The Art of the Watchable

I like good political TV. If done well, I like politics both as a theme and as a setting; arguably, a series such as the original BBC House of Cards looks like it’s about politics, but it’s really Richard III in a pinstripe suit, set in and around Westminster. It’s very much concerned with power and corruption, but does it tell us anything meaningful about politics? You may very well say think that; I couldn’t possibly comment. Then there are series such as The West Wing, and while may be something of a US-centric liberal fantasia, it is intensely concerned, and not a little in love, with the democratic process, which makes it a very different beast from House of Cards. Even if you look beyond conventional drama to genre TV, you’ll find politics: for much of its running time, I’d absolutely say that Battlestar Galactica (the Olmos/McDonnell one, not the ’70s extravaganza) was a deeply political series in both senses.

Spin

At the same time, politics in TV is difficult to do well. More recently, there’s been Borgen, which I’ve only seen one season of, but so far it’s been very enjoyable. This is due in no small part to Sidse Babett Knudsen, as the actual politicking does get somewhat formulaic after a while, but it’s also that the series has an interest in what Bismarck called the art of the possible. For Knudsen’s prime minister Brigitte Nyborg, politics isn’t entirely a cesspool of private and public corruption, a trope I find tiresome by now for its cheap, glib cynicism; it’s also an arena where idealism and compromise are constantly fighting for every inch. Compare this with the US take on House of Cards, which I’m not a huge fan of: it is even less interested in actual politics than the UK original (which did satirise the particularly British processes and structures), instead inviting us mostly to gloat with Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood as he triumphs against opponents less savvy, cynical and mwahahaevil than him. It’s basically a glossy, snarky soap set in Washington DC and doesn’t even come close to touching the true master of political snark, the BBC satire The Thick of It, which takes utter foulmouthedness to lyrical heights while providing a pertinent, all too true comment on modern UK politics.

Spin

The French series Spin (original title: Les Hommes de l’Ombre) sounds at first like the first episode of Borgen stretched into an entire series: after the French president is killed in a suicide bombing and the killing is politicised in an attempt to bring the right-wing, security-über-alles Prime Minister to power, the president’s former spin doctor convinces the State Secretary of Social Affairs – and grieving lover of the dead man – to run against the PM. We have a principled female lead who needs to get her hands dirty, a macho, sexist political arena, a tight race – but where Borgen has strong characters with actual ideological and political positions, everything about Spin’s characters seems perfunctory. More or less the only candidate for highest office that has the strong profile is the charmless PM, and his only standout quality (other than his pantoesque villainy) is his hidden gay lover, who is used as a plot point in one episode and never brought up again. In fact, all the villains default to being bullying, manipulative hypocrites, while everyone other than the obvious bad guys lacks personality. By the end of the first season I was still at a loss when trying to formulate what candidate Anne Visage actually stood for. Togetherness? Frenchness? Bland femininity? Perhaps all of this is a comment on politics and on how it’s all surface (and this is a series of many attractive surfaces) beneath which there is nothing – but Spin doesn’t seem to function as critique nor as satire. Formally, it aims for drama, but it lacks dramatic flair; most of its plot developments are predictable and neither seem to have much of an impact on the characters nor on what happens in the end. Affairs, scandals, dead witnesses: they all end up being perfunctory plot points.

In the end, Spin lacks the idealism and wit of The West Wing, the personality and verve of Borgen and the Grand Guignol black comedy of House of Cards. One throwaway vulgarity from Malcolm Tucker has more character. Spin comes across as the result of a checklist: how to write political drama in the post-9/11 era. What was sadly missing on the checklist: anything that actually makes for engaging storytelling. Whoever ends up the most powerful person in France, they’re hardly in the same league as the best fictional politicians, be they American, British, Danish or Caprican.

The Thick of It

2 thoughts on “The Art of the Watchable

  1. comforn April 12, 2016 / 6:34 pm

    Great article! Although I may be biased as I have pretty much the same tastes 🙂

    I was a great fan of the original House Of Cards and the books they’re based on – a bit hammy in places but cracking fun – so I’ve been a bit disappointed by the overall bleakness of the US version, which has a few good jokes a terrific cast and some neat plotlines, but leaves such a nasty taste I’ve given up after the interminable second series. I’ve read the Wikipedia synopsis of the last two series and feel very thankful not to be spending more time with it!

    Glad you’re enjoying Borgen – we were absolutely hooked throughout the first two series, watching them both at breakneck speed, and have just started on the third after a break – at the moment it feels like 3 series is plenty for these characters, but it’s hugely enjoyable nevertheless.

    The West Wing is a huge gap in my politics TV knowledge, I really must see about borrowing the box set once we’re finished Borgen. And I love The Thick of It, although it’s surprisingly rare I literally laugh at it – I’m more likely to shake my head in amazement (on a second, third or tenth viewing) at the speed and economy of the plotting, as well as the similarity to real UK politics. The two specials in between the Langham and Front series, “Rise Of the Nutters” and “Spinners and Losers”, are just astonishingly good, with possibly infinite rewatchability.

  2. thirithch April 12, 2016 / 7:03 pm

    Thanks for your comment! 🙂 I love the first series of HoC, like the second one and think it’s a shame they did a third, but even in that one Ian Richardson was great. So much more nuanced and multilayered than US Frank Underwood, as far as I’m concerned.

    With The Thick of It, I’ve only seen the first series, but I’ve got the whole set and am very much looking forward to watching it. Same with Borgen. There’s just too much quality TV, I always feel I’m lagging behind…

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