Political Theaters

Political Theaters

From Yes Minister and The Thick of It to Veep, Scandal and House of Cards, British political satire and its American progeny reveal growing disillusionment with political irreality.


Cameras never did sit easily in Parliament. Only recently, almost twenty-five years after electricians wired the House of Commons for television, a proposal to shoot House members from more flattering angles was struck down. The eight cameras that Margaret Thatcher fought to keep out of Parliament—and whose introduction converged with her final months in power—will remain fixed from a great, feature-distorting height. Still intact as well is a provision from a 1989 broadcasting agreement stipulating that “no extracts from parliamentary proceedings may be used in comedy shows or other light entertainment such as political satire.” In setting down their terms, the Select Committee on Broadcasting determined that wack angles and bad lighting are one thing, feeding Britain’s raging satire complex quite another.

The global edition of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, a compilation of the week’s best material, airs in the United Kingdom (and elsewhere, including Yemen) prefaced with a disclaimer: “The show you are about to watch is a news parody. Its stories are not fact checked. Its reporters are not journalists. And its opinions are not fully thought through.” In the summer of 2011, one episode of the global edition didn’t air in Britain, it was later revealed, because it featured Question Time footage of Prime Minister David Cameron engaging members of Parliament in the kind of rude, rugby-style display that is familiar to Brits (and Canadians) but, as Jon Stewart’s spellbound response confirmed, astonishing to Americans. “England is awesome!” he exclaimed, after showing a clip of Cameron laying quick-tongued waste to his inflamed, less witty opponents. England, where politicians speak plainly to one another and the country’s leader is not only willing to exchange barbs with the opposition—in person, in public and in real time—but also cuts short a trip to Africa for the privilege. Stewart ended the bit by suggesting that Washington, constipated by imperial guile, abject posturing and a rarefied presidential office, might take note.

When he discovered that his new political heroes had censored the very episode in which he’d extolled them, Stewart thought again. Two weeks after airing the offending clip, he spent a segment of The Daily Show chiding British broadcasters, a ritual shaming that included an old Spitting Image clip of Maggie Thatcher and her merry House of puppets. For British censors, it would appear, a news parody is a news parody every day of the week. “Broadcasters are allowed to include parliamentary items in magazine programmes containing musical or humourous features,” the Select Committee’s guidelines state, “provided the reports are kept separate.”

In the summer of 2013, John Oliver, The Daily Show’s senior British correspondent, appeared on Charlie Rose to discuss performing as the show’s guest host while Stewart took six weeks off to direct his first feature film. In the interview, Oliver described life in London performing stand-up, taking the odd writing gig and watching The Daily Show with a complicated envy. Oliver felt Stewart had attained “a high standard of satire and political comedy on television”—too high, perhaps, to flourish in postmillennial London, where the age of Monty Python, Yes Minister and Spitting Image had passed.

In an essay last year for the London Review of Books, novelist Jonathan Coe elaborated on this predicament. Britain’s closest Daily Show counterparts include Mock the Week (where Oliver has appeared regularly; his new HBO series, Last Week Tonight With John Oliver, debuts in April) and the longer-running Have I Got News for You. On the latter show, comics and public figures engage in a loosely moderated panel, a format whose subversive potential, Coe suggests, has been neutralized by decades of overuse. Where satiric revues like The Last Laugh and Beyond the Fringe and the BBC news parody That Was the Week That Was triggered a highly exportable “satire boom” in the early 1960s, the descendants of “anti-establishment comedy” now produce laughter, wrote Coe, that is “a substitute for thought rather than its conduit.” Over time, what was urgent and radical became chummy and safe, a way for politicians and audiences to get comfortable with their prejudices, with how bad things can get. This is a charge increasingly leveled at The Daily Show and its offspring, The Colbert Report, though one heard few complaints above the giggles in 2006, when it was with some regret that Oliver put his London belongings in storage, where they remain, and lit out across the Atlantic.

Oliver’s defection is in line with a long and fluid tradition of cultural exchange. Since their expulsion in 1783, again and again the British have returned to America. Despite a Constitution conceived and written against the example of Mother England—no monarchy, no aristocracy, just a set of blazing ideals—the United States ripples with British DNA. The countries’ respective relationships to satire offer a case in point: the origins of political journalism in Britain are intimately bound up with satire; freedom of the press is essential to American identity. Before they were novelists, Defoe and Dickens were political journalists, the former when political journalism and particularly political satire carried a prison term or worse. Mark Twain too was a journalist, as well as a riverboat captain and a prospector. A journalist was just one more thing an American could be. An American like Twain might also be a satirist, but there were fewer of them; the calling seemed less urgent. At some point, though, by some witchy inversion, some cross-cultural pollination, if we are to believe John Oliver, Britain lost the patent on effective political satire, and currently it is America—specifically Jon Stewart, Oliver says—who “has the baton.”

