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.