“Have you tried turning it off and on again?”. Back in 2006, cult comedy writer Graham Linehan (Father Ted) set about a new sitcom. So he tapped into the confusion and lack of respect that goes into the office IT department. The series proved to be a hit and ran for 4 seasons and one special that rounded off the characters. All of them are now available on Netflix.
In typical sitcom fashion we have a core cast of characters in The IT Crowd. We have the workshy and easily frustrated Roy played by Chris O’Dowd. Moss, played by Richard Ayoade, is a super smart coder but utterly useless at practical problems. Lastly, there's Relationship manager Jen (Katherine Parkinson) whose complete ignorance of computers is tempered by her ability to act as a buffer between the rest of the company and the two ‘nerds’ under her charge.
The three of them form the IT department stuck in a dingy and messy basement of a huge corporate building. The offices are home to Reynholm Industries, a business that is never really defined. But it is staffed full of people who have no idea about computers, yet work in snazzy offices and have no regard or respect for the relegated IT department beneath.
Each episode sees the core cast getting into some sort of problem which invariably escalates to the point of ludicrousness. Much like Father Ted, Linehan’s writing style is classic sitcom gags peppered with occasional flights of surreal fancy. Like when Jen’s ‘Aunt Irma’ comes to visit (a euphemism for premenstrual tension). She is temporarily transformed into a woman with electrified hair and aggressive roar voice (symptoms of which the highly suggestible Roy and Moss also start to display).
Or when Moss’ victory on the TV show Countdown leads to him falling into the (sort of) dark world of ‘Street Countdown’ (in an episode featuring a hilarious Benedict Wong in a Matrix style rip). Linehan stuffs the scripts with clear pet peeves that translate to many other people’s frustrations and lets his characters shoot themselves in the foot trying to deal with them.
You could argue that, with the worst interpretation, The IT Crowd does trade heavily in stereotypes to fill out its humour. The aforementioned joke about Jen getting her period may make you roll your eyes and think, ‘really?’. But the insightful wit, daft surrealism, and quality of the gags means that the humour works much better than a flat description can do justice to. Real life situations blending with the ever so slightly bizarre make for ripe comedy fruit. Some people aren’t fans of a laugh track, but personally, I love shows filmed before a live studio audience. Watching the cast react to the waves of laughter, pausing for effect, is a mark of skilled actors.
O’Dowd, Parkinson, and Ayoade live up to their roles perfectly. Roy’s exasperation at the sheer ignorance of everyone upstairs (“are you sure it’s plugged in?”) is shown to be perfectly justified. And O’Dowd plays his rages with a sympathetic twinge that will hook the viewer into his plights.
Moss’ super nerd style may seem very by the numbers at first, but Ayoade’s performance goes beyond stereotype through to iconic. Whether he is calmly inventing the most comfortable bra in the world or following fire extinguisher instructions too literally, he toes that fine line between stupidity and intelligence throughout. Parkinson’s Jen is supposed to be the normal character. But her failed dates, struggle to give up smoking and attempts to climb the corporate ladder give her a blend of everywoman that rounds out the episodes nicely.
The IT Crowd is one of those rare sitcoms that pretty much found the right balance immediately with no lulls or teething problems. If you haven’t seen it before then use the powers of streaming television to treat yourself. Just be careful that no-one accidentally drops the box containing ‘the internet’ and causes a riot…
Words by Michael Record