Review: John Winterson Richards
There are some television programmes that just happen at exactly the right moment. They are products of a specific time and place, and they come to define it.
Graham Linehan's comedy The IT Crowd should be locked in a time capsule as the best social history summary we can offer of that post-Millennium period when Britain really started to come to terms with the realities of information technology and women in the workplace. Both had, of course, been around for years, but that was the time British management was finally forced to accept them as important factors in business life in their own right.
It is a fair reflection of how information technology was regarded in most British firms that the fictional IT Department in which the show is located consists of three people - a fourth is discovered later - in a dingy basement, where they are ignored and left very largely to their own devices.
The top bosses have only a vague idea what the IT Department does. That is equally true of would-be management high flyer Jen (Katherine Parkinson) who is put in charge of it. For their part, the geeks Roy and Moss (Chris O'Dowd and the wonderful Richard Ayoade) who do all the work there are equally ignorant of what their company actually makes or sells. We viewers never learn either. That too is a fair reflection of many British firms at the time.
The geeks do, however, have a high sense of their own intellectual superiority. Much of their working day is spent on menial tasks, correcting what they regard as stupid, elementary computer mistakes by people higher up in the building - both geographically and managerially. The opening lines of their standard response to practically all requests for help is eventually put on tape: "Are you sure it is plugged in?" and "Have you tried turning it off and on again?"
Most of the rest of their time at the office is spent amusing themselves online.
Yes, that is pretty much how it was for British computer nerds while their American counterparts were spinning off their own software companies in Silicon Valley - and why 'Google' and 'Facebook' are American and not British.
In introducing geek or nerd culture into the mainstream, The IT Crowd is therefore the British equivalent of The Big Bang Theory. There the similarities end. For one thing, the aspirational American academics at Caltech have little in common with their loser counterparts at Reynholm Industries.
More importantly, the style of comedy is very different, reflecting deeper national differences in humour. Where BBT follows the standard US sitcom playbook, The IT Crowd is satirical, sometimes to the point of the absurd and the surreal.
In one episode, her tech-savvy subordinates convince their clueless manager Jen that "the Elders of the Internet" have agreed to let her use the actual Internet in a corporate presentation. With great ceremony they then present her with a small, nondescript box which she accepts guilelessly is "The Internet." Yet, to their amazement, all her fellow managers accept it too.
Another is, in retrospect, a very prescient portrayal of how "social media" will come to dominate our lives. The sight of three people in the same room communicating through 'Friendface' rather than talking to each other counted as ridicule back in 2008 - now it is documentary.
Best of all is a pastiche of 'The Matrix,' 'Fight Club,' 'The Fast and the Furious,' and the popular afternoon quiz show Countdown, with memorable guest slots for Benedict Wong, Gemma Chan, and Gyles Brandreth. Wong gets to deliver the deathless line "No, we promised those days were over - no more unlicensed Street Countdown battles!"
After that it was but a short step to playing Kublai Khan.
The humour of social embarrassment is also a huge factor in The IT Crowd. Most of us have experienced moments so embarrassing that we simply want to curl up and die, even if we are only passive witnesses. 'The IT Crowd' takes that one stage further, and at the moment when most comedies would give such a scene a merciful cut by way of 'coup de grace' it takes us on through death into a tortured afterlife.
This is best seen in an episode in which Roy uses a disabled toilet at an avant garde theatre production. From there one bad choice leads on to another.
Another episode sees the Dinner Party from Hell, in which one couple go from first meeting to full 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf' in the course of a single evening.
The secret is in the casting. O'Dowd is a cool Irish guy playing a nerd who does not like to think of himself as a nerd but rather tries to be, well, a cool Irish guy - and fails. It is a carefully judged performance that could have gone badly wrong if had not been so completely right.
Even better is the multi-talented Ayoade as the ultimate nerd's nerd. This is a character who raises a fire alarm by writing a formal e-mail. Some of the best moments occur when Moss breaks character, as in the 'Countdown' episode in which his success at the quiz suddenly makes him super cool, at least in a certain circle. In another episode, which actually poses some serious questions about the nature of masculinity in a technocratic age, he becomes friendly with an East End hard man after learning to talk "bloke" - from the Internet, of course.
A fourth inhabitant of the basement, whom Jen discovers only after she has been there for some time, is a sweet natured Goth played by Noel Fielding, but the character does not really go anywhere.
Far more interesting is Denholm Reynholm, the Chief Executive of Reynholm industries, played by Chris Morris of Brass Eye fame. He is an over the top satire of the sort of hyper aggressive style of management then still very much in vogue. Even more over the top, but in a less aggressive and far less businesslike way, is his son, Douglas, who succeeds him - which is hardly surprising since he is played by Matt Berry as what can only be described as "the Matt Berry Character."
This means he is a highly entertaining combination of Brian Blessed and the late Sir Donald Wolfit. Never having met Matt Berry, fairness obliges us to point out that, in real life, he might be a very shy and unassertive sort of chap, not at all act-or-y, and that 'Toast of London' is in no way autobiographical. Who knows? Anyway, the point is that he is nothing if not fun.
Although O'Dowd, Ayoade, and Berry have all gone on to greater successes, there is a strong case for saying that Katherine Parkinson was the real star of the show.
Beneath the comedy, her character is one of the first credible portraits of the modern working woman. She has problems being taken seriously by both her male superior and her male subordinates. She suffers from sexual harassment - and stands up to it, successfully, long before it became fashionable. She struggles to find a comfortable bra and comfortable shoes - at least ones she likes - to work. In many ways she is a feminist heroine.
Yet Jen remains a comic character and as such she succeeds in her own terms. She could easily have been no more than the straight man to such accomplished male performers, but she ends up getting her share of the laughs and more. To a great extent, The IT Crowd is really the Rise and Fall and Further Fall and Rise of Jen Barber.
Like many programmes that were cutting edge in their day, The IT Crowd might seem a little dated now. Its satire was too successful in that it contributed to the destruction of much that it satirised. However, it stands up well to repeated rewatching, not least because it remains a classic example of cringe-comedy at its best.
John Winterson Richards
John Winterson Richards is the author of the 'Xenophobe's Guide to the Welsh' and the 'Bluffer's Guide to Small Business,' both of which have been reprinted more than twenty times in English and translated into several other languages. He was editor of the latest Bluffer's Guide to Management and, as a freelance writer, has had over 500 commissioned articles published.
He is also the author of How to Build Your Own Pyramid: A Practical Guide to Organisational Structures' and co-author of 'The Context of Christ: the History and Politics of Rome and Judea, 100 BC - 33 AD,' as well as the author of several novels under the name Charles Cromwell, all of which can be downloaded from Amazon.
John's Website can be found at John Winterson Richards
Published on February 3rd, 2020. Written by John Winterson Richards for Television Heaven.