Twenty Twelve/The Games (review)

Twenty Twelve Olivia Colman Hugh Bonneville green light

I’m biast (pro): love the cast; love the mockumentary genre; love anything that sends up bureaucracy

I’m biast (con): nothing

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

The final three episodes of Series 2 of Twenty Twelve air beginning tonight on BBC2, and I cannot wait. I need a good laugh. I need some clever snarking on the insanity that is jumped-up corporately fueled, marketed-to-death Olympics fever. I need a reminder that I’m not the only one who thinks the world has gone way overboard with this stuff, and someone else sees it for the farce that it is.

What? You haven’t seen Twenty Twelve? You must. If, that is, you’re a fan of smart, sharp social, cultural, media, and political satire and hugely entertaining comedic performances from some of the best British talent doing funny stuff today.

See, a “documentary camera crew” has been following the doings of the, ahem, “Olympic Deliverance Commission” — yeah, deliverance — as they go about organizing the 2012 Olympic Games in London. In charge is Ian Fletcher (Hugh Bonneville: Doctor Who, Tsunami: The Aftermath), who is a master of bullshit — “Problems are just solutions waiting to happen,” he explains earnestly to the documentary camera at one point, which might be my favorite Ian-ism. There’s his superheroic executive assistant, Sally Owen (Olivia Colman: Tyrannosaur, Arrietty), who should probably be running the joint, she’s that capable… and she’s also clearly massively in love with Ian, which she expresses by smoothly and almost invisibly attending to his every need, including the ones he doesn’t yet realize he has. I’ve never thought of Bonneville as “funny” before, and indeed here he mostly plays straight man to the cast of high-level incompetents surrounding him, but his every interplay with Colman is a wonder of ignoring the elephant in the room. Colman, on the other hand, is astonishingly heartbreaking, in a thwarted comedic way that makes it even more heartbreaking, at every missed opportunity to tell him how she feels, and at every opportunity she takes to express it wordlessly.

There’s Graham Hitchens (Karl Theobald), master of infrastructure, whose utter lack of understanding of his job leads to disasters such as a London-wide traffic jam as he tests new stoplight patterns that are intended to smooth traffic flow. There’s Kay Hope (Amelia Bullmore: Sherlock, I’m Alan Partridge), Head of Sustainability, who fights like a cornered badger every time the question of what sustainability actually is crops up — which is often, and no one knows, except it is most definitely not the same thing as legacy. And perhaps most entertaining of all is Siobhan Sharpe (Jessica Hynes: Doctor Who, Shaun of the Dead), Head of Brand, who heads up PR agency Perfect Curve and is an even more accomplished master of bullshit than Ian is; everything on her end is “cool,” even when she has no idea what anyone is talking about. (Siobhan inspires despair, too, for so perfectly embodying the uninformed idiocy that passes for genius in the marketing field.) There are also some excellent guest appearances, most deliciously the one by Tim McInnery (Johnny English Reborn, Doctor Who) as a full-of-himself filmmaker turned anti-government troublemaker — he’s hilarious.

The minutiae of office politics takes on the same level of urgency as urban inheritance does here: who might have “hand” at the moment is at least as important, if not more so, than what a world city will look like during and after, in the wake of, the Games (that is, what this team is supposed to be working toward). Arguments over semantics and how best to be “managing expectations” are the on-the-ground expressions of huge, sweeping matters: actual governmental politics here is indistinguishable from propaganda, which is indistinguishable from branding: one episode early in Series 2 sees Ian and Siobhan massaging the royal family’s PR team into getting an endorsement from one of the royals… and when it comes, it’s so shocking seamless and apparently spontaneous that it underscores how manufactured even what passes for “news” is.

It’s all fairly terrifying, in fact: this hardly seems like parody, and it’s easy to imagine that the actual work going on to mount the London Games looks pretty much like this. It’s all so slyly underplayed that less cynical viewers may not even see it as satire, though we might hope that David Tennant’s (The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists!, Fright Night) deadpan narration that itself sends up reality documentaries — “By the next morning, it’s Wednesday” — would clue them in. But that TV genre is also beyond satire, so that could slip by, too.

Watch Twenty Twelve: Series 1 online via Amazon Instant Video.

Watch Twenty Twelve: Series 2 online via Amazon Instant Video.

The Games DVD

If you like Twenty Twelve, you might want to check out The Games [IMDb], a late-90s Australian television series that bears a striking similarity… so much so, in fact, that creators John Clarke and Ross Stevenson have outright accused the BBC of theft (which the BBC denies).

Across 26 half-hour episodes here, we follow the team implementing the 2000 Sydney summer Olympics via a mockumentary TV reality show. John (Clarke) is Head of Administration and Logistics, and he’s a fairly dim fellow, though once in a while he hits on something accidentally smart, like: What is the point of insuring a object such as Picasso’s Guernica — which might come to Sydney for a Games-related art exhibition — for $4 million if it cannot be replaced if damaged? Bryan (Bryan Dawe) is Head of Accounts, Budgeting and Finance, which leads him to involvement in such PR disasters as a hidden-cam hotel-room scandal involving a secretly recorded conversation about the possibility of taxing the rich more to pay for the Olympics (this is, as you will certainly be aware, an outrageous proposition). Marketing and Liaison Manager is Gina (Gina Riley), who at one point finds herself wondering whether anyone would notice if the most obscure Olympics sport simply wasn’t held. (She also has what is perhaps the best one-liner here, in her reference to one troublesome politician as “the Minister for Getting His Name in the Paper.”)

I’m not sure The Games is quite as sharp as Twenty Twelve, though it may be just that the world has developed a more highly refined scope for large-scale idiocy in the intervening decade, and so late 1990s political/cultural/social/media satire simply cannot have the same bite it had back then. Certainly, there’s much that’s dryly, smoothly, harshly witty here, even if some of it is a tad outdated: the team struggles to cope with Internet literacy and to understand the Y2K bug, for instance. But much remains universal, such as the preposterous “team-building” weekend the gang is forced to endure, and the notion that they might have to accept sponsorship from a tobacco corporation. Some of the nonsense is pure nonsense, like the 100-meters track that’s only “about” a hundred meters long. Some of it is uniquely Australian, such as the attempts to Australian-up ancient Olympic traditions, and the cultural pride/injury that comes from being so out of whack, timezonewise, with Western Europe and North America, Australia’s close cultural cousins.

The first episode of the second season takes the form of a “news program” called In the Public Interest — which is “preempting” that night’s episode of The Games — focusing on the controversy surrounding the Sydney Olympics: budget woes, threats of athlete boycotts, ticket scams. It sounds so much like what’s been swirling around the London Olympics that it’s hard to see this as very satirical. Perhaps the Sydney visit, in one episode, by a delegate from London’s 2012 bid rubbed off too well.

The Games is available in North America and the U.K. as an import DVD [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon U.K.].

Thanks to my friend Bob Kuhn for lending me his Region 4 DVDs of ‘The Games.’ Sorry I kept them for so long, Bob.

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