Tuesday, July 6, 2010
‘Richmond’s not in his room!’ – Why I love the IT Crowd
I have spent too many hours of my life splayed out on the loungeroom floor watching reruns of a sitcom that has grabbed and colonised my heart, soul and mind. It’s called The IT Crowd and its controlled ridiculousness is keeping me semi-sane during what is proving to be a rather grim winter. This British comedy is written by the unfairly talented Graham Linehan, cowriter of Black Books.
Moss, Roy and Jen constitute the IT department of the chaotic but phenomenally successful Reynholm industries (that the company’s raison d’etre is never specified is a running joke of the show; one fan has set up a spoof company website). Stuck in the basement of the Reynholm tower, they’re cut off from the other workers in their airy offices who enjoy stunning views of London.
Moss and Roy are hapless nerds while Jen, their ‘relationship manager’, sees herself as their bridge to the normal world but too often is marginalised herself by association.
Then one day Jen spies a red door in the basement, and, as in Bluebeard’s castle, is only more determined to discover what’s behind it when Roy and Moss warn her that all hell will break lose if she does. After the initial terror of encountering Richmond, an unearthly Goth, she settles down for a chat with this sweet-tempered former high-flyer who has been banished to the server room because of his infatuation with the extreme metal band Cradle of Filth.
‘Richmond’s out of his room, he’s not in his room, he’s supposed to be in his room, why isn’t he in his room?’ laments Moss, his love of routine and predictability thwarted, the British pronunciation of ‘room’, less drawn out and therefore more formal sounding than the Australian version, adding weight to his objection.
Moss, despite Graham Linehan’s denials, is clearly meant to be an Aspergers person. Not only does he thrive on routine but he’s technically proficient to the point of genius, socially clumsy, and entirely oblivious to nuance and Machiavellian craftiness; he even walks and holds his head in a way that is awkwardly wooden.
However, given that Moss’s most salient and attractive quality is his childlike need for certainty, it’s highly unlikely that the character represents an accurate portrayal of an Aspergers person. Yet it’s his childlike aspects that contribute most to his appeal, and perhaps they defuse the kind of criticism you might expect such a portrayal to evoke in the Aspergers community – I couldn’t find any criticisms of the character on the web, although that doesn’t mean they’re not out there.
Another reason for the seeming lack of criticism could be that while we often laugh at Moss’s unintentional funniness, we also chortle at his deliberate jokes, delivered in a self-consciously signature style that fans find adorable.
And generally speaking, Moss suffers far less than the other characters; he’s naturally cheerful, wins out against bullies (as in the first episode in the third series) and is canny enough to take advantage of amorous and financial opportunities (returning the attentions of a glamorous female psychiatrist in the first series; unintentionally stealing money from thieves in the third).
Like many women and probably men, I’m in love with Moss. This is partly because the actor who plays him, Richard Ayoade, is a very attractive man, with large brown eyes, a snub nose, finely sculpted cheekbones and a cherubic mouth; because Moss’s social incapacities make him so vulnerable that he arouses maternal instincts; because his character, and the actor who plays him, are both extremely funny (and sometimes their personalities seem to blend together, as if Ayoade and Moss were in league with each other); and because the childlike aspects of his nature promise a temporary, atavistic return to childhood.
Yet I couldn’t find much on the web about Ayoade himself, except for a frustratingly short beginning of an interview that seemed to suggest that he himself might suffer from Aspergers (he mentions a difficulty in maintaining eye contact with the interviewer while speaking) but in fact appears to show him in a very understated role in a satire.
Ayoade seems to lack his own website, despite what is clearly a huge fan base out there. The Channel 4 website for the show has clips and episodes that are frustratingly off-limits to Australians (I can understand the downloadable episodes being off-limits, but why the clips, including an interview with the actress who plays Jen?).
Despite Moss’s vulnerabilities he succeeds in life (if not romantically), partly because Jen and Roy both protect him from himself; he needs them to smooth the social waters, just as his esoteric knowledge is vital to the company but also occasionally useful to Jen and Roy.
Soon after Jen joins the IT department Roy and Moss are about to complain to the CEO, Denholm Reynholm, that Jen has no understanding of IT and they don’t want her as their manager. But as the three sit opposite Denholm while he barks to his inferiors on the phone, his conversation makes clear that he will ruthlessly sack any team who can’t ‘work as a team’ (gloriously sending up company-speak).
Knowing that all three of them will be sacked if the complaint goes ahead, Roy and Jen have to drag Moss away, assuring Denholm they had only come to the office to install voice activation on his computer. Moss can’t understand why he and Roy aren’t going through with the complaint; he just hasn’t been able to transfer the meaning of Reynholm’s phone conversation to his own situation. But later, in the second series, Moss demonstrates the usefulness of his peculiar genius; he’s able to tell by smelling it that the creepy new boss of Reynholm Industries, Douglas Reynholm (Denholm's son), has put Rohypnol in Jen’s tea.
