Sunday, February 12, 2006

The IT Crowd

The IT Crowd is Channel 4's great sitcom hope for 2006. We're now three episodes into its run - they aired the first two back-to-back last week - and the opening ratings weren't quite as spectacular as they might have wished. In part, that might be due to the radical promotional technique of putting every single episode up, in full, on the Channel 4 website a week in advance. (You can currently watch all of episode 4 if you want. I haven't.) Obviously intended to build word of mouth, it may have proved counterproductive.

Expectations were high for this show because it has a great pedigree. It's got the same producer as The Office, which doesn't really mean anything because Ricky Gervais was the driving force behind that show, but hell, it sounds good. And it's written by Graham Linehan, who co-wrote the genuinely brilliant Father Ted and the never-seen-the-big-deal-myself-but-lots-of-other-people-seem-to-like-it Black Books. Of course, his back catalogue also includes Hippies, which didn't quite work, and Paris, which has been erased from the collective consciousness. But he's undoubtedly a great comedy writer, so anything he produces is always worth a look.

The IT Crowd is, quite unashamedly, a reaction against the trend of realistically depressing comedy which has dominated in the last few years. Aside from the technicality of actually being set in an office, it's as far away from The Office as you could possibly get. It's shot on three-walled sets in front of a studio audience, which in British TV is considered so backwards that it's actually become daring again. It isn't determined to remind you how much life and humanity suck. It's surreal, in much the same way that Linehan's scripts tend to be - characters exaggerated to such a degree that we're effectively dealing with living cartoons. Father Ted is a pretty good reference point.

It is, essentially, a sitcom which sets out to make people happy. This may seem unsurprising to American readers, but British comedy producers are in love with the Comedy of Excruciating Misery. Perhaps the biggest surprise here, in fact, is the odd casting of Chris Morris as the boss. While never exactly a grim realist, his output tends towards unsettlingly dark surrealism or scorched-earth satire. It's truly weird seeing him playing a character who's merely demented in a conventional comedy manner.

As with all the best sitcoms, the set-up is minimal. Father Ted got by entirely on the premise "Three priests on an island." The IT Crowd is "three people who work in IT." The building is supposed to be insanely glamorous and (by implication) the home to a much more exciting sort of programme. But they're in IT, so they're banished to the basement and left to get on with it. It's as good a premise as any.

And yet something doesn't quite click about it. It's actually harder to identify with these characters than with some of the people in Linehan's earlier, even sillier sitcoms. Moss is a particular problem - defined as the stereotypical ubernerd, he never really does anything to develop beyond that stereotype. To be fair, Linehan likes to set up characters who are very strongly defined by a single idea and then fill them out over subsequent episodes, but Moss doesn't seem to be anything beyond the obvious.

Roy, the relatively normal IT guy, doesn't have quite the same problem. He's dysfunctional in a more rounded way. But Jen, the department head who bluffed her way into the job despite knowing nothing about it, is a weird character. On one level, she's the classic character with pretensions trying to climb the social ladder, and that's a set-up which has worked for comedy since Steptoe & Son. But she also keeps lapsing into self-consciously girly behaviour. Devoting most of episode two to her obsession with shoes was probably a mistake, since it plays up the least original aspects of the character.

Then again, episode three worked better for her with an endearingly contorted plot based on the singularly unlikely idea of Jen getting a date with an attractive security guard by impressing him with her (bluffed) knowledge of classical music, only to give him the wrong answer when he phones her as a lifeline on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, meaning that she has to go on a date with him the next day after she's just cost him £31,000. Nonsense, obviously, but it makes a certain kind of internal sense. Mind you, it also flags up a noticeable problem with dated references - Millionaire is well past its sell-by date, and episode 1 even referenced the unisex toilets from Ally McBeal, which is getting on for a decade ago.

It's often genuinely funny, but it hasn't yet lived up to the (admittedly high) expectations generated by the names involved. Then again, a lot of Linehan characters seem better the more you see of them, as subtler aspects come to light, so maybe these earlier episodes will look stronger in retrospect by the time we've seen the whole series. I'm sticking with it, but I'm hoping it's still going to hit its stride.