Politics is fertile territory for the small screen, but it has always been the sharp comedies that reveal the truth of the dark arts.By Helen Razer.
I can’t be sure if it was fictional television or a real-life ALP that demolished my faith in the political class. Whatever the case, it was certainly lost in 1988. In the year the Hawke government revealed plans for its introduction of HECS, my university produced the sort of undergraduate tremor we saw again in the aftershock of Budget 2014.
In an act of event management probably driven by inexperience and cheap catering, the ALP had booked a major conference at my uni in the middle of our outrage. We chased the delegates down Science Road with almost the same chants that would resound in the union building 25 years later. As we beat on the window and screamed “Class traitor!”, a man inside wrote “Some of us agree with you” on a piece of paper.
So it was at 19, jammed up against the glass of the Holme Building, I received my first lesson in caucus. To wit: the ALP was full of people who agreed that they were class traitors. Still an idealist, I found this terribly difficult to understand until, that same year, Sir Humphrey Appleby explained it.
Yes, Minister and its sequel Yes, Prime Minister were primers on political wrangling more efficient than the security guards at Sydney University. Always eager to receive the imagined wisdom of the “real” England, Paul Eddington’s Jim Hacker never led. And civil servant Appleby never followed anything but the stubborn, self-sustaining logic of power. It was in the 1988 Yes, Prime Minister episode “Power to the People” the adviser introduced the politician’s syllogism to public understanding: “We must do something. This is something. Therefore, we must do this.”
Now, that’s a political education.
For many years, Appleby, the man who advised his prime minister never to hold an inquiry unless he was sure of what he might find, was the most instructive man on politics on television. And this assessment takes into account all news programs, including the useful psephology of Antony Green.
There are those who will argue that Francis Urquhart of the 1990 British mini-series House of Cards is better than Hacker and it’s true that this parliamentary Titus Andronicus was really something. And Urquhart was something again – at least in his first season – when reprised by an antiheroic Kevin Spacey on Netflix. Honestly, if you have not seen Robin Wright’s exquisite portrayal of a Washington wife whose clean-water NGO turns out to be every bit as driven by impure political means above political ends, you have missed something extraordinary.
But from my couch, political comedy succeeds in showing me how politicians can agree to become class traitors in a way that political drama cannot. For Appleby, openness is only ever a political charade – an ALP friend recently said to me that Appleby still had the last word on ICAC. Only start an inquiry whose findings you already know.
In recent years, Julia Louis-Dreyfus as US vice-president Selina Meyer in Veep has resumed the important work of Hacker and Appleby. This show gives us an insight into the real horror of politics, which is not so much the “Woodstein”-type scandal but the everyday accession to power.
Urquhart might be the kind of leader we imagine we have but Meyer is probably the kind of leader we have and deserve. “I spewed out so much bullshit, I’m gonna need a mint. A fucking mint,” she tells her adviser before she readies herself to again bury whatever ethics drove her to seek office in another pile of newly minted crap.
There is so much scandal in the great political dramas House of Cards, The West Wing and Denmark’s recent Borgen. There is so little of it in Yes, Veep and the extraordinarily good but unbearably bleak British series The Thick of It. In the great comedies, the real horror of political life inheres in the absence of high-end horror. The true horror is the instrumental reason of politics that requires Meyer to lie and Hacker to listen to the synthetic wisdom that may as well come from a fake Western Sydney.
In a 2005 episode of The Thick of It, departmental policy is led by “Mary”, a focus group star whose views always seem to tally with polls. As it turns out, Mary is not an oracle but a professional actress regularly seen on The Bill and her gift is not to encapsulate the views of middle-England but to simulate sincerity. Focus groups turn out to be as much of a site of simulation as a Watergate scandal. “Watergate is not a scandal,” said Jean Baudrillard. “This is what must be said at all costs.” Political scandal, he wrote, serves as a false truth with no more real value than Mary. It functions to re-establish order.
It’s risky saying that The West Wing was not a good or true account of politics. But this is what must be said at all costs. With its triumphalism and moments of good and evil, it served, just as well as Mary or Selina’s stinking bullshit, to persuade us that there is a “real” in Washington. When this celebrated show debuted in 1999, it very quickly eclipsed US ratings for Meet the Press and a number of other storied political news programs. To call this show, which nostalgically celebrated the Clinton administration then still in power, hopelessly idealistic is a little like calling Sir Humphrey insincere. Aaron Sorkin’s Gilmore Girls Go to Washington dialogue was part of a perfected view of liberalism already slaughtered by its own celebration. My friend Ross sums it up best when he says, “If you like the sound of the soft left masturbating into an echo chamber made of hugs, then you’ll love The West Wing.”
There are those who love The West Wing for its congratulatory nature just as they might adore House of Cards for its revelation of “scandal”. But in their purported realism, they each conceal that reality does not exist in politics. It’s all Marys and bullshit.
C. J. Cregg, The West Wing’s mild Cassandra, shows us the holes of liberalism when she sasses Toby and tells him that she can tell him to “shove it up your ass” because she does not live in the (fictional) Gulf nation of Qumar where women are oppressed. In Borgen, the administration frets for the (fictional) African nation of Kharun where homophobia is rife. We learn not only that it is fine to attribute to even made-up brown nations crimes against humanity but that the idea of good and evil underscores our understanding of politics.
Yes, Prime Minister and an ALP delegate told me differently. The problem with the political class is not so much that they are Conservative or Labour or Republican or Dem – and the parties of Hacker and Meyer are artfully never revealed. The problem is that they will never be a traitor to their class.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 5, 2014 as "In the thick of reelpolitik". Subscribe here.