“What do you do with a BA in English?”, asked those brave composers of the musical Avenue Q. Having given up on the career that I initially felt most qualified for - international comedy, I am left with two things to do with my BA in English (and Philosophy *cough*). One is to teach (which I do), and the other is to sit around and think spectacular thoughts and then blog about them.
Politics is the thought on many minds in Australia right now, which is not to say that people are happy about the thoughts. Using Wordle, I’ve made a small word cloud to express my feelings about the current election campaign and my level of satisfaction with current political landscape in Australia right now.
Interpret as you will.
Instead of being weighed down by this negativity, lest it crush my soul and destroy my spirit forever, I am channeling my political thoughts into a reflection on political television shows that have brought me joy over the years. Roughly speaking, they can be broken into three categories. Allow me to take you on a frivolous tour of my television addiciton.
This genre of political drama is embodied for me by The West Wing (1999-2007). When you take a progressive social vision, temper it with some conservative values that (miraculously) usually don’t get in the way of everybody else being allowed to have their opinions, reflect on contemporary events in order to ensure relevance and deal with important issues with an equal measure of seriousness and appropriate comedy then you have Aaron Sorkin’s triumph with The West Wing. And although it does appeal largely to those of a left(ish) political leaning, there is much in the way of dissenting opinion and many characters who are almost expositional in function pop up to give voice to minority and other opinions along the way. Very rarely do they appear to be merely expositional, however, so again – points to Sorkin. And of course, its about politics in kind of the same way that Harry Potter is about magic. It is central, but fundamentally it is the story of human action and human spirit that you’re really connecting with. Sorkin (like Rowling) just shows us what we can achieve in a particular field if we choose to.
One of the things that I respect most about The West Wing is it’s honesty regarding the failure and shortcomings of all people, including those we choose to admire above others, and among those we choose to lead us. From President Bartlet, right down to those in clerical roles mistakes are made. Some of them genuine mistakes, but at times deliberate deceptions. Reasons are explored and justifications given. The West Wing is a show that understands nuance. So no-one is an infallible hero, and no-one is a dastardly villain. Fundamentally it’s a show that encourages us all to battle with the nuance, acknowledge the darkness so that we can take it on, and strive to overcome it. It talks often about “raising the standard of public debate” and certainly models that course of action. I think if some of the values espoused by The West Wing made it into public life in Australia then I wouldn’t, perhaps, feel such despair at our current political landscape. Then again, a government is only as good as its citizens demand it to be, so perhaps we could all lift our game.
The West Wing family, led by President Jed Bartlet
See also – Borgen, a study of the corridors of power in Danish politics. I learned quite a lot from this show, and it explores another increasingly relevant concern for modern audiences – the identity of the women in politics.
Brutally Satirical but Ultimately Affectionate Examinations of Public Life
Although there are many excellent shows in this category, it is almost impossible to go beyond Yes Minister (1980-1984) and it’s later incarnation Yes Prime Minister (1986-1987). The story of ambitious but befuddled Jim Hacker, MP and his ascendency to the Cabinet as Minister for Administrative Affairs through the political minefield, a series of party own goals and right into the Office of the Prime Minister, this series is an absolute delight.
Everyone is ambitious, everyone wants glory, everyone wants a victory. Some, however, are more capable than others, and it usually comes down to the naive optimism and ideals of Hacker vs the cunning of his Department’s long serving Permanent Secretary Sir Humphrey Appleby. Usually Appleby is able to outmaneuver Hacker using his expert knowledge of the “creaking old bureacratic machine” that is the civil service.
Perhaps the only person with a shred of integrity is Bernard, Hacker’s Private Secretary, but even he is not immune to entanglements with ‘the system’. His adorable insistence on being literal and policing the use of mixed metaphors makes him somewhat of a hero for me.
As a satire it is critical of the (possibly inevitable) ways and means of the political process, but I think at it’s heart is a sort of respect for the establishment of the civil service and its love/hate relationship with it’s elected masters. Or is it the other way around. Humphrey and the Minister win at different times, and in different ways, but the struggle is always admirable, always amusing.
Bernard Woolley, Jim Hacker MP, Sir Humphrey Appleby
Other shows in this category well worth a look include: Absolute Power, The Thick of It, The Hollowmen (according to my Dad), The Games.
Machiavellian ideals live again and make Shakespearean anti-heroes seem tame.
The most ruthless of politicians and political ambitions can be embodied through no-one but Francis Urquhart, Chief Whip and later Prime Minister. The anti-hero of Michael Dobbs’ House of of Cards novels is brought to life on screen by the incomparable Ian Richardson, and the trilogy is rounded out by To Play the King and the Final Cut (1990 – 1995). Set in an immediately post-Thatcher Conservative government, Urquhart is slighted for promotion to the Cabinet by the Prime Minister – a bland and compromise leader chosen by the party to upset noone, but who according to Urquart has neither “the brain or the heart or the stomach to rule Great Britain.” So the House of Cards trilogy is the story of Urquhart’s quest for revenge and his own ascendency to power.
This is the series that made me realise how brutal Macbeth is. There are strong overlaps between the protagonist of each text (Urquhart has similarities with Richard III also) but the ‘contemporary’ political setting provided a frame of reference for me that medieval Scotland (despite my best empathetic efforts) had failed to conjure up. If someone went to the lengths Urquhart did in contemporary Australian politics, then I would be sick to the core. Rudd and Gillard have nothing on this man – they look like petty squabbling children in comparison. Admittedly they looked like that anyway.
But television, literature, fiction – these are entirely different to reality, and here someone like Francis Urquhart is a compelling, beguiling and uncomfortably appealing character. You are drawn into his schemes and your investment in his success is simultaneously repulsive to you. But you can’t quite look away, because he’s somehow lured you in. After all, that’s how people like Urquhart work.
Despite his evil ways, do I love him anyway? Well, in his own words: