Political entertainment appears, for the moment, to be a seller’s market. User polling helped select another Washington series, Alpha House, from Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau, as Amazon’s first original production. There is perhaps good reason why a new class of television shows depicting Washington as an extension of show business—treating “reality” as a dramatic prop, useful insofar as it leverages the idea that there is no reality, no truth but show truth—have connected with American audiences. The buyer is bound to the con they re-stage, over and over, from different angles. The buyer, like a naïve senator or a desperate vice president, also wants to believe in the possibility of making history. History, after all, asserts a shared reality at last, its solace equal to or maybe even greater than that of a nation tweeting along together in real time.
It is no coincidence that actual political systems are faring less well. Even their infrastructure is failing: the Capitol dome is about to undergo a two-year renovation; Britain needs a billion pounds to patch up Westminster Palace. To that end, last year a parliamentary committee voted to allow “appropriate commercial filming” within Westminster, including the House of Commons. Upset ensued, but it appears Hollywood and others will soon file through the palace at a starting rate of £10,000 per day, acquiring for their political fables the increasingly exotic stamp of something real.
The ministers needn’t fret too much. The House’s image, if not its domain, has long been compromised. By comparison, the queen and her errant Windsors still gleam, a national reservoir that has helped the British avoid American-style political dynasties and worship of their elected heads of government. One sovereign is quite enough. Parliamentary systems elect parties, not individuals; parliamentary power is more fluid, its vagaries more readily depicted for what they are. True, cameras are rarely found in British courtrooms, and House footage is not for fun—measures oppressive to the American sensibility, which prefers “reality,” not realism, as the basis for satire and much entertainment. Yet what boundaries remain continue to make good neighbors of politics and culture in Britain, where a show as transgressive as The Thick of It gets over because it agrees to call itself make-believe.