10. "The Key," Yes, Prime Minister (1992)
Welcome to the “100 Best Sitcom Episodes of All Time,” a countdown for 2012. Each episode will get a separate blog post, counting backward toward No. 1. A list of the programs revealed so far is here (and on Pinterest), and an introduction to the project is here.
It's pretty rare for a power dynamic to change on a sitcom. Ralph Kramden is never going to be able to say, "I told you so" to Alice, it's inconceivable for Frank Burns to outwit Hawkeye Pierce, and Carrie Bradshaw can do nothing to lose the adulation of everyone on Sex and the City. True, Seinfeld did a few reversal episodes (notably "The Opposite," where George can do no wrong while Elaine slides into Constanza-like loserdom), but the changes were never permanent. So when the tables are successfully turned on a show with well-defined characters, it's a treat.
On "The Key," the fourth episode of Yes, Prime Minister (which followed the 22 episodes of Yes, Minister), the seemingly ominipotent head of the civil service, Sir Humphrey Appleby, finds himself literally locked out of the corridors of power. Nigel Hawthorne's portrayal of a man suddenly peering into the abyss of irrelevance is one of the truly great sitcom performances.
Humphrey: (increasingly agitated) Prime Minister, I must protest in the strongest possible terms my
profound opposition to a newly instituted practice which imposes severe
and intolerable restrictions upon the ingress and egress of senior
members of the hierarchy and which will, in all probability, should the
current deplorable innovation be perpetuated, precipitate a constriction
of the channels of communication, and culminate in a condition of
organizational atrophy and administrative paralysis which will render
effectively impossible the coherent and co-ordinated discharge of the
function of government within Her Majesty's United Kingdom of Great
Britain and Northern Ireland.
Prime Minister Jim Hacker: You mean you've lost your key?
In the devilishly clever script by series creators Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn, an overreaching Humphrey sets his own comeuppance in motion. He wants to diminish the influence of Hacker's political adviser, Dorothy Wainwright, so he moves her office to a Siberia-like wing of 10 Downing Street.
Dorothy is outraged by her exile: "I have to be opposite the [gents'] loo! ... I could hear almost everything they said privately to each other when they popped out of Cabinet meetings for a pee."
Humphrey tries to wave away Hacker's concerns with his usual gobbledygook. This is a miscalculation, for the most important thing to Hacker is constantly checking on his popularity, whether among voters or Cabinet members. The attempt to physically separate him from his political advisor is the straw that breaks the camel's back — or, in this case, finally gives him a spine.
Hacker: Bernard, I really don't want Humphrey putting his head round the door during this meeting.
Bernard: Well, I'll do my best, Prime Minister.
Hacker: That may not be good enough, Bernard. Dorothy tells me that technically Humphrey's supposed to phone you from the cabinet office before he comes through to Number Ten. Is that true?
Bernard: (dubiously) Well, perhaps in theory, but it's really just a formality.
Jim: Good. Humphrey likes formality.
"The Key" is a sharp political satire, showing the relationship between power and proximity. (In any office, the location of your desk is not random; if you think it is, you're not paying attention.) But it's also a nifty twist on the sitcom trope of intrusive neighbors. How many plots on I Love Lucy, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Friends, Everybody Loves Raymond, etc., hinged on the people from next door (or across the hall) barging in at the wrong time? On Seinfeld, would Kramer even be part of the other characters' lives if he didn't come into Jerry's apartment whenever he pleased?
Humphrey's stupification at encountering a locked door — and then having his key taken away from him — is a fine joke on all the sitcom neighbors who never call before dropping in. And his instant mental breakdown, which has him frantically looking for any way to get into Hacker's office, is a marvelous piece of understated physical comedy.
• Humphrey's explanation for turning Dorothy's office into a second waiting room:
Humphrey: Some people must wait where other people cannot see the people who are waiting. And people who arrive before other people must wait where they cannot see the people who arrive after them being admitted before them. And people who come in from outside must wait where they cannot see the people from inside coming in to tell you what the people from outside have come to see you about. And people who arrive when you are with people they are not supposed to know you have seen must wait somewhere until the people who are not supposed to have seen you have seen you.
• Hacker considers turning over Humphrey's duties as head of the civil service to the finance minister, Sir Frank Gordon:
Hacker: If, as you say, [Humphrey]'s not overstretched...
Gordon: (catching on) Ah. When I say not overstretched, I was of course talking in a sense of total cumulative loading taken globally, rather than in respect of certain individual and essentially anomalous responsibilities which are not, logically speaking, consonant or harmonious with the broad spectrum of intermeshing and inseparable functions, and could indeed be said to place an excessive and supererogatory burden on the office, where considered in relation to the comparatively exiguous advantages of their overall centralisation.
Hacker: You could do part of Humphrey's job!
• Hacker's assistant Bernard (Derek Fowlds) is a very British sitcom stock character, someone who says stupid things not out of stupidity, but out of a passive-aggressive preciseness of language:
Hacker: Bernard, I want you to put Dorothy back into her old office.
Bernard: You mean, carry her there?
• TV Tropes lists "The Key" as an example of a villainous breakdown:
Depends on whether you think Sir Humphrey's the villain, but whenever something comes up that he didn't anticipate his default response is panicked, spluttering incoherence.... [B]y the end of "The Key", Sir Humphrey has been forced to eat Humble Pie and begs Hacker, on the verge of tears, to let him have his key back. One can't help but want to give him a hug...
• Yes, Prime Minister is on Amazon streaming and on iTunes. (But don't buy it from iTunes because they now "protect" movies and TV shows from legal owners taking screenshots, which is why this post has crappy art.) It's also streaming, with commercials, on Veoh.com.