* * *

With its debut in 2005—the year before Oliver fled to the other Chelsea—The Thick of It, a British series created by Armando Iannucci, set Bristish political satire on a new path. More than politics, The Thick of It is a show about what it’s like to work for the government, which makes it a very political show indeed. The stage is Britain’s Ministry of Social Affairs, here imagined as a futile office-scape haunted by the prime minister’s black-tongued henchman, Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi), a spin master who appears to subsist on his underlings’ stress pheromones. Inspired by Yes Minister, which, according to Iannucci, “felt like a documentary to a lot of people,” The Thick of It recalls the everyday annihilations and documentary styling of The Office. The show’s unapologetic depiction of its venal milieu also makes the case that British satire has evolved past the familiar jabs and quick-dissolve ironies of news parody.

The show’s first episode established a wobbly vérité style—what a 2012 New Yorker profile of Iannucci called “screwball naturalism”—inextricable from its subject matter. One minister is out and another, Hugh Abbott (Chris Langham), abruptly in. Abbott’s first task as minister turns out to be his only one: maintaining face, at all costs, vis-à-vis the press. “I’m not quite sure what level of reality I’m supposed to be operating on,” Abbott mutters, responding to Malcolm’s plan to eliminate, both from the record and from real life, a public relations gaffe. Malcolm clarifies in his customary, disgusted Highland style: “I tell [the press] that you said it, they believe that you said it—they don’t really believe you said it; they know that you never said it—but it’s in their interest to say that you said it, because if they don’t say that you said it, they’re not going to get what you say tomorrow or the next day, when I decide to tell them what it is you’re saying.”

The world of The Thick of It is hapless, the people in it filled with contempt—for each other, for the press, for the voting public, for themselves, trapped in pointless times. On this level of reality, in other words, satire looks a lot like public life. When Dickens turned from political journalism to politically informed fiction, he developed a social realist aesthetic that suited the stories and ideas of his time. In a post-empire, late-capitalist show like The Thick of It, social realism is the domain of satire—and the realer it is, the more satiric the effect. The players’ ceaseless rococo swearing intensifies the sense of a political theater profaned, soiled, in the ideological red. (Every now and then, watching The Thick of It, I’d recall its BBC origins and think: England really is awesome.) The swearing is also pretty funny, a basic amusement in a show that otherwise replaces laughs with clenched discomfiture. There is nothing agreeable about Iannucci’s satire, nothing inviting or cathartic. Ragged in conceit, the show is startling in execution and effect, in its stubborn, lingering unease. This is train-wreck comedy, entrancing but not entirely pleasurable, less about expansive belly laughs than choking noises escaping from the throat.

The debut of Veep, Iannucci’s attempt to translate his brand of political satire for an American audience, was the occasion of his New Yorker profile. Less of an ensemble piece than The Thick of It, Veep gives its titular star, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, the opportunity to explore the darker humors of the screwball queen she has perfected over the better part of two decades on network television. The show is set in the office of Vice President Selina Meyer, where maintaining the illusion of power requires most of Selina and her staff’s energy. The episodic plots find a policy or public relations endeavor generating small and then progressively greater embarrassments, each one pointing to Selina’s inability—whether through lack of skill or influence, but mostly influence—to get things done. As in The Thick of It, the country’s leader is a shadow presence, much referenced, often pejoratively (I doubt he would answer to “spineless, flip-floppy fuckbag”), but never seen.

Veep, like The Thick of It, seeks a gut resonance with reality. The earlier show was successful, Iannucci has said, because “this representation somehow does connect with what goes on.” The Veep team (whose executive producers include journalist and DC native Frank Rich) stresses the research that went into the show’s re-creation of government offices—inside knowledge gained through tours and consultancies. The furniture, the floor plan, the lingo—“body man” this and “pencil-fucked” that—are meant to evoke in the viewer a sense of the real thing. On a commentary track of the Veep season-one DVD, a producer describes the importance of ensuring that the show’s characters live in a highly credible world. The one-to-one production design is meant to de-glamorize Washington, to cleanse the imagination of an audience fattened for years on The West Wing and other tales of Camelot.

