The IT Crowd: From Hell
And so we begin our weekly reviews of Series 3 of The IT Crowd. You'll notice that these are in a slightly different format to our usual reviews - it's one that is completely original and definitely not just nicked wholesale from the popular series of Virgin telly guides. No. (We'll be reviewing the first two series straight after this one, so you can complete the set.)
The One With...
Douglas and the board meeting, Jen and the Builder From Hell, Roy and the £20 note, and Moss and the bullies. (Four plotlines, yes. Hmmm.)
I Love Willies
(Or: the best bits.) And more than anything else, this is an episode built on moments - and some of these are amongst the best moments in The IT Crowd so far: "Them glasses is shit, innit", Douglas' gun reveal (one of the best Part One endings the show has done), Roy opening the laptop (O'Dowd's reaction here once it's flipped open is fantastic), Jen on her knees, and so on. We aren't wanting for funny moments here.
The cut to Jen and Roy sitting behind the TV monitors, as in Builders From Hell/House of Horrors, is the best TV reference the show has managed so far, in terms of seamlessly incorporating it into the episode and yet making it make narrative sense. The following joke - Roy's "They're pretty well hidden", followed by the most obvious hidden camera imaginable, is the perfect example of an obvious joke that's still hilarious - the extra-large spyhole, followed by the cut to reveal that the camera is still in its box (with the words"VIDEO CAMERA" on the side) brilliantly builds the joke up from a straightforward cutaway gag, and the cut has a wonderful rhythm to it that lifts the whole thing.
Jen yelling at Gary was a lovely reminder of Series 1 shouty Jen. "OH I THINK YOU DO!" I love Series 1 shouty Jen. I don't care if nobody else in the world does. She's fucking hilarious, and vaguely sexy, although I urge you not to dwell on what that last part says about me too much.
Denholm's letter contains one of my favourite jokes ever in the show: "I did plan on using this gun to take my own life if it ever came to it, but as you know in the end, I jumped out of a window." I love the fact that it doesn't even sound like a joke until you think about it slightly more...
You've Got Shit On Your Head
(Or: the stuff that doesn't work.) The high-pitched noise when the gun goes off - to simulate the ringing in your ears from a loud noise. It's a really nice idea, but it tramples over the funny dialogue, and - crucially - the gun noise isn't loud enough to make you buy it in the first place. In fact, when I first watched it, I thought there was a transmission problem.
The whole business with Douglas shooting himself in the leg isn't really that great - not a huge amount of humour comes out of it. (A far better example of this kind of sequence comes in the second series of I'm Alan Partridge, where Alan impales his foot on a spike - here, the results aren't extreme enough, and the stakes aren't high enough, despite the attempts earlier on to infuse the meeting with importance.) The final climax, with the switching video feed, isn't that wonderful either - nowhere near good enough to be the episode's set piece climax. It just doesn't feel shocking or embarrassing enough. Jen's recognition of Mr Yamamoto is the best bit - although I think a lot of the humour relies on you recognising him from right back in Series 1! All this leaves the second part, despite having some excellent moments, feeling slightly underwhelming.
Oh, and, erm, the entire plotting of the episode. (See below.)
(Anything to do with the Reynholms.) Matt Berry's name is in the title sequence! And Denholm's back! A veritable treat for Reynholm fans.
In some ways, it would have been nice to have had Douglas included visually in the titles, but they may have run into the same problem that Lab Rats had - the characters who aren't Lab Rats themselves, and so can't be caricatures, don't really fit in hugely well. Here, Douglas can't be designed in the same way as our three heroes - he's not part of IT - but nor can he be one of the faceless drones with their IT problems either. He's a halfway house that's difficult to integrate.
A lot of screen time in this episode is given over to Douglas' imminent meeting - and it's fair to say that this is the episode where Matt Berry finally clicked with me. Not only in his obvious standout bits, but also the smaller moments, like his expression after “Your affectionate father, Mr. Renholm.” (I think Douglas had a pretty rotten introduction right back in Return of the Golden Child that set me off on the wrong foot with the character, but we'll get to that in due course.)
Denholm's return, meanwhile, is really cleverly done - at first you think they've just got Morris to do a quick voiceover, but no - he's back in the flesh. Hitler's appearance is note-perfect, and the only downside is that the final lines of the sequence - "I'll see you later, Douglas" / "Not if I see you first!" are just... a nothing. Not funny, not interesting, not anything. They sound like they're supposed to be amusing and witty... but they aren't. This wouldn't ordinarily matter as much, but at the end of such a great sequence, it's disappointing. Still, it's lovely to get an amusing sitcom scene set in the afterlife again. (See also: The Brittas Empire.)
Also... did Chris Morris really just return for one episode? An episode that doesn't - at this point, at least - really seem that important to the overall plot of the series? (I honestly don't know, but I'm hoping they wouldn't just have got him in for this, as Morris is always superb in the show. Still, I wasn't expecting him to return at all, so I'll take what I can get.)
Bodie, Doyle, Tiger, The Jewellery Man
Togo Igawa as Mr Yamamoto, who we last saw in Calamity Jen, carrying away his ceremonial sword in a carrier bag... and here yet again gets a screaming Jen to contend with.