Prisoners of gender
Aspergers is associated with maleness, but Moss isn’t the only one burdened because he’s male; all three main characters are ‘prisoners of gender’. They are extreme in their habitation of gender roles and they all suffer for it.
Roy is a standard nerd who tries hard to succeed romantically (a cause for much of the comedy) but always fails. The harder he tries the more ludicrous he appears; in one episode in the first series, with carefully pomaded hair and an oversized retro jacket, he attempts to proposition a girl while oblivious to the fact that a dollop of shit or chocolate (it’s deliberately never made quite clear which) is sitting in the centre of his forehead.
Jen is female in a way that is ludicrously stereotypical. When suffering from the monthly arrival of ‘Aunt Irma’ the cure lies in a girls’ night in, with Roy and Moss playing at being her faux girlfriends, all three dressed in terry towelling robes and watching predictable old chick flicks like Beaches and Steel Magnolias.
This should be offensive but largely isn’t because Jen’s workmates are equally stuck in their extreme masculinity. In fact, there’s only one moment when I was truly offended by the show’s portrayal of her.
It’s in the episode in which Jen becomes obsessed with a pair of red high-heeled shoes that are three sizes too small for her. While in this state of obsession she becomes incoherent. When asked for an idea about combating stress by the hyperactive Denholm, she responds ‘What? Shoes …’. But, back in the basement, while she’s mumbling about the shoes, when Roy calls her a ‘crazy bitch’ in an affectionate, condescending tone as he walks her into her office, it’s too much for this feminist to stomach. And the stereotype of women being obsessed with shoes is overwrought.
Return to childhood
Yet the whole show is overwrought, regularly venturing into surreal territory, making it difficult to be offended by the stereotyping. It’s basically a child’s world where the everyday and the magical are seamless parts of a whole, and where reality is often viewed as a series of extremes.
It’s a world of play, the unknown and the novel, girded by the iron certainties that children cling to because they are still so ignorant of its machinations, but also bounded by the terror that lurks when Roy and Moss enter social situations they aren’t equipped to deal with, and when Jen enters emotional situations in relationships that always seem to end badly.
This is why Moss is so vital to the show and why he is in some ways its central character; he’s a child who hasn’t grown up. His literal view of the world, his inability to understand nuance and sarcasm, in some ways reflect the child’s brain. Watching the show is an invitation to re-enter childhood.
And this is why Richmond is also an attractive character. Gentle and softly spoken, if a trifle melancholy, he adds to the fantastical nature of the show. Yet there is something very traditionally British about him; the way he speaks to Jen at his first appearance, not to mention his 19th-century costuming, has something of the period hero, as if Mr Rochester had blended with Bertha Mason to create not the madwoman in the attic but the sane gentleman in the basement; even his name has a 19th-century flavour.
As a social phobe I can’t help identifying with Richmond, stuck in the IT server room, not even the basement proper but a room off it, a secret room with a forbidding red door. Once out of his room, Richmond is ‘allowed’ to flutter freely around the basement in the first and second series but he never makes it back upstairs, although in the first series Jen tries valiantly to persuade Denholm to have him back.
A continuing obsession
I regret that this little world that Graham Linehan has created lives only in his head and those of his fans. I can’t bear that these characters do not actually exist, especially Moss and Richmond, although on some level I believe that they do. I'm hungry for information about the actors who portray them because that is a way of refusing to believe they aren’t real; the last thing I want is to see them in other shows playing different characters.
And for good or ill, I’ve watched each episode of the first and second series so many times on DVD that I now have the funniest sections on standby in my head; I’m liable to start smiling to myself for no reason as I ‘play’ one back, which has both advantages and disadvantages. (The third series has aired on the ABC and Australian fans now await the fourth, which is currently being aired in Britain on Channel 4.)
I don't have the DVD of the third series, but recently I realised I could watch repeats of whole episodes on Youtube. Yet watching the show on my PC doesn’t do it for me at all; it’s not just the poor quality of the footage but the fact that I don’t associate sitting at my desk with leisure. I love the whole DVD experience of sinking against cushions and losing myself in three indulgent hours of comedy paradise.
However, having now seen the first and second series in full, I think the content of the third series, which I originally watched on telly, isn’t quite as good, and it’s not just the Youtube factor that’s making me feel that way. The show’s becoming more like Seinfeld by the minute; Seinfeld is not surprisingly one of Linehan’s inspirations, and worth imitating, but the particular magic of character-based dialogue needs to be preserved.
Just one tiny example: when Jen and Richmond have their first conversation, Richmond says of Roy and Moss ‘I don’t know their names’. In the context this line is simply brilliant, illustrating how cut off Richmond is from the world and yet how self-chosen is his exile; Roy and Moss are no more than functionaries who form part of the background of the catastrophe he finds himself in. Why this is so funny is difficult to pin down, but it has a lot to do with the rarefied worldview of this underrated and now sadly lost character – somewhere between the second and third series he ‘got scurvy’ and was never seen again.