In the Basement Blues

The IT Crowd: Series 1

It’s hard to be into a show, to really enjoy it and want to spread the good word about it, only to discover the the show was developed by a bastard (I use that word because it ties into one of the episodes of this first series, so for those in the know, it plays). The IT Crowd is a series about two fairly nerdy guys working as the Information Tech team in the basement of a big conglomerate while dealing with their clueless boss. It’s fun, it has a really wry, sarcastic streak that balances exceedingly well with its absurdist stories. It is the kind of show that, you think, really could have only come out of Britain (which is only solidified by the fact that the American remake died after a single, unfunny pilot). And it was also created by a bastard.

Graham Linehan is a comedian turned writer and television producer who has worked on a bunch of stuff (most of which you probably wouldn’t know if you weren’t deeply into British television). One of his biggest successes was The IT Crowd, which ran for four series (seasons here in the U.S.) as well as a Christmas special. It was well loved, and well received, and if that could be the end of the conversation about the show before we got into reviewing it, that would have been great. But then Graham had to go and express his views about transgender folk and, well, it’s hard to watch anything he’s written now because, to put in indelicately, he’s a fucking asshole.

Linehan is a TERF. He hates transgender people. He doesn’t just hate them but goes out of his way to insert himself into conversations about them to yell and rage and make horrible statements about “the trans ideology.” When he sees people wearing “I support my trans son/daughter” buttons online, he has to call the people wearing those buttons (the parents caring for their children) “pedophiles” simply for giving their love and support. He’s a monster, and has been banned, more than once, from Twitter (although he’s likely back on there now that it’s Musk’s X since that place is an absolute cesspool now). Sitting down to watch one of his shows means that, in some way (especially with the way residuals work) you are, in fact, supporting Linehan. I simply can’t encourage that.

Worse, because of his views, it’s hard to go back and watch his stuff without seeing his views right there on the screen. There is an episode in the third series, “The Speech”, we’ll get to eventually and that one is, in fact, pretty horrible (it features a trans character and the show absolutely mocks her left, right, and center in the worst ways possible, all while Linehan says, “it’s just a joke”). But we’re in the first series right now and, even then, sometimes you can see the horrible man behind the otherwise likable show. And that just sucks.

The IT Crowd stars Chris O'Dowd as Roy Trenneman, a snarky, Irish IT tech working for Reynholm Industries. He’s in the basement IT department with Maurice Moss (Richard Ayoade), Roy’s socially awkward, and rather weird, friend. They essentially run the department, giving bad customer service and doing everything they can to avoid doing their jobs… at least until the president of the company, Denholm Reynholm (Chris Morris) hires a new manager for the department, Jen Barber (Katherine Parkinson).

I want to stop here for a second and point out that Jen’s hiring is brilliant. Most people, when you talk to them about IT stuff, really don’t know what you’re saying. We’re a society of people that absolutely live on our technology but most people couldn’t tell you how any of it worked in even the broadest of terms. When Denholm asks Jen if she knows anything about IT, she lists off basic things: internet, email, sending email, receiving email, spell checking… Denholm is impressed. “Well, I’ve heard all I need to. You’re hired.” And, sadly, that’s really how it works. The show makes it seem absurd that she’d get the job that easily, but frankly the real world is that absurd and the show nails it. Well done there.

Anyway, once Jen gets into the office, her new subordinates quickly realize she doesn’t know anything about what they do. Annoyed that they have to have a boss, they try to find ways to make her admit that she’s clueless and shouldn’t be there. Except, when an angry customer comes in, Jen is immediately able to soothe them and send the customer on their merry way, totally having moved on from their problem. Jen can help them, they realize, and together the trio might just be able to make their jobs more bearable.

From there, the first season has a number of weird adventures for the crew, all set in and around Reynholm Industries. Roy gets stuck under the desks of two women one time and has to be rescued from the awkward situation. Jen buys a pair of shoes that mangles her feet, all while Denholm goes on and on, yelling at people about being stressed over and over again. Jen has a terrible date with a co-worker and Moss lies to the guy, telling him that Jen died. It’s weird, and silly, and low stakes, but it’s also fun and funny. As a casual watch, this first season does feel very relatable – who hasn’t felt tired of their job, just wanting to get through the day to day so they can be anywhere else? – and that helps it to be a solid watch for any kind of day.

Except it also feels kind of insidious. Everything about the show is kind of reductive towards the lead characters. Roy and Moss are nerdy guys not for any particular reason other than because they work IT. Now, in fairness, Moss is a really weird guy, sure, but he also has all the tropes of being a basement troll nerd (including living with his mother). Roy, though, could be a fun leading man on another show, thanks to the fact that O’Dowd is a decent looking dude for British TV. But because his character is in the IT department, he’s naturally a nerd. “Nothing can be done about that; you work in tech, you’re a nerd,” the show is saying.

Meanwhile, Jen doesn’t even get the benefit of being a smart and capable character. The guys at least know and understand IT stuff, she’s an airhead that can’t think about anything other than boys and shoes. Those are her main storylines for most of the season: bad dates and bad shoes. When she doesn’t have either of those things going on she’s there simply so the other characters can bounce their stories off of her. She doesn’t really get to have any kind of agency of her own unless it’s about “girl things” because the show doesn’t know how to invest in her otherwise.

And then there’s Richmond Avenal (Noel Fielding). Richmond used to be an up-and-coming exec at Reynholm Industries until he got into Cradle of Filth. Within hours he suddenly went from straight-shooting business guy to goth-looking weirdo all because of the dirty death metal. He’s different, he’s strange, and he gets condemned to the basement. Hell, even among the IT crowd he’s not liked as the dudes keep him trapped in a basement room, rarely ever seen. And then, when you couple his oddness with Linehan’s own personal views, stuff really clicks together.

Richmond was a “normal looking” person until something switched for him and he “suddenly” changed everything about himself to suit a new “agenda”. He couldn’t be normal, he “just had to be himself”, and that was wrong and weird. The show judges him for it, wants us to laugh at him because he discovered who he really was and embraced it. Although Linehan’s opinions on transgender people weren’t known at the time this episode came out, and it’s entirely possible he didn’t fully realize his own hate for that community at the time, it’s hard not to see the subtext of the episode now. “Don’t be different. Embracing who you are is wrong. You’re gross and weird and different.” It’s not good.

When I went back to rewatch The IT Crowd I did so knowing full well who Linehan was. I liked the show when I first watched it over a decade ago, and every once in a while I’d throw it on again because it was funny and silly and weird. But this time through I also saw darkness that I hadn’t realized was there before. It’s sometimes hard to divorce the creator from their works and, in the case of The IT Crowd, I think the show really suffers because of it. Linehan is a monster, a real bastard of a human being, and one of his great shows is practically ruined because of it.