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TV review: 'Twenty Twelve' a stinging, soulful satire of the Summer Olympics

John Morton's mockumentary, which premieres Thursday on BBC America, is a deeply unsentimental and wildly hilarious skewering of the lead-up to the London Games.

June 27, 2012|By Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times Television Critic
  • Ian Fletcher (Hugh Bonneville) leads a small team of misfits in charge of organizing the Games in "Twenty Twelve," a mockumentary on BBC America.
Ian Fletcher (Hugh Bonneville) leads a small team of misfits in charge of… (BBC )

"Downton Abbey,"the royal wedding, more "Downton Abbey," the Silver Jubilee, the wind-up to the Summer Olympics — American popular culture hasn't been so Anglophilic since the halcyon days of Merchant Ivory and Emma Thompson's Oscar noms.

It's gotten a bit sickening, really, all those plummy vowels and absurd hats, with the dandelion-haired mayor of London, Boris Johnson, showing up on Letterman to pitch his new book and Kate Middleton fever. Fortunately, no one skewers the British quite like the British, and if ping-pong did not in fact originate on the table tops of Britain (as Mayor Johnson in one of his wackier pre-Olympic moments suggested), stinging yet soulful satire most certainly did.

Deeply unsentimental and wildly hilarious, John Morton's mockumentary "Twenty Twelve," which premieres Thursday on BBC America, strips down the frenzied air of international self-promotion to a small team of misfits called the Olympic Deliverance Commission. Headed by Ian Fletcher (Hugh Bonneville, from, where else?, "Downton Abbey"), they are in charge of organizing the Games, a difficult task made nigh on impossible by the team's inability to do anything except dialogue in bureaucratese.

Head of brands Siobhan Sharpe (Jessica Hynes) is the most fluent, her brilliant pitch-meeting nonspeak a collection of deadpan hyperbole and nonsensical agreements — "Yea, yea, no, no, totally, absolutely, fantastic, no really, I love it" — muttered while her fingers beat a similar syncopation into her smart phone.

In a close second is Kay Hope (Amelia Bullmore), who plays the head of sustainability. Her character may have a larger vocabulary, but she uses it mostly to differentiate between "sustainability" and "legacy," both of which boil down to figuring out what to do with all the buildings the Games will leave empty. We meet Kay as she is trying to foist one of them off as a possible skateboard park onto a local youth organization that, well, already has a skateboard park.

As head of contracts, Nick Jowett (Vincent Franklin) takes pride in being blunt — "I'm from Yorkshire and I'm not havin' it" — but is far more given to criticism than solution, while Graham Hitchins (Karl Theobald) is too busy hoovering chips, er, crisps to pay much attention to anything — "not a problem, not a problem, wait, this Friday?" — which is not the ideal description of a head of infrastructure.

In the pilot, Hitchins' overambitious traffic flow test of London's traffic signals gridlocks the entire city, including the officials who are to join Fletcher in unveiling the Thousand Day Clock. A send-up of the real 500 Day Clock, which stands in London's Trafalgar Square (and actually broke down the day "Twenty Twelve" premiered), this clock is the work of an artist so hip that he cannot be bothered to consider the actual direction of time.

All of which means the Thousand Day Clock moves backward, rather than forward, a last-minute revelation that forces Fletcher to offer up an absurd speech about the playful nature of time — a"Doctor Who"-ish speech made even more pointed by the fact that "Twenty Twelve" is narrated by a former Doctor Who, David Tennant.

There are, obviously, many specifically British references throughout the six-episode first season, including more than a few jokes at the expense of Johnson and Olympic medalist and Olympic organizer Sebastian Coe — Lord Coe makes a cameo in the second episode. But just as the Olympics are an internationally resonant event, so too is the event planning committee.

Anyone who has ever been part of one, be it for the local PTA or a multimillion-dollar event, will recognize the forces and personalities at work here. Like Lord Grantham, Fletcher is decent to the point of delusional, spending more time reframing disaster than attempting to avoid it. He strives to do this while trying to assuage the demands of his wife — "it's a mini-break that's been rebranded as a romantic getaway," he says at one point with heartbreaking resignation — and not visibly losing his temper. Bonneville delivers a brilliant Every Man performance, anchoring the show and allowing the rest of the cast to explore the twitchier extremes of their characters.

When it debuted in the UK last year, "Twenty Twelve" got some mixed notices (along with complaints from the Australian creators of "The Games," which premiered before the 2000 Sydney Olympics), with a few critics bemoaning its lack of bite. For an American raised on the milder, home-grown version of"The Office,"there is bite enough and then some. (There's also a truly excellent fart joke in Episode 6.)

Spluttering conversations are allowed to go on and on, stupidity reigns with little objection and nothing is resolved neatly, happily or even at all. Like the original "Office," "Twenty Twelve" can be harsh, but it fearlessly examines all sorts of things, including the fact that just as we are all part of the Olympics, we are all part of the joke.

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