Spitting Image is lazy, self-satisfied, and ultimately hollow

boris johnson spitting image britbox 2020 matt forde dominic cummings review

Barely a minute passes before Spitting Image offers a covfefe joke. Donald Trump has tweeted thirteen-thousand, one hundred and seventy-five times since that infamous 2017 typo, closer to the start of his presidential term than to today (and presumably done little to inspire criticism or mockery in that time). It’s hardly the sort of joke you’d expect from a cutting-edge satire with its finger on the pulse – nor is the extended riff on Prince Harry dressing up as a Nazi, over fifteen years ago – but the Spitting Image revival is not a cutting-edge satire with its finger on the pulse.

Rather, it’s a dull, self-satisfied piece of television – and that opening covfefe joke is typical of the deep laziness that defines Spitting Image, constantly reliant on easy jokes while clearly expecting big laughs. It offers buzzwords rather than punchlines, reaching for the dim thrill of recognition in place of, well, anything else: you’re supposed to laugh because they said “cultural appropriation” or “mansplaining,” and that’s often about as much effort as Spitting Image puts in. (Both terms are also, inevitably, misused.) Very quickly, the show starts to feel like a relic – not of its 80s heyday, but of all the awful jokes you’ve already read weeks ago on twitter.

More damning for a political sketch comedy is how feeble and subdued its satire is. Consider this scene in particular, which casts Home Secretary Priti Patel as a dominatrix and sees Michael Gove (with a much stronger Scottish accent here than in real life) visit her for “unpopular Conservative opinions only you can get away with”. The joke, such as it is, is that Patel can more easily express reactionary views than Gove can – Patel can call to limit all immigration “because you’re Asian”, to restrict abortion access “because you’re a woman”, and so on and so forth. Per Gove’s puppet, “we think it, you say it”.

It’ll be news to the Spitting Image team, then, that Michael Gove has in fact argued to limit immigration, and has voted to restrict abortion access. (It’s not entirely clear what he thinks of Marvel’s Black Panther, though apparently “it’s a bad movie” is another of those opinions only Priti Patel can say publicly.) Even more of a shock, presumably, will be that the Conservative MPs – considerably more of whom are white men than Asian women – in fact campaigned to limit immigration at the most recent General Election. Yes, Priti Patel is one of the more reactionary voices within the current cabinet, but she’s far from the only one who can get away with those so-called “unpopular Conservative opinions” (if they’re even unpopular at all).

Spitting Image’s approach to Boris Johnson is similarly superficial. Here, Johnson is a basically harmless buffoon, baffled by simple puzzles, and reluctant to pursue the harsh economic policies of his predecessors; meanwhile, the extra-terrestrial Dominic Cummings insists on cruel and authoritarian legislation in the knowledge he’ll never be fired, even if he eats a baby. Again, it’s low-hanging fruit, the first and most obvious joke with no more thought put in than the bare minimum. Dominic Cummings is an oddball: it’s hard to argue with that. (Whether he’s quite that type of oddball is another matter.)

But in depicting Cummings as, literally, an alien influence, it’s obscuring the realities of Johnson’s own ideologies and his own politics: he is not, in fact, a basically harmless buffoon, and doesn’t need to be prompted by Cummings to advocate Conservative policies, as he did in his many years as an MP and as Mayor of London. Certainly, it’s hard to imagine the real Prime Minister being especially bothered by his Spitting Image analogue – the bumbling puppet feels like such a natural extension of Johnson’s own carefully curated persona he could’ve written it himself. Much like the aforementioned Priti Patel sketch, Johnson and Cummings are being treated as the exception rather than the rule – it’s not a sharp critique, but almost a deliberate softening.

Elsewhere, few of the other sketches are especially noteworthy, or even at times explicable (why Elton John in particular is trying to liven up Keir Starmer’s image is unclear). Occasionally, a joke or two might land, but the success rate is distressingly low for a twenty-two-minute comedy, and much of the show has the sense of a first draft about it (surely Matt Hancock’s instruction to “hunt grouse, stay healthy” needs another sentence to evoke the government’s three-part slogans?) The biggest crime Spitting Image charges its targets with is, seemingly, perceived hypocrisy – it’s often more critical of celebrities like Lewis Hamilton, the Rock, or Kevin Hart than it is any of the authority figures featured. (With the exception of Jacinda Ardern, who again is charged with a sort of hypocrisy; apparently, it’s actually very easy to manage the novel coronavirus in a country like New Zealand, and everyone is giving her far too much credit.) In turn the show takes on a strikingly cynical, moralising bent; there’s a very self-satisfied and superior tone to it all, far more than a show that mocks Greta Thunberg can really justify.

