In a bad mood about politics

Government bashing on US television shows speaks to the temper of the times

Written by New York Times | Published:April 13, 2013 3:50 am

Mr. Smith never goes to Washington anymore.

One glaring omission in the many series about government — and the list includes Veep,Scandal,House of Cards,Homeland and The Americans — is the ingenuous outsider. Dishonest senators,sleazy political advisors,unprincipled reporters and conniving spouses abound,but,oddly,it is almost impossible to find a Frank Capra-esque newcomer who channels the idealism and frustration of viewers.

That formula doesn’t work in today’s climate. Governance is not a calling on television,it’s a pop-culture spectacle that favours process over outcome: 24-hour sports coverage without a final score.

Veep,the HBO comedy starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus as a self-serving vice president,is steeped in the latest shade of cynicism. The second season begins with Vice President Selina Meyer as callous and calculating as ever,and even she is not as heartless as her more experienced colleagues in the West Wing. Selina asks a White House aide why the administration isn’t doing something to free American hostages. We are doing something,he replies: “Nothing. Until the numbers support intervention,doing nothing is the most positive thing we can do.”

Veep is funny and relentlessly mean-spirited; the president of the US,referred to by the insider acronym “Potus”,is never seen and is held up as an almost irrelevant bystander. The show is a telling counterpoint to Commander in Chief,which began in 2005 and starred Geena Davis as a vice president who takes over the Oval Office when the president has a stroke. There were devious senators and aides in the mix,but the first female vice president was a feminist and straight-talking idealist. It lasted barely a season.

It is no accident that Veep is an Americanised version of The Thick of It. American television writers have an ingrained habit of trying to make even the most boorish characters lovable. Cable doesn’t have the same feel-good mandate as network,and that’s why HBO,Showtime and others look to British television for inspiration. Writers there are more cold-blooded,and,especially when it comes to politics,they serve up scalding satire without lapses into sentiment and sensitivity. For some reason that kind of cruelty is ripe for import.

But government bashing is also an indigenous craft. And it speaks to the temper of the times that the heroine of the ABC drama Scandal,a Shonda Rhimes night-time soap opera about Washington,is a high-priced image consultant who has an affair with the president. Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) is not even the bad girl whom audiences learn to love. Compared with the president,the first lady,White House aides and most of Congress,Olivia Pope has principles,though they mostly consist of guiding her clients past press stakeouts and prosecution.

Mistrust of Washington isn’t new — in 1962,Hollywood released both Advise and Consent,based on Allen Drury’s novel,and The Manchurian Candidate — there’s just so much more of it in popular culture. The West Wing,which began in 1999,was the exception. In that series everyone in the White House — and even some Republicans — were idealistic and well-meaning. The West Wing was a hit that was either ahead of its time or behind it,but it certainly proved out of sync with the prevailing bad mood that has continued to today.

Washington gets no respect,yet the setting has cachet. HBO,which replaced Entourage with Veep,substituted the West Wing for West Hollywood. Rhimes moves on from Grey’s Anatomy and a teaching hospital in Seattle,to Scandal and the incorrigible corridors of power. Sigourney Weaver is famous for battling extraterrestrial life forms in the movie Alien and its many sequels; as a Hillary Clinton-like secretary of state in Political Animals,she fought off predatory reporters.

To some extent,the shift was inevitable. After the September 11 attacks,and most recently the 2008 financial meltdown,national issues and international crises have become daily preoccupations. The nation’s capital is the centre of action — or,more accurately,inaction. And thanks to blogs,Twitter,online news and gossip sites like Politico,Huffington Post and TMZ,and all the 24-hour cable news shows on Fox,CNN and MSNBC,politics have become like football on ESPN,the subject of nonstop coverage,gossip and hyperbolic on-air banter.

The faces of politicians and their strategists,advisors and image consultants are familiar. They have become cable celebrities who are interchangeable with chefs,actors and advice gurus. Political reporters evidently don’t worry that make-believe journalism hurts their credibility,they worry more about their visibility. And all those revolving doors make Washington seem accessible — especially to those with means and money. Small wonder,then,that writers seek material in the White House mess or the Senate cloakroom. At the moment,with the public deeply mistrustful of Congress,there is no better vehicle than Washington for the parade of human failing.

There’s an old saying in Hollywood that people have two businesses: their own,and show business. Nowadays it’s the business of politics that keeps us entertained.ALESSANDRA STANLEY

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