Makers of political telly face a bit of a conundrum. The audience that you could consider your ‘core’ are a bunch of armchair pedants. People who shout at the news and write letters to the editor. Or keep whiney blogs. So your obligation to verisimilitude immediately leaves you somewhat circumscribed as to the kind of entertainment programmes you can make.
The British telly kings, at least, take the easy escape route of satire. With the notable exception of House of Cards, British political entertainment has focused on ridiculing our glorious leaders, or at least carbon copies of them. There’s the impressions and sketches route, such as Bremner, Bird and Fortune, Spitting Image and the execrable Alastair McGowan’s Big Impression. Or there’s the thinly veiled sitcom ‘slice of life’ such as the New Statesman’s Alan Bastard and Yes (Prime) Minister’s Jim Hacker. More recently, The Thick of It has used documentary-style filmmaking to render fiction even more true to life.
The second series of the sit-com-doc started last week. I’ve been an admirer of Armando Iannucci since his Friday Night Armistice days, but I missed most of the first series due to living in France and my Dad’s inability to work the video recorder, but I’ve caught most of it on repeats that trailed the launch of this second series.
There’s no overarching plotline as such to make me confused, and the characters follow the Yes Minister recipe for success (bumbling minister, weedy deputy staff, bullying advisor) but the civil service is notably absent, to be replaced by the ‘communications’ team. The bully in this case is a vituperous Scot who turns the air blue, modelled on no-one in particular, honest. They govern by focus group and press conference, and generally make a hash of things. The camera’s shaky, characters whisper inaudibly together in corners and when the situation gets TOO embarrassing they hold their palm over the lens of the fictional documentary crew and say “look, can you turn that off now please?”
Contrast recent American political fiction: the West Wing took a chance when it first launched. It would be funny, yes, but not a comedy. It would dramatise the everyday machinations of government, including the dull stuff, like getting enough votes for a farming appropriations bill. It wouldn’t talk down to its audience, with characters speaking at a speed that left the roadrunner breathless and unsubtitled Latin rants forming the emotional climax of one memorable episode.
Sure, it might not be realistic, but it was bloody good, and Jed Bartlett was the Nobel President us mushy liberals wished we had, inspiring bumper stickers that read “Don’t blame me, I voted for Bartlett.” It took political entertainment in a new direction: utopia. More recently, the launch of Commander in Chief in the US has seen the first female, first Independent President in the lovely form of Geena Davis blur the line of hope and reality, with a group of campaigners paying for “Condi Rice for President” ads during the pilot episode.
But West Wing has jumped the shark. Martin Sheen’s prolific public campaigning for lefty causes and Aaron Sorkin’s much publicised cocaine habit made advertisers, eager to appeal to middle (right-wing) America edgy. In an attempt to keep the ratings high enough to allay these fears, makers fired Sorkin and began the erosion of the best thing to hit telly since Technicolor. The script began to delve into characters’ personal lives and ‘backstories’, there were guest appearances from ‘celebrities’ and stories were ‘ripped from the headlines.’ Each episode had to contain a major international crisis to make it ‘sexy.’
The sixth series of West Wing started on new channel More4 last week to much fanfare with a double bill and a hastily cobbled together talking heads docucommentary. My hope did not live up to reality. I’ve seen three episodes now, and all of them employ really shoddy, lazy storytelling techniques, such as crossfading montages set to whiney acoustic music and flashbacks. There’s a scene where Jed shuts the door of the Office of O on Leo, his Chief of Staff, and, just to make sure that the audience gets the emotional rejection of that gesture, they repeat the shot three times, a little closer up each time. Bang. Bang. Bang. Like me with my head on the desk.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s still the best show on TV. The scriptwriting still sparkles at times, with throwaway lines such as Toby’s “He’s already got a Nobel Prize, what does he need another one for? Bookends?” making me giggle and Press Secretary CJ Cregg’s banter with Brock of the NYT giving me the frisson that entire episodes used to inspire in me. But whereas before watching the West Wing was a near-religious transformational experience, such as I imagine devout Catholics feel during the eucharist, now it’s just telly. Good telly. But just telly.
The problem is, I have started to doubt my faith in West Wing because the show’s creators have lost their faith in me. In episode three, the scriptwriters dropped in a little line about ‘going into a Presidential election year’ and just like that expected the audience to swallow the disappearance of an entire year of time. They only got re-elected last season…
The lapsed Catholic Stephen Dedalus, of Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, refused to confess and be absolved just to please his mother on the grounds that he no longer believed in the power of the Church. His friend Cranmer points out that if the rituals meant nothing to him he would perform them to make his mother happy: as it is, his continued awe and residual belief in the Church is demonstrated by his reluctance to profane it by taking the eucharist in bad faith.
I am no Stephen Dedalus, but I am an apostate of the Church of West Wing. This is a show that now underestimates its audience, and that’s the biggest disappointment of all. Now, if someone invites me to go out on a Friday night, I’ll think twice before doubtfully worshipping at the profane altar of the much corrupted, much diminished, West Wing.