Ultimately, Spitting Image rings hollow. Not just because it isn’t very funny – though it isn’t – but because it doesn’t say anything. The show calls to mind, as much political satire now does, Chris Morris’ question: “are you doing some kind of exotic display for the court, to be patted on the head by the court, or are you trying to change something?” For twenty-two listless, empty minutes, Spitting Image seems not just content but proud to perform that empty court jester role – in the end, it’s all faintly embarrassing.

Related:

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Film Review | Brexit: The Uncivil War (2019)

You can find more of my writing about television here, and follow me on twitter @morelandwriter. If you enjoyed this article – or if you didn’t – please consider leaving a tip on ko-fi.

6 thoughts on “Spitting Image is lazy, self-satisfied, and ultimately hollow

  1. The last paragraph, and certainly Chris Morris’ sentiments, are brought to the fore all the more alarmingly by the fact Spitting Image has willingly teamed up with Edwina Currie – a woman they regularly used to pillory as publicity-seeking and addicted to attention – to promote the show on Britbox. I’m not saying celebrities can’t enjoy their puppet parodies but there’s something so achingly desperate about this particular partnership.

    Anyway, good review of the first episode; I broadly agree with your points. I think the show runs the risk of falling into a trap where it gets so enamored with the “characters” it creates that it forgets to attempt any actual satire: why attack Boris for his actual policies or politics when you can make him say “pfaffle” and muss his blonde mop of hair – y’know, the exact image of him everybody already has? And while the visual image of Trump’s distended sphincter was precisely the kind of shocking gross-out humour that should be expected from Roger Law and co, given the circumstances it felt more like a tact admittance that Trump is a difficult man to parody, so the gross-out route was the only one left available.

    As I write this there’s been another two episodes produced and I’ll stick my neck out and say it’s improving slightly with each edition – it’s not necessarily getting more BITING or VULGAR or HARD-EDGED or anything, but the writing is at least tightening, and there’s a few genuinely chucklesome jokes cropping up. That said, the fact the show has so far been so middling when the credits make it clear each episode has almost double the writers any episode of the original had is telling, to say the very least. The writing team needs a severe shake-up, and a serious limit on how many times certain characters can appear in a given episode – Trump dominated the first one, and Elon Musk took up about five minutes of the second. More short, sweet, snappy sketches (under a minute running time) would allow for a wider range of material.

    I’ll probably continue to watch it for now because, in fairness, the original took a while to -really- get going, but if by Episode 10 I’m still feeling the same ennui I got from Episode 1, then I’ll have to revert to getting all my topical jokes from Twitter, Reddit and local graffiti – and, occasionally, from the public figures themselves.

    PS. If any writers from the show are reading this, knock it off with the David Attenborough jokes. I’m not saying he’s “untouchable” or beyond reproach (the original parodied him, after all) but so far the punchline of literally every gag with him has been “he’s old”. At the age of 94, that’s pretty f*cking obvious, isn’t it?

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    1. Yeah, that’s a great point re: Edwina Currie – and not just her, actually, they’ve got Neil Kinnock and Ken Livingstone and so on doing the rounds too. I found what Currie said about the show quite revealing, actually – about Thatcher loving her portrayal on the show, cabinet ministers wanting to be “satirised” because it’d show they’d become more mainstream figures, that sort of thing. Gove apparently was proud to be featured in the new version – it’s never going to be especially biting satire if it’s become this sort of television institution.

      I’ve kept watching it too, and I did think the subsequent episodes were an improvement – though I’ve noticed, particularly in the third episode, more of a reliance on the sort of gross out humour you described. (I’m thinking particularly of “Boris Johnson has sex with the novel coronavirus”, which struck me as quite puerile.)

      Agree with you about the Attenborough jokes, too, they seem particularly lazy to me (especially since they used the exact same “he doesn’t understand to look at the camera” joke for Joe Biden, too!)

      Thanks so much for taking the time to comment, and for the kind words about the piece too.

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