Show of the week

Imitating life: A dysfunctional government is beleaguered in <i>The Thick of It</i> &#8212; sound familiar?

Imitating life: A dysfunctional government is beleaguered in The Thick of It — sound familiar?

Wednesday, ABC1, 10pm

Chances are, at one stage or another, you've crossed paths with an irritating do-gooder such as Terri Coverley, a snivelling, entitled brat such as Ollie Reeder, a buzzword-spouting zealot such as Stewart Pearson (''Let's architecturalise this!'') or a feral tyrant such as Malcolm Tucker.

Occasionally, when we look in the mirror and are prepared to be brutally honest with ourselves, we might even admit to recognising small pieces of ourselves in them. They are a handful of the characters in the BBC's audacious and stinging ensemble comedy The Thick of It.

Created by Armando Iannucci, The Thick of It started life as an excoriating, potty-mouthed political satire set in the clinical offices of various British government departments, where hapless civil servants, elected politicians, spin doctors and advisers jockey for a place on a slippery pole that leads all the way to ''No.10''.

Filmed in the austere manner of a documentary and largely improvised, it was rightly applauded as a testosterone-charged, R-rated update of Yes, Minister, replete with a withering yet caustic take on social progress and those charged with implementing it.

Propelling the shenanigans of a government constantly teetering from one disaster to another is an exceptional ensemble filled with some of Britain's best comedy actors, including Joanna Scanlan, who seems to have cornered the market in playing forlorn middle-age women, Chris Addison, Vincent Franklin, Roger Allam and Peter Capaldi, who plays the machiavellian spinner Malcolm Tucker.

Character, rather than political intrigue, is the pillar on which The Thick of It is built. Iannucci could have served up sketch-comedy caricatures, but he's fleshed them into credible characters with foibles, tics, sweaty nerves and regrettable brain-storming ideas (maternity leave for those getting a puppy). The situations in which they wallow are instantly relatable, if also cringe-making.

In the end, though, this is not a show about Labour v Tory or new Left v old Left, despite the presence of journalist and former civil servant Martin Sixsmith on the writing team and some recognisable scandals being played out between the lines.

Our pleasure derives from the vividness of the characters, their erratic and infantile interactions and the machinegun dialogue that is equal parts outrageous profanity and sly wit, such as when the endearingly put-upon Peter Mannion (Allam) tells a colleague: ''You've turned into the wrong Mitford sister.''

This barely promoted fourth season is a cracker, with the venomous Tucker, the inept Murray, the supercilious Ollie and deluded clown Ben Swain (Justin Edwards) on the opposition benches trying to find their way back into government. By the end of tonight, they're closer, even though some of them won't be there to savour it.