ON A FLIGHT to London a few weeks ago, I watched Captain America, which kicks major-league ass in a kick-ass USA way. On the way back, I watched three episodes of Twenty Twelve, a BBC sitcom in the Office tradition.
Twenty Twelve debuts on BBC America on June 28. Watch it. Its ingenious writer, John Morton, has seized London’s positively un-American reluctance to hold these Olympics, and provided England’s commentary on it. The BBC, it seems, is acknowledging that it should probably say something, and so the BBC has chosen self-deprecation: knowing London will carry off the Games in delightful fashion, the BBC has preemptively said, “Yes, but this is how we would’ve done it if we’d done it wrong. Ha ha.”
It is the opposite of Captain America (which kicks ass, of course), and I like it. I like Englishness. One of my first sports discoveries was English football on PBS. For some reason, Saturday afternoons and an edited West Brom-Sunderland slog in the mud captured my fancy. English football announcers were quiet: After watching four or five passes without comment, a commentator might say, “Smith” before muting himself for five or six more passes. Then, upon the scoring of a goal, he might say, “Well, how about that?” The great Toby Charles, who brought his plummy accent to an Eighties PBS hour called Soccer Made in Germany, had a famous moment while the camera was on a losing manager late in a match. He said, “He needs all the help he can get about now,” after which the coach put a finger up his nose. “But he won’t find it up there.” I went to London because I’ve wanted to see an FA Cup final at Wembley since I was in fourth grade. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.
Twenty Twelve is centered around the “Office of Deliverance,” the group headed by one Ian Fletcher (the wonderfully understated Hugh Bonneville), which has been given the job of “delivering” the Games. The office itself appears to be, like the Olympics I guess, in a perpetual and menacing state of frantic not-quite-done. It’s an office about the size of the The Office, which doesn’t exactly seem the like the kind of place that could make an Olympics happen. Semi-inspiring words hanging on the walls: “Courage.” “Ability.” “Endeavor.” And, beautifully, in the fishbowl mini-office of “Head of Deliverance” Ian Fletcher (Hugh Bonneville, of Downton Abbey fame), hang the twin banners “Achievement” and “Achieve.”
Twenty Twelve revolves around Fletcher, and it’s difficult to know whether Mr. Morton sees him as the wrong man for the job or just a beleaguered victim of circumstance. Maybe a little bit of both. There’s plenty to suggest they have a low opinion of him: One of the show’s metaphors is Fletcher’s commute, executed by way of an odd mini-wheeled fold-down bicycle, which makes him look ridiculous while riding, while folding and while carrying to his desk. His day almost always begins with bad Olympic news—the discovery of Roman remains at the aquatic center construction site, the shared-belief center doesn’t face Mecca, a giant pile of manure has been deposited in front of the building by a film director upset with plans for the equestrian events—made harder to bear by his chronic inability to fold his bike correctly. His knuckles are a wreck.
Further, to many American ears, the word “Deliverance” recalls the Burt Reynolds/Ned Beatty movie of the same name. The theme of that movie is being up a creek without a paddle, and its enduring scene is of a suburban dad on a weekend adventure being anally raped (I’m sorry—there’s just no other grown-up way to write that) by a Georgia hillbilly. Since first discovering Ian Fletcher’s title, I’ve puzzled over whether the word’s appearance here was more than mere coincidence, but that wouldn’t be giving enough credit to a show that opens with the singularly American sound of Nat King Cole happily crooning “There may be trouble ahead” from Irving Berlin’s 1936 song “Let’s Face the Music and Dance.” Deliverance is trouble, all right.
Everyone on Fletcher’s team is horrible. His Head of Infrastructure is an endearing Eeyore named Graham Hitchens (Karl Theobald), whose aptitude at pointing out other people’s shortcomings is matched by his own ineptitude. He causes a massive traffic jam while testing a new traffic-light system that causes the mayor to miss the unveiling of the countdown clock—which is hardly the worst thing about the unveiling. His Head of Contracts, Nick Jowett (Vincent Franklin) is a straightspoken know-it-all whose greatest claim seems to be his straightspoken-ness; “I’m from Yorkshire,” he likes to say, which is equal parts funny and annoying to me but probably funnier and more annoying to English people who aren’t from Yorkshire and get all the subtext of this running gag. Fletcher’s basketcase Head of Sustainability, Kay Hope (Amelia Bullmore), seems headed for a nervous breakdown which will have been caused in large part by people mistakenly referring to Sustainability as Legacy. In one episode, she is distracted from her business by repeated phone calls from her son’s school letting her know that he had cut his French teacher’s hair. While she tries to explain that boys will be boys, she goes quiet on the phone for a moment before saying, “Oh, you can see the scalp?” Another nice moment occurs when an exasperated Fletcher says, “I don’t need problems right now, I need solutions” to which Hope responds, “Well, that’s an even bigger problem.”
