Rachael Johnson: The geeks shall inherit the basement

February 3, 2006

Fridays, 9pm, Channel 4

If there's one thing that ten years in the front line of university IT support services has taught me, it's that IT nerds are a race apart. They even stand out from the eclectic mix of personalities common to many a university. This, as anyone remotely familiar with academic life will know, is really saying something.

It is true that there are certain similarities between a typical university lecturer and the archetypal IT person - the tendency towards excessive facial hair and an unparalleled capacity for sartorial inelegance, for instance. But it is also true that both the users of IT systems and those whose task it is to cater to their every whim frequently occupy battle-worn positions on either side of a great divide, a chasm that usually exists only between people possessed of entirely different frames of cultural reference. IT people are driven mad by callers who describe technical problems using wildly inaccurate terminology. IT users are driven mad by IT people who get pernickety about definitions of words they use only so as not to appear ignorant. This huge capacity for misunderstanding yields a rich source of amusing possibilities; nay, a bountiful orchard, resplendent with the unpicked fruits of comic potential.

Set in the sleek, high-rise world of modern business - where the chasm is just as deep as it is in higher education - Channel 4's new sitcom The IT Crowd revolves around the basement domain of Moss and Roy, two excessively nerdish characters otherwise known as the IT department. Scorned by the beautiful people upstairs for their paucity of sharp suits and social skills, these two caricatures loiter amid the unimaginable clutter of computer parts that besiege their office space, the fashion among computer technicians everywhere. Writer Graham Linehan ( Father Ted ) takes the clichés and runs with them, imbuing his creations with a fine sense of the ridiculous and creating a wealth of great comedy moments.

As if a debilitating lack of social graces were not enough, matters are complicated further by the unexpected arrival of Jen, the new IT manager, who remains utterly unfettered by the slightest computer-related knowledge outside of sending, receiving and deleting e-mails. Shortly after she appears, Moss and Roy catch her pretending to use a telephone that they know is disconnected, and tapping out important e-mails on a computer that isn't plugged in. When Moss tries to explain a technical matter to her, his voice fades into a burst of white noise while she looks on in horror.

Linehan's characters make great use of the rich seam of comedy found in the differences between the IT nerd and everyone else, with a generous helping of absurdity thrown in for good measure. As such, there's bound to be something in this series that can be appreciated by anyone whose life involves the modern office environment. And anyone who has ever fraternised with a computer helpdesk will immediately recognise that fond refrain, known and cherished for years in IT circles for its straw-clutching properties; poised, now, on the brink of running-gagdom: "Have you tried switching it off and back on again?"

Rachael Johnson is an administrative PC officer at Goldsmiths, University of London.

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