Especially in its first season, Veep feels a little lost in this quest for verisimilitude. The consultant-approved curses land at awkward angles; Iannucci’s signature tone struggles for traction. Though it may get the layout right, Veep relies on the gag of vice president as political neuter—an old Washington joke that has gotten few laughs in recent years. Accurate or not, the concept is steep, the show’s stakes elusive. The Thick of It attempts to mirror British politics, incorporating into its last season the election of a coalition government. In the world of Veep, there are no Republicans or Democrats, only political creatures behaving politically. That its relatively light comedy aims not just to entertain but resonate with viewers, connect with what goes on, puts Veep at a loss, in part because Iannucci’s social-realism–as-satire depends on something ineffable in order to succeed—a kind of cultural affinity, a general willingness, still unpalatable to Americans, to accept in depictions of contemporary politics the level of reality (or irreality) that comes closest to the arid truth.

HBO co-president Richard Plepler told The New Yorker that for Veep Iannucci “softened the voice a little bit, through irony.” The executives had pushed for a more sympathetic lead character—a politician the audience could root for, a woman with clout, dignity, deeply held beliefs. Louis-Dreyfus went on to win two Emmys for playing Selina Meyer, and HBO has renewed Veep for a third season. Despite their different registers, Iannucci has sent transatlantic echoes through his shows: “We’ve been here for three years and we’ve done fuck all,” one of the minister’s policy advisers complains in a 2012 episode of The Thick of It. “In that time Apple have launched two iPhones, three iPads—and their boss is a fucking dead guy.” Early in Veep’s second season, Selina’s chief of staff (Anna Chlumsky) gets burned by her little sister: “You work for the vice president,” the sister sneers. “It’s not like it’s Google.” Corporate power makes a paper merchant of Western government, and paper-airplane folders of public servants. Because it brings this predicament to such relentless life, the British show is by far the bleaker. There are limits to Veep’s realism, and therefore to its satire. Compared with the plaque-colored world of The Thick of It, this Washington still glisters.

Iannucci’s 2009 film In the Loop brings Malcolm Tucker to an alternate DC, where he and the British minister of international development become pawns of the American war machine. In the Loop depicts the political process—specifically the US case for the 2003 invasion of Iraq—as a product of accident and ego. Iannucci imagines the forces that conspired to pass the Iraq War resolution as utterly pedestrian, and global politics as a game of power and status familiar to anyone who has jostled for position in a sandbox or conference room. The State Department’s plotting is vague and vaguely inevitable, and like a lewd rumor the prospect of war takes on a life independent of reason or recourse. Odious talking points pass between fretful diplomats; the Brits discover their own irrelevance. A general played by James Gandolfini emasculates Tucker, mocking the UK’s dwindling power and influence, and the insult is shown to have a decisive effect, leading Britain into war on what is, essentially, a dare.

* * *

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.

* * *

If The Thick of It enacts the idea that the lines separating political theater from the real world have dissolved and the leading players can no longer find their marks, in House of Cards all is theater, and tragedy reigns. The original BBC production, adapted from a novel by Michael Dobbs, a former chief of staff to Margaret Thatcher, premiered the week Thatcher resigned in the fall of 1990. “Nothing lasts forever,” Tory chief whip Francis Urquhart (Ian Richardson) coos in the first episode, clutching a framed photo of the prime minister and addressing the camera in one of his character’s habitual Shakespearean asides. “Even the longest, the most glittering reign must come to an end someday.” According to Dobbs, John Major and his staff paused from campaigning each week to watch the show.

The American adaptation of House of Cards, whose second season premiered on Valentine’s Day, was the first venture by Netflix into production. Like Showtime’s Political Animals, in which Sigourney Weaver plays a goodly, embattled secretary of state clearly modeled on Hillary Clinton, this House of Cards exposes a mutually parasitic bond between politics and the media. In her pantsuits and flag pin, doing bad to do good, Weaver is a figure of reluctant sympathy, an iron maiden in need of forgiveness. House of Cards makes no apologies for Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey, who might as well have an “F” tattooed on one heavy eyelid and a “U” on the other), a languishing majority whip in a centrist Democratic government. Just as Francis’s wrath is unleashed when the new prime minister ignores his recommended cabinet changes, Frank turns to stone when the president he helped elect appoints someone else as secretary of state. In thirteen episodes spun out from the BBC’s four (with echoes of subsequent seasons), Frank colludes with his deceptively creamy wife Claire (Robin Wright), a shady adviser (Michael Kelly) and a young reporter named Zoe (Kate Mara) to wreak havoc and thereby acquire power, which is its own end.

