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Pilot Inspektor: ABC's "The Thick of It"

So, okay, you might not end up getting to see the pilot for the US version of The Thick of It, what with ABC passing on the comedy. (Though, as previously reported, several broadcast and cable networks seem interested in reviving the series.)

I couldn't let too long go by without at least taking a look at the pilot, considering that the UK version of The Thick of It is one of my favorite Britcoms of recent years and this project had brought together two of my favorite comedic talents: director Christopher Guest (Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show) and writer Mitch Hurwitz, creator of the much-missed Arrested Development. So it had to be a comedic match worth its weight in gold, right?

Not quite. I had anticipated the savage energy of the original The Thick of It, which follows the travails of a hapless Member of Parliament as he is both saved and doomed by his staff (with a little help from himself, of course) and negotiates the treacherous waters of governmental politics, with its quick-change opinions and quicksand sense of morality. The US version, however, translates the action from London to Washington, D.C. (as expected) but loses the whiplash-fast dialogue and quick-cut camera work of the original, instead giving it the sort of casual looseness of, well, a Christopher Guest movie.

The most glaring error in direction is the change in character of brutal enforcer Malcolm Tucker, played here by Oliver Platt. Unlike Peter Capaldi's sinisterly intelligent Malcolm (pictured), whom you believed capable of easily snapping someone's neck out of frustration as he casually flung out expletive-laden bon mots (a force of nature, really), Platt's Malcolm seems a little too chummy, a little too, well, friendly. I understand that Malcom is meant to smile that Cheshire cat grin while stabbing you in the back, but I found it a little hard to believe that the party whip's enforcer would be just so calm and collected. I missed that tempest in a teacup, especially as it infused the original with some genuine spark and humor. Here, Platt adds nothing to the proceedings and weighs down the action with a ho-hum performance with little real depth. It's depressing.

John Michael Higgins is suitable as hapless Congressman Albert Alger, so out of touch with the world that he's never heard of The Daily Show or Jon Stewart (he believes them to be two separate people), whose main goal in life seems to be getting a Vice-Presidential mug to bring home to his wife, following a meeting with Dick Cheney at a secret, undisclosed location. Likewise, I thought casting the dour Alex Borstein as the much put-upon press secretary Hope Mueller was a step in the right direction; Borstein radiates middle-class discontentment and a somber frustration with her lot in life. And Michael McKean is pitch perfect as conniving hanger-on Glen Glahm, who has made sycophantry a verifiable art form. (I'm not quite sure why writers Mitch Hurwitz and Richard Day turned junior speech writer Ollie into a woman and cast Rhea Seehorn, but that's a question for another day.)

It's frustrating that a project with such a stellar cast and such amazing auspices falls so flat. Sure, there are a few laughs, such as the subplot about 80-year-old Congressman Stillman who--following an accident in a bouncy castle--may or may not be faking a coma in order to avoid getting entangled in a political scandal, and the opening five minutes, depicting Henry Winkler as the putative star of the series, a Congressman forced by Malcolm Tucker to resign. But the rest of the pilot feels particularly tedious, despite cribbing liberally from the opening episode of the British series; it feels rather like a reheated episode of Spin City.

Hurwitz tends to work best when he's unfettered by network involvement and when he lets his imagination truly go wild, as with the over the top hijinx of the Bluth family. I was hoping for more than a little of the wit and creativity of his last series and wished that Hurwitz and Guest would have really captured the vicious energy of Washington, throwing their talented cast into the snake pit of politics today and fulfilling the meaning of its very loaded title.

What's On Tonight

8 pm: AFI's 100 Years... 100 Movies: 10th Anniversary Edition (CBS; 8-11 pm); Most Outrageous Moments/Most Outrageous Moments (NBC); Hidden Palms (CW); The Next Best Thing: Who is the Greatest Celebrity Impersonator? (ABC); So You Think You Can Dance (FOX; 8-10 pm)

9 pm:
Last Comic Standing (NBC); One Tree Hill (CW); American Inventor (ABC);

10 pm: Dateline (NBC);
Traveler (ABC)


What I'll Be Watching

8 pm: Hidden Palms.

On the fourth episode of this eight-episode teen thriller/relationship drama ("What Liza Beneath"), Johnny goes to see Eddie's mother for some answers about her son's death, Cliff tries to rid himself of Travis, and Greta makes a confession to Johnny.

10 pm:
Top Chef on Bravo.

On tonight's episode of
Top Chef
("Sunny Delights"), the chefs are tasked with working with fruit and are judged by guest judge Norman Van Aken, while new regular judge Ted Allen finally deigns to make an appearance.

10 pm:
Traveler.

On tonight's episode ("The Tells"), Tyler and Jay uncover a security box with Will's collection of aliases and some evidence about the museum bombing; Will is interrogated by his employers while the FBI make a key arrest.

Comments

Very true. The Malcolm character is what makes the UK version blissfully painful and funny and Oliver Platt just doesn't cut it. I'm not sure if it's his acting (I usually like him) or if they just decided to portray the character differently but it's completely lackluster. I did enjoy some of the other characters, though, like Hope and Michael McKean as Glen. But, unfortunately, not even their great performances can elevate this to what the UK version did.
Anonymous said…
Sorry to disagree with you---Rhea Seehorn is amazing, clearly so good that they felt the need to change the original gender of the character. And to compare it to a Guest movie in pace is nothing but a compliment of the highest degree.
Jace Lacob said…
Anon,

You're clearing putting the cart before the horse. You say, "Rhea Seehorn is amazing, clearly so good that they felt the need to change the original gender of the character."

But the script had changed Ollie's gender before Seehorn's participation. So....

As for the pace, I'm a huge Christopher Guest fan but the pacing doesn't gel with what should be a fast-paced, cutting satire of government politics.
TxGowan said…
I'm watching Traveler, too, and was interested to find that the producers actually think they have a shot at another season, probably next summer.

The creator of the series posted to the IMDB forum just the other day...
Anonymous said…
You may want to fact-check your statement on Rhea Seehorn, the first actor cast for this show:
"But the script had changed Ollie's gender before Seehorn's participation. So...."
That's incorrect, actually.

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