That the funniest straight-ahead sitcom of the American fall television season is a 2-year-old British import airing on a basic-cable network is because of a few things: a dearth of new American sitcoms, the availability of road-tested foreign product, and the ongoing expansion of the vast tracts of basic cable into the kind of programming that has traditionally defined broadcast television.
There is a small but growing rage in those precincts for "original" scripted series, even if the series are not technically original, and licensing series from other English-speaking countries is a way to get in that game.
“The IT Crowd,” about three people stuck in the literal/metaphorical basement of a skyscraper office full of "a lot of sexy people not doing much work and having affairs," has aired two six-episode seasons in Britain. It isn't the first comedy acquired or produced by the Independent Film Channel, where it premieres tonight, but it is possibly the best. Last year, NBC floated an Americanized pilot (with Richard Ayoade reprising his role as Moss), but it sank during a regime change. In any case, the genuine item has now arrived.
It comes with a high pedigree, Britcom-wise. (This will matter to some of you much, much more than to most of you.) Creator Graham Linehan also co-created the wildly funny "Father Ted" and "Black Books" and wrote for the news parodies "The Day Today" (in which Steve Coogan's Alan Partridge first appeared) and “Brass Eye,” whose guerrilla-interview methods Sasha Baron Cohen borrowed for "Ali G," and whose mastermind, Chris Morris,(satirist) also appears in "The IT Crowd" as frightfully intense boss Denholm. Ayoade comes out of the horror parody “Garth Marenghi’s Dark Place” and appeared as well in the cult-popular "The Mighty Boosh" and “Nathan Barley.” (Clearly I am one of those people to whom this matters.)
Focusing as it does on a pair of technologically adept but socially inept "standard nerds" and a woman who is basically their opposite, it's vaguely reminiscent of CBS's "The Big Bang Theory" but more raucous and even less mindful of reality.
Ayoade, who is Norwegian-Nigerian, wears a big head of curly hair forced into a part, holds himself like a Conehead and has also purged much of the affect from his speech, though not to the degree that he actually sounds like he's from Remulac. His character, 32 and still living at home, is the sort who buys the adult and children's editions of the most recent Harry Potter book "just to check that there are no differences in the text." After dropping a cup of tea in surprise, he says that he always makes two cups of tea in case that happens (and a moment later drops the second cup).
His partner is Chris O’Dowd’s half-kempt Roy, who, while no better suited to life outside their cluttered, toy-filled domain, is more confident, aggressive, loud and drunk. Seen sometimes in a T-shirt bearing the legend RTFM (for "read the [expletive deleted] manual]"), he has a certain contempt for people who ask for his help. New-hire Jen (Katherine Parkinson) is almost randomly assigned to run their department, having put on her resume that she's had "a lot of experience with computers" (Asked to be specific, she haltingly improvises, "The Web . . . using mouse, mices . . . clicking, double-clicking, computer screen of course . . . the keyboard, the bit that goes on the floor down there").
These characters get along with one another because they fit in nowhere else -- all attempts to go beyond the basement in which they avoid laboring end in failure, though finally the show is less about the failure than the bonding the failure enforces. Not that they make a big deal of it; there is none of the palliative warmth to which even cynical American network sitcoms often retreat. But there is a lot of falling over.
I laughed a lot.
'The IT Crowd'
When: 7 p.m. today
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children younger than 17)