BBC America’s ‘Twenty Twelve’: Keep calm and carry a torch

Hank Stuever
TV critic June 27, 2012

A blessing to offer: May you always live in cities that will never host the Olympics.

“Twenty Twelve,” a conceptually smart but only moderately funny comedy premiering Thursday night on BBC America, underscores that contrarian sentiment. What megalopolis in its right mind would volunteer to host the costly, labor-intensive, logistically hellish Games — especially when the return on investment will be eternally debated?

Hank Stuever has been The Post's TV critic since 2009. He joined the paper in 1999 as a writer for the Style section, where he has covered an array of popular (and unpopular) culture across the nation. View Archive

Idealism and goodwill (mixed with ambition and an indifferent relationship to hubris) are the only answers why, and they are personified in Hugh Bonneville’s delusionally optimistic Ian Fletcher, the chief of the fictional “Olympic Deliverance Committee.” Prepping a city like London for such an event — which, in real life, begins July 27 — is an absurd undertaking. This gives “Twenty Twelve” a lot of manic material to work with; one presumes the irreverent comedy was also designed by the Beeb to perhaps soothe those Londoners who became fed up with the whole shebang years ago.

With so much potential, it’s a small bummer to watch “Twenty Twelve” strain against the usual tropes of “Office”-like, Ricky Gervais-style improv. As Ian, Bonneville (“Downton Abbey’s” Earl of Grantham) is a determined bureaucrat surrounded by half-wits — such as Siobhan (Jessica Hynes), who, as “head of brand,” hires a hipster webmaster who can’t spell “Olympic” and an avant-garde artist who builds a giant alarm clock that counterintuitively “counts down” to 2012 by simply ticking forward.

Meanwhile, Kay (Amelia Bullmore) makes everyone’s life more miserable as the “head of sustainability” — a word and concept neither she nor anyone else can quite define. Graham (Karl Theobald) is the “head of infrastructure,” which means he sits and watches traffic jams form all day on his computer screen. “The worse it gets, the more we know about why that is,” he numbly observes.

“Twenty Twelve” begins about 1,000 days out from the opening ceremony, in the fall of 2009, as that nonsense clock is wound up and dedicated at a meaningless press conference. Moving forward from there, Ian and his co-workers embark on a series of small disasters and embarrassments. Welcoming a Brazilian delegation for a bus tour of the city’s venues and traffic arteries, they get hopelessly lost and stuck in gridlock. It’s that sort of gag, over and over.

Going in, one has hopes that “Twenty Twelve” will be all the Olympic-related sarcasm on which some of us naysayers thrive. There is something wickedly off-message and clever about highlighting the inanity of it all. To some degree, the show is those things, but the humor is a shade too droll and subtle, even for British comedy. Rather than come off as an extreme depiction of what happens behind the Olympics’ brightly colored glitz, it doesn’t feel extreme enough. Sustainability turns out to be the big concern after all.

Twenty Twelve

(120 minutes over three episodes) premieres Thursday at 9 p.m. on BBC America.

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