermines the show.

With ratings of 2.6 million per episode, The IT Crowd has inspired enough faith in Channel 4 for the network to give it an extended eight-episode second season. Given a little polish and a bit more discipline, the show could become the real Friday night draw C4 had originally intended, although its slightly divisive “them or us” quality will probably mean it never has the universal appeal of Father Ted. Whether Linehan and co have the ability to fix the bugs in the show remains to be seen.


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