“Forward—that is the battle cry,” Frank tells us. “Leave ideology to the armchair generals, does me no good.” Frank persuades the president that a new education bill is a nice, benign choice to usher in the administration. It’s also a nice, benign choice for House of Cards, in keeping with a modus operandi that favors Frank’s crab-cake rhetoric over relevant or even plausible plotlines. Nor is character at a premium: a viewer might not mind Frank’s lack of a moral center; his lack of an immoral center presents a more significant problem. House of Cards occasionally isolates its players, especially its leading couple, presenting their private moments for our inspection. It’s a soap-opera move perfected by The Sopranos, in which scenes often open or close with a character’s face expressing something—ambivalence, fear, anger—that only we can see. But it’s in these moments, separated from their “characters,” that Frank and Claire seem most like ciphers, their private faces suggesting a deeper opacity.

In House of Cards, politics and media are not in bed but up against a wall, for brief but frequent, vacant interludes. Like Frank, Zoe appears to care only about keeping the ball in the air: copy flowing out and traffic flowing in. Zoe works for a paper called The Washington Herald, which means that despite the presence of real-life broadcasters (including George Stephanopoulos and Soledad O’Brien), we have entered bizarro DC. Sallow tones and gargoyle close-ups give the BBC production’s claustral atmosphere a sleazy wit that is compressed in its antihero’s tagline: “You might very well think that; I couldn’t possibly comment.” The more polished Washington version—a noir with a gold and pewter sheen—oozes sleaze but shows little wit. Frank might speak to the viewer, but he never winks.

In this, House of Cards owes as much to The Thick of It as it does to its British original. In The Thick of It, self-interest is strictly micro and trumps ideology without even the appearance of a struggle. There is no bigger picture or larger story that these peons might seek to shape. By 2012, the complicated utility of leaks and counter-leaks holding the kingdom together has itself become the story, with leak-master Malcolm (“I’m as busy as a two-twatted hooker”) Tucker at the center of a parliamentary inquiry. The inquiry and its machinations take up much of the fourth season; both culminate in Malcolm’s testimony. Ever quotable, in this instance Malcolm turns stentorian, and for the first time the show articulates something like a moral perspective on the nihilism it depicts:

The whole planet’s leaking!… The exchange of private information—that is what drives our economy. But you come after me because you can’t arrest a land mass, can you? You can’t cuff a country…. You [the parliamentary committee] don’t like your species, and you know what? Neither do I. But how dare you come and lay this at my door. How dare you blame me for this, which is the result of a political class which has given up on morality, and simply pursues popularity at all costs. I am you and you are me.

In a season-two episode of The Newsroom, Olivia Munn’s finance reporter salutes Disney (which owns ABC, home of Scandal), calling entertainment “one of the few American industries still making a product people wanna buy.” A show like House of Cards, sprung from the loins of 33 million Netflix subscribers, promotes a new industry standard—the bland impetus of data-driven programming. Account data suggesting Netflix users were digging on director David Fincher, Kevin Spacey and the BBC House of Cards persuaded executives to combine the three elements in a remake. Where the original made a motif of rats scuttling through London’s finest gutters, the American version returns several times to the homeless on Washington’s doorsteps. “Nobody can hear you,” Frank tells one such wretch. “Nobody cares about you. Nothing will come of this.” We are meant to shiver at this, the suggestion of a cold, comfortless world. We are meant to recognize the noir sensibility of House of Cards as a darker shade of realism. But this world absorbs too much light and reflects too little to illuminate its subject or the viewer. If the show provides no relief from FU’s nihilism, it is evidence that our entertainment preferences are well accounted for. At a moment of peak ideology and political, cultural and economic division, House of Cards emphasizes beyond its showy cynicism a rare point of agreement: this thing is busted, but we all like watching television. To watch the first season in a weekend, as I did, is not to feel moved or unsettled but a little seduced, a little ashamed. It seemed important, to the many who did the same, that if the show wasn’t particularly good, it wasn’t bad, and there was a lot of it. For a few more viewing hours, the world proved not so comfortless after all.

* * *

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.

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