Welcome to season four of “The Thick of It”! As we begin this new season, things are quite a bit different with our beloved characters and with the government. For the last three seasons, Malcolm’s political party has been in power. Now the show will be portraying a Coalition government between two parties who are never explicitly named, but are at least a lot like the Tories and the Liberal Democrats in Britain. Enough time has passed in Real Life Politics that we know tensions are present between the two parties sharing power, so it will be interesting to see how it is characterized in the show. Let’s dive into the first episode of the fourth season, and the first episode ever to not feature Malcolm in the storyline at all.
Episode one opens with Peter Mannion, the new minister for the Department of Social Affairs and Citizenship. Previously, we’d seen Peter in the Specials and in season three as the Opposition. Now he’s in power and we first see him arguing with his wife on the phone. We also see Terri, who has stayed on in her regular position because she’s part of the civil service, which is non-partisan, discussing something with Phil, Peter Mannion’s chief adviser. On the phone, Peter tells his wife he cannot leave the office until his Coalition partner, Fergus, leaves. It is quite clear that Peter doesn’t have any respect for Fergus and resents having to work with him.
The Coalition partner in question, Fergus, is conversing with his own chief adviser, Adam. Adam’s character has appeared before in the second Special, “Spinners and Losers,” as a journalist. He has since taken up a position in politics, clearly. Fergus mentions a policy idea called “Silicon Playground,” which he hopes Peter does not screw up. Fergus and Adam are looking over some large, iPhone-shaped advertisements for Silicon Playground when Terri brings the news that the policy has been green-lighted to be launched.
Next, Stewart (referred to by Phil as “the human snowman” and, basically, the equivalent of Malcolm on this side) and Emma (the Opposition adviser Ollie had been dating) arrive at the office. Stewart announces that the PM has given the go-ahead for Silicon Playground, but then bursts Fergus and Adam’s optimistic bubble by telling them Peter will be launching the policy. Adam is quite angry about this, of course, but Stewart lays it on the line and gives us a pretty clear picture of how the Coalition works: “Every band has a front man. He’s Florence and you’re the machine.”
Suddenly, Glenn enters the conference room! Yes, Glenn has changed parties and has joined up with the Lib-Dems rather than fade into obscurity in the Opposition. Right off the bat, he appears out of place and it seems that everyone is rather annoyed by his presence, basically just ignoring him altogether.
After some discussion, and though Peter doesn’t even want to launch the policy, Stewart says that he will be doing so while Fergus determines staff cuts.
Glenn complains to Terri about how unnecessary he feels in this new position. Indeed, he did at least seem like a stable fixture when he was working with Hugh. Terri lets Glenn in on her plan to be made redundant (i.e., be fired). Peter, Phil, and Emma head out to the Silicon Playground launch at a school. In a classic back-of-the-car scene, Peter asks what the difference is between “upload” and “download.” It’s clear that he is not the right person to be launching this policy and that this launch is going to be a disaster. Meanwhile the Coalition partners, the ones who put their brain power and passion behind this policy, are hidden away in a pub figuring out who to sack.
At the launch, Peter initially does well explaining how Silicon Playground will enable the younger generation to collaborate with the government, creating educational apps and receiving a digital dividend in return. It all goes south, though, when a student asks if this means they’d be working for free. Peter stumbles on the boy’s name, Rajesh, and, as more questions fly at him, he shows just how unprepared he is for launching this policy. It is, frankly, a painful and cringe-worthy scene to watch as Peter bumbles his way through answering the students’ questions. As you might imagine, the launch leads to a scolding from Stewart, anger from the Coalition partners, and an attempt to clean up the mess from Terri.
Outside the department, Fergus is confronted by the press asking for more details of the policy and for clarification on what Peter said. In his attempt to give a more cogent description of Silicon Playground, Fergus contradicts what Peter stated in his presentation. Then, when journalists confront Peter at his home, they quote Fergus and Peter looks quite foolish and disconnected from the policy he’s supposed to be launching.
When Peter gets back to the department, Stewart arrives to shout at Peter and Fergus for their joint failure. Stewart says they will both be re-launching the policy that evening at a learning center. Caught together by the press, Peter and Fergus are immediately asked if it’s true that they hate each other. Fergus laughs and says “no,” but we have obviously seen otherwise.
At the re-do launch, Raj, the boy whose name Peter stumbled over, is present and they thank him for pointing out the holes in their policy. Fergus invites him to come on board for Silicon Playground and Raj fires back, “Sure, if you pay me.” It’s clear that these politicians are not equipped to work with the younger generation.
Back at the department, Stewart is brainstorming how they can extend Silicon Playground to other demographics in order to achieve a “Network Nation.” Just as he’s getting excited, he receives a call from Number 10 with news that the PM has declared Silicon Playground dead because of too much confusion surrounding the launch. Stewart is visibly upset by this news in a way that Malcolm never was. Malcolm usually channelled that disappointment into anger, whereas Stewart is simply downtrodden.
Fergus gets the news of his dead policy while still with Peter and he declares the whole day “an excruciating waste of time.” They part ways and Peter tells his wife that he’s on his way home. But then he sees that Fergus is headed back to the department, so he has to follow and won’t be home until late.
From this episode, I think we get the message that these politicians are frustrated with the Coalition situation. We can imagine they might say they haven’t worked their whole lives just to share being in power. Frankly, it seems like a complete and utter mess, but it certainly makes for great television. Aside from the Coalition, though, the same sense of this department being so low on the totem pole that they can never get anything done is still present. They’re still working for things that are most likely going to be killed by the PM. Though we now have different characters, that same sense of constantly swimming against a powerful current is still there.
From the teaser trailer, we see that next week the spotlight returns to Malcolm and his Opposition team. How will he handle being out of power? If the Coalition is in a shambles, what must the Opposition be like? I can’t wait to see!
Season four of The Thick of It will be broadcast on BBC2 at 9:45 on Saturdays, and then on Hulu the following day for American viewers. It can also be seen online on the BBC’s iPlayer.