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Political Theaters

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The Thick of It

Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi) testifying in a parliamentary inquiry in The Thick of It
(Des Willie, © BBC 2012)

If Washington politics suffers from London’s postmodern malaise, a similar existential gridlock, its whims are more dangerous because they are, like the massive Gandolfini, more potent. The Americans get what they want, even when what they want is more than the rest of world can bear. The Washington of In the Loop, caught in Iannucci’s surrealist looking glass, hints at why American audiences may not be ready for such an unforgiving reflection.

Two more cable shows that have raised a curtain on American politics and its failures of power, The Newsroom and Political Animals, reveal familiar figures in postures of nostalgia and repentance. A third, the network hit Scandal, turns politics into pure escapism. Creator Shonda Rhimes based Scandal’s Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) on former George H.W. Bush aide and current “crisis management” CEO (as well as Scandal executive producer) Judy Smith; from that humble seed of reality grew a flowering orchard of crazy. In an episode from the second season, a Pope staffer makes explicit the show’s allusive claim on the scandalous, fabulous truth about American politics: “There’s a whole other layer of DC, you know, where real politics happen, where decisions are made, not about democracy or a flag—about power. This is about things that go bump in the night, stuff regular Americans never hear about. This is the real deal.”

Seems dubious, but it’s notable that, unlike most recent political series, Rhimes’s gonzo crime procedural serves up a fleshly president in “Fitz” (Tony Goldwyn), a tragic milquetoast leading a Republican administration. With each new scandal’s containment, and across the unifying story line of Fitz’s rigged ascent to the presidency, Rhimes returns to the show’s exploration of power and how the president doesn’t really have any. This is true both in his marriage—to Mellie (Bellamy Young), a common schemer in cultured pearls—and within the Oval Office, where Fitz and Olivia, possessed by a love strong enough to override their cynical Washington wiring, are forever clinching just beyond the surveillance cameras.

Rhimes uses melodrama to play out the question posed by the current crop of political television series of what’s real, what’s for show, and whether the difference still matters, if it ever did. “I know how to fake it with my wife,” Fitz tells Olivia as she preps him for a “happy couple” press op. “You taught me well.” The first lady sees it differently: “Pretending is what’s real,” Mellie informs her husband. From laughing at unfunny jokes to forging a shared public face, “marriage is almost all pretend—for everyone. That’s the reality. That’s what’s real. Buying into the delusion that there’s any other way to live together, to get through an entire life together—that’s the fantasy. That’s pretending.”

Mellie’s speech appalls Fitz, but it might resonate with an electorate weary of pretending, of illusion heaped upon disillusion, of the cynicism internalized over decades spent spackling the democratic dream and which now feels as real, as normal, as necessary, as genuine idealism once did. “Did I do this to you?” asks the fraudulently elected, philandering, occasionally homicidal president. Well, the viewer might think, you kind of did. Scandal, whose most devoted fans live-tweet the show’s every nutty twist, provides in itself a balm for its political blasphemies: how scary to think that even the president is powerless; let’s all watch a soap opera instead.

Aaron Sorkin, the creator of The West Wing and now The Newsroom, would rather we learn some lessons—about American exceptionalism and its slippery balance of pros and cons, and the best days of both politics and journalism. In Sorkin’s fantasy, a cable news anchor might shape the country’s moral landscape, offering viewers not just top headlines but truth triumphant over sensation. Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) is such an anchor, and The Newsroom follows his transformation from “the biggest ratings whore in the business” into an advocate for a nation suffering from media and political poisoning. That transformation begins with a humbling: Will laments failing his viewers, equating his apology with that offered to the 9/11 Commission by former counterterrorism adviser Richard Clarke in 2004. The Newsroom doesn’t go back that far but it is set in the recent past, and in each episode demonstrates the ways in which a news story we remember (or remember quickly forgetting) might have benefited from the kind of mediation practiced by the rehabilitated McAvoy and his team.

Sorkin’s is a fictional world organized under actual datelines, in which the country is led by our actual president, Barack Obama. Now and then, fake stories are mixed in with the real, should reality fail to provide a ready vehicle for Sorkin’s rhetoric. The first season of The Newsroom was not well received: its apologies dripped with presumption; its depiction of sacramental journalism asked too much and too little of viewers. The show’s second season began to investigate the fallibilities of cable journalism and eased up on the notion of Will McAvoy, leader of men. Yet The Newsroom remains gravely aspirational, and in this it suffers by comparison to The West Wing (1999–2006), Sorkin’s similarly high-minded apology for the Clinton presidency, not least because it’s hard to fathom a paean to institutional power beguiling the American imagination the way The West Wing once did. According to Armando Iannucci, even the White House remains caught up in the latter show’s blend of truth and theater. During a research expedition to Washington, Iannucci delighted when Reggie Love, a former special assistant to President Obama, described the Roosevelt Room as the place where West Wing characters Josh and C.J. might meet: “I’m thinking, ‘Why couldn’t you say this is where President Obama sat with Hillary Clinton?’” This is the size of the predicament, and yet one yearns for something beyond the vapid sting of such an anecdote. One yearns, perhaps, for a show about someone like Love, not a persuasive caricature but a human being, subject to genuine confusion about what level of reality he’s supposed to be operating on.

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