Please note: this episode screens on Friday night on Channel 4. It is available already on 4oD online, but don’t read this if you don’t want the episode spoiled!
1. Jen The Fredo
Socially awkward moments are the bread and butter of any traditional sitcom, but few writers are as adept with coming up with new and bizarre comedy situations as Graham Linehan. After the caustic misanthropy of his brilliant Black Books, Linehan turned his distinctive wit to The IT Crowd, a more gentle, laid back comedy about three IT support workers working in the basement of a London corporation.
As with any Linehan sitcom, The IT Crowd‘sgreatest strength is its characterisation, which features Chris O’Dowd and Richard Ayoade as Roy and Moss, two computer experts with a frequently wince-inducing lack of social awareness, and Katherine Parkinson as Jen, the longsuffering head of IT who has to put up with her underlings’ geeky interests and bewildering opinions.
In this series four opener, Roy is coping with the end of a long-term relationship by drinking white wine alone in a cupboard, Moss is trying to come up with appropriately mysterious sound effects for his Dungeons & Dragons evening, while Jen manages to land what she thinks is her dream job as an entertainments manager. “I’ve seen We Will Rock You four times,” she squeaks in her interview with boss Douglas Reynholm (once again played by Matt Berry, with his patented oleaginous zeal).
Jen finds out too late that her new position may not be all she’d hoped, since it involves squiring a group of boisterous, drunken businessmen around sleazy bars and strip clubs, as opposed to the jaunty West End musicals she was expecting. One disastrous trip to The Vagina Monologues later (“You get there, and it’s just women talking!” rages one profoundly annoyed businessman), and Jen finds herself rapidly running out of ideas.
Fortunately, Moss steps in with an unlikely night’s entertainment of his own, and sits Jen’s trio of businessmen down with a character sheet and a couple of twenty-sided dice for an evening of fantasy roleplay. The resulting scenes are the episode’s stand-out moments, as the three businessmen’s mood gradually shifts from gruff incredulity to childlike excitement, before Moss uses his powers as dungeon master to offer a still grieving Roy an impromptu counselling session.
The IT Crowd has always been a series that gets by on charm rather than a succession of one-liners, and while some of its jokes fly wide of the mark, every episode is ably carried by the quality of its acting and characterisation.
Chris O’Dowd’s unusually lachrymose performance in this first episode is particularly worthy of note, and the aforementioned RPG counselling scene, where he reacts to Moss’ fantasy-themed psychoanalysis with a mixture of horror, embarrassment and barely restrained grief, is a note-perfect piece of acting.
As a series opener, then, Jen The Fredo is classic IT Crowd -scattershot, undemanding and refreshingly anachronistic, with its cardboard sets and other sitcom trappings we’ve come to expect – and it’s hard not to warm to a comedy that comes up with the ingenious concept of emotional closure through Dungeons & Dragons. The late Gary Gygax would be proud.