â˜…â˜… (2 stars)
The UK’s “Channel 4”:http://www.channel4.com has just started a new sitcom, “The IT Crowd,”:http://www.channel4.com/entertainment/tv/microsites/I/itcrowd/index.html which tries to make comedy out situations in a corporate IT-support department. I’m no TV afficionado, so for more background, see “this article”:http://theage.com.au/news/breaking/geek-sitcom-airs-online/2006/01/30/1138469642308.html this in today’s edition of Melbourne’s The Age newspaper.
The most remarkable thing about “The IT Crowd”:http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0487831/ is that Channel 4 has decided to offer the show for streaming and download on its site. To that, I give a massive thumbs-up. I don’t watch TV, and I’ve got no interest in doing so. Give me something I can download or watch on DVD and you’ve got a chance at capturing my attention. I’ll watch what I like, when I like: fixed-schedule TV is so 20th century…
A massive thumbs-down to Channel 4, though, for only offering the show in .wmv format. This decision means that only Windows users will have an easy time of watching the show, and Linux users will be unlikely to view the clip at all. Note to all broadcasters: when offering content for download, choose an open format, or one with cross-platform support. MPEG, H.264, Xvid, DivX and Theora are all acceptable.
I suppose it’s lucky that Linux users won’t be able to watch the show easily–unless they choose to use their TV–because they’re among the people most likely to notice one of the show’s most serious flaws. For a show that’s about an IT department, you’d expect to have some computer-savvy people on the writing staff. Not so with _The IT Crowd_. Within the first few minutes, we hear a character (pictured above) say this to someone on the phone:
Have you tried forcing an unexpected reboot?
[scene cuts to other conversation, then returns…]
You see the driver hooks a function by patching the system call table, so it’s not safe to unload it, unless another thread’s about to jump in there and do its stuff, and you don’t want to end up in the middle of invalid memory… [character laughs].
As far as I’ve learned in almost 20 years of using computer systems from the Apple IIe to OS X, Windows XP, and Linux, this is absolute nonsense masquerading as computer jargon. Computer jargon is baffling enough to outsiders that they might be convinced it’s a joke anyway, but to someone who understands _real_ computer jargon this just looks like the writers don’t know a fucking thing about computers–just like the IT manager character they’re trying to lampoon.
Some of the computer-related jokes are _okay,_ like this one:
Did you notice how she didn’t even get excited when she saw this original ZX81?
And there’s some decent lines, like this one, which reminds me of Baldric from _Black Adder_:
A plan… Let me put on my slightly larger glasses.
But most of the humour is meant to come from making fun of computer nerds and their imagined social ineptitude. Nerds haven’t been funny since the early 1990s, if indeed they ever were. And if it was ever true that the computer savvy were mostly socially inept, it’s not true now. Computing is an integral part of mainstream work life these days, in just about any profession, and the people who use computers are as diverse as one would expect. Of course, there are some people (and I am among them) who take an interest in computing that goes beyond the merely necessary, those who are expert at computing out of interest or professional necessity. But those people aren’t simply obsessed geeks: they have other interests, other skills and goals … in the main.
These days, to make truly effective comedy out of computing culture, you have to find humour in the unique ways that computing reshapes social situations. Here’s a great recent example: a “comic strip about cybersex”:http://www.penny-arcade.com/comic/2006/01/23 from “Penny Arcade.”:http://www.penny-arcade.com Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins (authors of _Penny Arcade,_ if I’m reading their names right) can make regularly effective humour out of computing and videogaming situations because they live and understand heavily computer-mediated lives.
One of the few high-points of the first episode of _The IT Crowd_ is towards the end, when one of the characters tells an inappropriate and somewhat touching story about the two male protagonists’ encounter with some prostitutes in Amsterdam, and it’s funny because of the human tragedy involved. It’s telling, though, that the situation has nothing to do with computers, and the writers generally seem most confident in the territory that has the least, directly, to do with IT. The jokes made at the company boss’ expense, for instance, are some of the more effective in the episode, and they are so because here the writers are making fun of _corporate_ culture, not computer culture.
Jargon isn’t usually funny. Cybersex is funny. Finding out that a woman you met on an internet dating site is actually fat, or is really a man, is funny. Sending an email or instant message to the wrong person is funny. Getting trapped in the cable nest behind your tv (another Penny Arcade idea) is funny. Or at least, such things are funny in fiction, where they’re not happening to you. If _The IT Crowd_ can show us how IT creates funny situations in life, rather than just asking us to look at nerds and laugh, maybe it’ll have a shot at being a success. Back to the drawing-board, guys: your current formula ain’t working.