Jonathan Ryland as Gary the Builder. The professional part of me should inform you that he was Kevin in Fat Friends. The real part of me wants to point and shout "IT'S REECE SHEARSMITH'S FRIEND ON THAT ROBOT WARS SPACED EPISODE!!!!"
I dunno the names of the girls at the iPod party, but have them fattened up and sent round to my house immediately. Ta.
Have You Tried Turning It Off And On Again?
It's here! The catchphrase that Linehan just can't shake off, despite his intentions - and quite right too. OK, so Jen interrupts Roy in the middle of it, but it's there...
Don't Google The Question
"I've always thought it was about 60/40." Before we start anything else: bad IT Crowd. Naughty IT Crowd. Last year, the second series premiere ignored the first series cliffhanger - and now the third series premiere ignores the second series cliffhanger! If you're not going to at least attempt to resolve your cliffhangers, don't bother writing them. True, the second series cliffhanger was rather tamer than the first, but all the more reason to actually address the issues you left, as you haven't written yourself into a corner. There was a major disconnect between Roy/Moss and Jen at the end of the last series - you needed to acknowledge that somehow.
Interesting random point: there were two references to previous episodes this week - the aforementioned Mr Yamamoto, harking back to Calamity Jen, but more overtly - the callback to the new emergency services number. I saw this episode recorded, and thought it was so unusual that it was likely to be cut - but it's here, and I'm pleased to see it. You don't want too many, but a few here and there helps build a consistent world for the show.
It's difficult to shake the idea that the (excellent) final scene with Moss was meant to sit over the end credits. Certainly, a smug looking Moss sitting down on a park bench is a far more pleasing final image to leave your audience with than a load of black and white camera shots - and the length of the last shot of him sitting down feels designed to lead into the production company endcap. Hmmmm. Padding, in an IT Crowd episode? Or was it just felt that it wasn't right to have the resolution of a plotline over the end credits?
Still, onto the real issue. Earlier on, I mentioned problems with the plotting of the episode. And the key to the problem is mentioned right at the start of this review: four plotlines. Four plotlines in a 25 minute show. Now, I'm sure that can be pulled off, but not in the manner it's done here.
For a start, some plots are crucially underexplored. You can get away with mini-plots as part of an episode, where they're given very little screen time - often, Mrs. Doyle's moments on Father Ted worked like this. But here, it just feels like Roy's £20 plotline doesn't really go anywhere at all. Still, frankly I'm not hugely interested in that as a plot - apart from Douglas' "crafty Irish bastard" line, it doesn't really do that much. More seriously, Moss and the bullies - which could easily have formed half an episode - is mostly reduced to three short scenes. There's acres of material that could have come from this idea, and proper character comedy too - but here, the storyline feels short-changed. Whenever we're spending time with Douglas in the boardroom, I want to go back to Moss to find out how he's coping.
The key scene here is with Roy and Moss practicing ways for Moss to confront the bullies, which is bloody fantastic... and, as much as I love other moments in the episode, it feels like the heart of the show. The show, frankly, that I fell in love with back in Series 1. And there's just not nearly enough of it here. I want at least one long dialogue scene in the basement - and whilst some episodes can get away without them (The Work Outing, for one) if you're replacing it with something sufficiently interesting, I'm not sure the show manages it here - indeed, with the bullies storyline, it practically begs for them. The lack of these key scenes makes the show feel rather more surface than it should do.
Ultimately, however amusing I find the Douglas plotline... the key to the show is downstairs. It's Moss, Roy, Jen, and their interactions. Maybe even their interactions with Douglas. But whilst Douglas left alone leads to one of the episode's key funny moments - the gun reveal - the boss material has never been what I loved about the show. It's always just been the icing on the cake. So to concentrate on that at the expense of some potentially great Moss material - and Moss has been consistently underused since the start of the second series - it's upsetting the balance of the show. Or, at least, turning it into a different kind of show... and one I'm not as keen on as that first series.
The four plotlines also creates a pacing problem - and in many ways, this is worse than the problem of underused storylines. We're flitting from scene to scene with barely any chance to catch our breath. No sooner am I starting to get involved with what's happening, then we cut away to another plot. I doubt any scene lasted more than a minute and a half this week - and whilst I don't need sitcoms to consist of only three long scenes an episode (although they can be bloody excellent), I think this episode takes things too far. I was left flailing around, never really getting a chance to get into the show properly.
Still, I can't be too harsh - as I've said, there's plenty to enjoy in the episode too. I said earlier that the show was built on moments - and the show has more than enough of them to be hugely entertaining. Whilst it falters on some of the plotting and pace, this is still a show that hasn't forgotten that it needs to be laugh-out-loud funny. Whilst it's still doing that, you can't complain too much.
It's a problem with expectation as much as anything. Yesterday's Jam is about as good a first episode of sitcom I've seen, and made me fall helplessly in love with the series. And The Work Outing is one of the best episodes of sitcom I have ever seen full stop. As a single episode of comedy, this episode delivers more than enough laughs. But as an opening episode of one of my favourite comedy series this decade? And a series that Linehan has gone on record as saying is what he always wanted the show to be?
It's found, unfortunately, wanting. But wanting from a show that I hold to very high standards indeed.