Saturday 25th October 2014,
Televisual

A Political TV Show We Can Believe In

Aymar Jean Christian May 22, 2012 Television and Film 2 Comments
A Political TV Show We Can Believe In

Thanks to Girls Like Giants for linking.

Why can’t all political television shows be like Parks and Recreation?

Don’t get me wrong. Veep is nice and smart. Scandal is fun and salacious. It’s great to see those strong, sexy women make decisions, good and bad. And it’s even better to see both shows get second seasons, particularly Scandal, whose ratings barely budged from its premiere and is the first black female led drama in decades to get past season one.

But something is missing in our political television, of which there are a growing number. That being: politics. Or, to be more specific, a message relevant to our contemporary situation, which is dreadful, and getting worse: high levels of political polarization, increased corporate influence over campaigns and politicians, massive de-investment in public services from education to the environment, rising incarceration rates, not to mention widespread and growing civil unrest in the form of protests on the left and right, black and white.

We’re in a moment of political confusion and turmoil (while, at the same, the solutions are so clear, which only makes it more infuriating):

I’ve had a hard time watching Veep and Scandal, mainly because both seem so ambivalent about the times we’re in. Sure, Scandal has murder and intrigue, a Republican president sleeping with a black female crisis manager. But why is it that for several episodes I could never remember what party was in power? As Paul Krugman states above, political polarization is at its highest levels in decades. Everyone American knows this. It’s nearly impossible to talk about politics these days without raising tempers. But Scandal gives us a heroine with seemingly no political convictions other than a paycheck — she has plenty of moral convictions but where does she really stand? (I will concede that if Shonda Rhimes had wanted to make the show more political, ABC would likely have told her to change it if she wanted to keep a black female lead)

Veep is, perhaps, worse. Veep is primarily about how the work of politicians has drastically changed. It suggests that our legislators spend most of their time trying not to piss people off, putting out fires, worrying about what’s on Twitter. Everyone is self-serving, somewhat shallow and basically clueless. It rings true, and taps into our cynicism about politicians today, which is interesting.

But I’ll admit it: I miss The West Wing. I miss a show that both informed and entertained, participated directly in contemporary debates and gave clear and persuasive arguments on political issues.

With many political shows in the pipeline, I’m not optimistic. Soon we’ll have 1600 Penn, a family sitcom about the White House; The First Family, a black family sitcom about the White House; and Political Animals, a drama that’s not about the Clintons. I’m open to being surprised, but none of these shows looks terribly substantial. The Newsroom might come close, if it isn’t bogged down by Sorkin’s sanctimoniousness.

Parks and Rec, however, is about our political moment, and it isn’t even set in the White House. This season has focused on Leslie Knope’s candidacy for Pawnee, Indiana’s city council, a step up as head of the Parks department.

If you were watching Parks and Rec, you knew the show was building up to something magnificent. But it became hilariously clear in the fantastic “Debate” episode, written and directed by star Amy Poehler (director’s cut pasted above). “The Debate” dramatizes our times of polarization by pitting Leslie — a “good government” moderate who just wants to serve citizens — against Paul Rudd’s Bobby Newport — the gentle, dumb son of a rich local businessman who owns the the biggest company in town (sound familiar?). For comic relief, Poehler wrote a bunch of crazy characters representing various interest groups, from a gun lobbyist to an animal rights activist.

Newport is a nice guy, but he just wants to win to make his dad happy. He doesn’t know the issues, and he’ll let Sweetums, his dad’s company, do whatever it wants to the people. Newport is only ahead in the polls by the efforts of a slick Washington strategist (deliciously played by Kathryn Hahn).

Parks and Rec is a fantasy, a wish, about our politics today. Unlike The West Wing, it doesn’t shove it down your throat. But like The West Wing it’s an idealistic call for politicians to start caring about constituents and facts, and stop placating big business. With more money and billionaires getting into politics, this is a pressing and vital issue. We can’t fix schools, the environment, prisons, healthcare or anything else before that one issue gets solved. Parks is not just a feminist story about a woman breaking into a man’s world — though, like Scandal and Veep, that’s one of the best parts — it’s also about our need for politicians who aren’t bought and paid for, and who believe government still has a role to play in making people’s lives better.

There’s always a place for apolitical cynicism, the province of Veep, and for melodrama (Scandal). But we need more shows that address our issues, reveal their flaws or offer an alternative (Parks does the latter).

Last year news broke that NBC was interested in distributing a US remake of Borgen, the awesome Danish political drama about its first female prime minister — think West Wing meets Commander in Chief, melodramatic but serious. That show would do for political drama what Parks did for political comedy. Each episode follows a policy issue that Prime Minister Birgitte Nyborg has to solve, usually by some political and personal compromise.

A political drama led by a women that addresses the issues facing a nation torn by partisanship and inequality? That’s a show we could believe in.

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About The Author

Aymar Jean Christian is assistant professor of communication at Northwestern University. He writes about media and society for a number of publications. For more information, click the "About" tab at the top of the page.

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