We revisit Graham Linehan’s acclaimed (and computer-literate) sitcom.
The last few years has seen such a surge in geek media to the point where the average Dungeons & Dragons lover could become the lead in a TV series, and not just the third-stringer wheeled in for a cheap laugh. It has been embodied by unlikely stars such as Seth Rogen and Simon Pegg, and the current domination of Marvel is surely the ultimate sign that nerdom is now alive and kicking, baby. TV is going the same way, and how else can we explain the mainstream success of current staples like Comic Book Men, Toy Hunter and The Big Bang Theory?
The latter is the most galling example because it has merely adopted geek culture like its some red-headed stepchild given a license to print money; an unoriginal Hollywood confection that makes sure to sprinkle in “obscure” sci-fi references to make it seem well-read. Compared to Channel 4’s The IT Crowd, which debuted the year before, the American offering seems all the more manufactured. It remains a hilarious sitcom that not only gives us two pitiful weirdos to guffaw over, but takes enough satirical swipes at British culture and office politics to be more than just a string of pop-culture farts. While never hitting the heights of such anorak-pleasing greats like Spaced and Peep Show, The IT Crowd nevertheless gives the exploits of Sheldon and co. a run for their money. Plus, you know, its consistently funny…
Written, created and occasionally directed by Graham Linehan (Father Ted, Black Books), the show sounds simple enough on paper. In the offices of London’s Reynholm Industries, the IT department struggle to be heard from their unkempt basement. No-one else in the gleaming structure cares for their existence, but that doesn’t stop slacker Roy Trenneman (Chris O’Dowd) and the socially-inept Maurice Moss (Richard Ayoade) from having fun as they try to do as little tech support as possible. Throwing a spanner in the works is Jen Barber (Katherine Parkinson), the new head of the department who instantly breaks tradition by 1) being a woman and 2) being completely computer-illiterate. Cue awkward misunderstandings and situations no police interviewer would ever believe.
This is the ideal set-up for a typical modern British comedy, but Linehan isn’t known for doing things the usual way. Like Father Ted before it, The IT Crowd stakes its claim by venturing into absurdist humour and outright fantasy at points. The surrealism lends itself to head-slappingly ludicrous plotlines like Moss meeting a German cannibal or him and Roy believing they’ve synced up to Jen’s menstrual cycle. Better yet, how about the latter’s banishment as a smoker to the outside of the building, where Linehan plays the situation like a World War II drama where Jen is almost one step away from being gassed? Not only is it questionable stuff when you really start to think about it, but it’s also painfully funny as social satire. The IT Crowd is insidiously clever whilst being deceptively silly. Perhaps the best example, for me anyway, is this spot-on parody of those DVD anti-piracy adverts:
The show ultimately works, though, as most sitcoms do, from the efforts of a game cast. These are great, impossibly broad characters that aren’t believable but become loveable for the overblown stereotypes they are. O’Dowd has become a sought-after name because he’s just about as reliable an Everyman as you can get. Here, as Linehan’s trademark Irishman, he’s charmingly dopey in the best possible way. Roy is the character we (regrettably) recognise ourselves in.
By contrast, Moss is the dictionary definition of a nebbish, decked out in a shirt, tie and thick-rimmed glasses. He belongs on the cover of a Descendents album he’s so classically square, but the twist is that Moss is a complete idiot absolutely incapable of doing or saying the right thing. Ayoade, who practically stole the limelight as Dean Learner in Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, takes whatever acting skills he has and applies them full-force to a role that never ceases to amuse. Moss is a man who sits opposite a raging fire and decides to inform the authorities via email. He’s a priceless and conceptually perfect comedic creation.
Parkinson is easily the most underrated of the trio. Jen is the vessel caught in the storm that is Roy and Moss’ antics, who we are expected to sympathise with. If you ever watched Big Bang and wondered why the attractive and popular Penny would ever hang out with them, at least Jen is forced to share their oxygen. Like Roy and Moss, she’s also a wildly exaggerated caricature. Linehan’s scripting occasionally seems sexist, such as her ungodly love of shoes or lack of any technical proficiency, but it’s all in the service of parodying the archetypal sitcom female. Parkinson gets as many laughs as the boys and also looks absolutely stupendous in a business suit.
We should also mention the memorable appearances from Chris Morris as the ridiculously pompous boss Denholm Reynholm, Darkplace alum Matt Berry hamming it up a storm as his son Douglas, and Noel Fielding as business goth Richmond. They all combine to make Reynholm Industries seem like the ninth circle of hell.
The IT Crowd is ridiculous, uproarious and absolutely Marmite. You almost need to be a socially-dislocated manchild to fully appreciate it, but those looking for an off-the-wall sitcom with brains to burn should look no further. It’s all in the name really.
Oh, and that title theme is amazing, too…
- The show tries to add a large number of references to geek culture and professionalism, mostly in set dressing and props. Dialogue (both technical and cultural) is usually authentic and any technobabble used often contains in-jokes for viewers knowledgeable in such subjects. Roy regularly wears shirts that feature abbreviations, such as OMFG and RTFM. Series 3 Episode 1 has Roy wearing the Music Elitism Venn Diagram tee and I Screw Robots sticker from the webcomic Diesel Sweeties. On occasion, there will be movie-style scenes that parody fight scenes and melodrama.
- In August 2008, having not had time to source the props himself, Linehan appealed to fans to donate items to use for series 3, to make the set look like “a geek’s Shangri-La.” The Centre for Computing History loaned a collection of computers from the 1970s and 1980s. They included an Altair 8800, Oric Atmos, Amstrad CPC 464, Sinclair ZX81, Sinclair ZX Spectrum +2, Commodore 64, Commodore PET, Atari ST, Sord M5, Acorn RISC PC600,BBC Model B, an Astro Wars game, circuit boards from a Wang VS mainframe and several shelves of old computer manuals. A Map Overlay and Statistical System (MOSS) manual, with the letters M-O-S-S on the spine, sits on the shelf behind Moss.
- Many items on the set reflect Linehan’s own personal taste. There are numerous examples of this, but most noticeable are the V for Vendetta (Guy Fawkes) mask, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, various xkcd references, such as the “Map of Online Communities” poster and the “Actual Size!” sticker on Moss’s computer, the Buddy Bradley doll, the Robert Pollard and Guided by Voices posters (Guided by Voices is one of Linehan’s favourite bands, cropping up in background music, on t-shirts and getting a specific mention in series 3, episode 3), a poster of the album The Campfire Headphase by Boards of Canada and the War on Terror board game, which is played by Moss and Roy in series 2, episode 4. The main stickers found around the office include the Electronic Frontier Foundation (“Fair Use has a POSSE”, “MP3 is not a crime”, “Coding is not a crime”) and the Open Rights Group. In the fourth series, some Ubuntu stickers were added, including one on Moss’s monitor, Jen’s office door, the mirror and the department’s door.