But Fletcher’s hillbilly (OK—that’s probably going too far) is Siobhan Sharpe (Jessica Hynes), Twenty Twelve’s Head of Brand. She is so full of shit, so completely absolutely wondrously cruelly without-remorse full of high-grade vitamin-rich shit that you wonder how Ms. Hynes herself could have a sincere bone in her body. Her stock response to everything is “Cool, cool” whether it makes sense or not, and she’s given to phrases like this gem: “Where are where we are with this, and that’s never a good place to be.” Further, Sharpe wishes to create an audio logo for the games. The countdown clock she commissions from an artist famous for “gaining a reputation” runs backwards (he says, “It will count back to the beginning of time”), leading poor Fletcher to ask, “Backwards in time, or backwards in numbers?” Sharpe answers, “Yeah, sure, either, I mean both. Absolutely. It’s sensational.” Captain America would whack her with his shield. Fletcher says, “Can we have a word.”
Bonneville’s Fletcher is, of course, the show’s Everyman, which gains at least a little of its power from his opposite-of-everyman Downton Abbey role, which includes the words “Right,” “Honourable” and “Earl.” Even as Fletcher stumbles and bumbles and occasionally tells pointless lies and lets his mind be jumbled by agonizing phone conversations with his exasperated wife and the affections he feels for his personal assistant—a “dangerous woman,” he calls her once, after she has brought him a nice pastry—all I could think was “Somebody actually has this job. Somebody’s life is at least a little bit like this.” The enormity of it all—delivering the venues on time and on budget, making sure traffic in London works smoothly throughout the Games, massaging all the right egos, keeping all the interest groups happy, managing a team of utterly mediocre people—is truly staggering. In the third episode, in which Fletcher’s crew is to give representatives from Rio, the next Olympic city, a tour of London’s new stadium, the humor revolves around the team’s inability to get to their destination. But when the massive stadium comes into view, one is hit with the stark realization that some group of people made it happen; it is real. It’s a scary moment for anyone who’s ever had an office job. These people are idiots, clowns, buffoons, more like us than not—but there’s that stadium, and you know damn well you couldn’t have helped build it.
The bus misses the exit. The stadium disappears from view. The Deliverance team isn’t going to make it. The Brazilians seethe. Fletcher calls ahead and lies: “We got a puncture.” He’s lying to Sebastian Coe, legendary and beloved Olympian runner, Chairmoan of the London Organising Committee (with an s, thanks) and Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire. He’s lying to a knight.
As for Captain America, it’s a goddamn blast. As it begins, the future Captain America is a skinny weakling who just desperately wants to join the war against the Nazis. America! His opportunity arrives when a scientist sees that he has the spirit but not the body of a warrior and tries an experimental something or other upon him that leaves him comically musclebound. Now that he’s awesome, he starts making bad guys’ lives difficult and generally whips up a righteous fervor for the war effort. Then he joins the actual war, and American Awesomeness (unencumbered by English understatement) ensues. And when I say American Awesomeness, believe me—I mean it, and I loved it. There’s also an attractive and brave and smart brunette, who is as chaste as a Midwestern snowbank, and a German enemy who’s so nasty he looks down the part of his red skull where his nose used to be at the goddamn Nazis. It goes Boom in all the right places, and is as fun to watch as a big (American) football game with pretty cheerleaders and a loud, awesome band and your favorite team wins. Like I said—and I meant it without irony: America!
I love Twenty Twelve. I’m sure I get about half of it, maybe less. There must be three or four layers of foreign subtlety in there that someone whose greatest connection to Englishness is an infatuation with the Beatles and a box of Subbuteo paraphernalia will just never understand. But the show’s understated patriotism, its declaration of Britain’s view of itself as superior through self-mockery, is inspired and endearing. Also, prescient: The Telegraph reported on June 19 that Andrew Altman, the actual head of Legacy, will depart on August 15—the price for not negotiating a long-term tenant for the Olympic Stadium. Head of Legacy, without a legacy.
There’s an episode in which the Deliverance Commission tours around an ex-Olympian to get schoolchildren excited about the Games; he’s “Dave Wellbeck” (a very funny Darren Boyd), a profoundly uncharismatic two-time Silver Medalist. That’s funny, the BBC seems to be saying: Second place—twice. Ha! And boooooring. As if. We’re not really like that—we’ve got Sebastian Coe! It’s a perfectly healthy counterweight to the awesome awesomeness of Captain America from the tiny little country that gave the world its favorite game and the greatest rock and roll band of all time.
An American friend who lives in England tells me that every day after work he turns on the TV so he can see the Germans lose in 1966 and in 1945, then goes to bed. “It’s on just about every night,” he says.