The Thick of It (found ABC pilot of BBC political comedy-drama series; 2007)
The Thick of It logo.
Date found: 16 Nov 2023
Found by: Media Garage
The Thick of It is a BBC political comedy-drama created by Armando Iannucci primarily focused on a fictional division of the British government. Airing for four series between 2005-2012, it rapidly became a huge hit and made a star of lead Peter Capaldi. Accordingly, American television network ABC was intrigued enough by 2007 to commission a spinoff pilot starring Oliver Platt. Unfortunately, the original's trademark sharp, angry edges did not translate at all well through American broadcast standards. The project ended with ABC deciding not to pick up the show, leaving the pilot unaired.
Conceived as an update to British political satire in general and the iconic sitcom Yes Minister in particular, The Thick of It initially consisted of two three-episode series airing in 2005, before expanding to eight episodes for a third season in 2009, and ending in a seven-part series 4. The show followed the operations of the Department of Social Affairs and Citizenship (DoSAC), initially run by Hugh Abbot (Chris Langham), and later by Nicola Murray (Rebecca Front).
Both ministers encounter several challenges and mishaps throughout their tenures, not helped by questionable advisors, and are routinely intimidated by the Prime Minister's foul-mouthed, ferociously confrontational Director of Communications, Malcolm Tucker (Capaldi). Smart, loyal but intensely pragmatic, Tucker works to achieve both his and his party's political objectives by any means necessary, including but not limited to occasional open threats. Despite all of which he remains a sympathetic figure in the face of DoSAC's endless bumbling incompetence, as when they accidentally - and irretrievably - lost seven months' worth of immigration records.
The Thick of It has since been described as among the greatest television shows of the 21st century, particularly by UK publications. It has also been cited as foreshadowing the future of British politics, particularly being highlighted when the ruling party runs into real-life crises.
The US Pilot
Despite the very different standards of American network television - meaning, among other things, that the show's trademark non-stop swearing would be impossible to replicate - The Thick of It intrigued ABC enough to greenlight an adaptation by 2006. On 27th October of that year, it was reported that BBC Worldwide and Sony Pictures would collaborate on a pilot. It would be executive-produced by original showrunner Iannucci, alongside Arrested Development's creator Mitch Hurwitz and writer Richard Day. Christopher Guest, master of the satirical mockumentary beginning with This Is Spinal Tap, would direct.
Heading into production, Iannucci declared himself eager to tackle a satire on American politics, claiming he had a "freakish obsession" with the subject. Iannucci initially wanted the BBC to pitch the show to cable channel HBO since American cable television afforded much more creative freedom, but the BBC decided on ABC as the latter offered more money.To reflect its new setting, the remake centred around Congressman Albert Alger, played by John Michael Higgins, whose out-of-touch approach to politics inevitably leads to trouble. The supporting cast included Oliver Platt as Malcolm Tucker, Alex Borstein as press secretary Hope Mueller, Michael McKean as ambitious aide Glen Glahm, and Rhea Seehorn as the junior speech writer Ollie Tadzio.
Despite the impressive comedic experience of all involved, the project ultimately failed to launch either commercially or creatively. On producer Jeremy Whitham's website, he claims that 'essentially everything' went disastrously wrong with the production, beginning with a script that was not even finished by the time the show was hastily rushed into production to meet network deadlines. In a typical review, the Televisionary called the result well-cast but "tedious", with only a few scenes (mostly involving Henry Winkler as a Congressman faking a coma to avoid scandal) demonstrating the savagely satirical edge of the original. In particular, it criticised Platt's performance as Tucker, complaining that he was 'too nice', lacking the character's no-holds-barred ferocity. It was also felt that Guest's directorial style did not mix well with the show's original format.
By May 2007, it was reported that ABC had formally passed on The Thick of It, alongside two other US spin-offs of UK hits, Football Wives and Life on Mars. Iannucci professed himself unsurprised and even relieved, criticizing the Thick of It pilot on much the same terms as Televisionary and claiming excessive meddling by "buffoons" at the network destroyed the essence of his creation, replacing it with an all-too-conventionally American sitcom style. He was glad that the pilot was not picked up by ABC.
Nevertheless, Iannucci did not give up on a possible American political satire, finally getting a chance to pitch the concept to HBO in April 2009. Talks were positive, eventually leading to the creation of the Julia Louis-Dreyfuss vehicle Veep, which aired from 2012 to 2019 and earned numerous accolades.
Whereas the Football Wives and Life on Mars pilots have now become publicly available, footage or images of The Thick of It's ABC pilot remained locked away for over 15 years. While the reason surrounding withholding the pilot from public release is unknown, it most likely stemmed from many involved in it, including Iannucci, distancing themselves from the failed project. But on 16th November 2023, Media Garage uploaded the full pilot onto YouTube, having previously found other unaired dry runs.
- Archived BBC interview where Iannucci compared his show with Yes Minister. Retrieved 11th Apr '23
- British Comedy Guide listing the episodes of all four series. Retrieved 11th Apr '23
- British Comedy Guide summarising the show's concept. Retrieved 11th Apr '23
- Charactour's analysis of Malcolm Tucker. Retrieved 11th Apr '23
- The Guardian placing The Thick of It fourth in its "100 best TV shows of the 21st century". Retrieved 11th Apr '23
- BBC Culture placing the show 20th among the 100 greatest shows of the 21st century. Retrieved 11th Apr '23
- Collider reflecting on The Thick of It's withstanding relevance in Britain's modern political scene. Retrieved 11th Apr '23
- The Futon Critic providing ABC's press release on the show's greenlit pilot. Retrieved 11th Apr '23
- Archived The Hollywood Reporter reporting on a US adaptation being in development. Retrieved 11th Apr '23
- The Guardian reporting on ABC greenlighting a pilot. Retrieved 11th Apr '23
- Televisionary's review of the pilot. Retrieved 11th Apr '23
- WhatCulture summarising the failed pilot and noting no media has resurfaced from it. Retrieved 11th Apr '23
- Archived Broadcast Now reporting on Iannucci's talks with HBO on a spin-off. Retrieved 11th Apr '23
- Jeremy Whitham summarising the pilot's failure. Retrieved 11th Apr '23
- SFGATE reporting on ABC not picking up the show. Retrieved 11th Apr '23
- Digital Spy reporting on Iannucci's criticism of the pilot. Retrieved 11th Apr '23
- The Guardian detailing Veep's success. Retrieved 11th Apr '23