Culture Vulture

Political dramas can reflect real life

Power players Kevin Spacey in House Of Cards and Kerry Washington (above) in Scandal. -- PHOTO: STARHUB
Power players Kevin Spacey in House Of Cards and Kerry Washington (above) in Scandal. -- PHOTO: STARHUB
Power players Kevin Spacey (above) in House Of Cards and Kerry Washington in Scandal. -- PHOTO: NETFLIX
Power players Kevin Spacey (above) in House Of Cards and Kerry Washington in Scandal. -- PHOTO: NETFLIX

Viewers of such dramas become co-conspirators and partake vicariously in conspiracies in the corridors of power

I am a bit late to the political party, but I have finally discovered the pleasures of Borgen.

The Danish political drama, which first aired in 2011, has been earning critical raves. It became a (subtitled) hit in the United Kingdom and even crossed the pond to the United States where no less a luminary than best-selling author Stephen King declared it one of the best 10 TV shows of 2012.

Newsweek also labelled it, rather catchily, "the best TV show you have never seen", which was probably prophetic since the US is known to be completely indifferent to subtitled fare.

Having worked my way through a DVD box set of season one, I am totally hooked and am already mourning the fact that the series survived only three seasons.

As a fan of The West Wing, House Of Cards (both the British and the American versions) and Scandal, I am intrigued by how political dramas have gripped the popular imagination in recent years.

Of course, politics have always provided grist for the dramatic mill from the time of Aeschylus to Shakespeare, and then on film and television. But the evolution of political drama in such pop entertainment formats also offers insights into how perceptions about politics, and politicians, have changed over the years.

The three American shows are an illuminating contrast to their European counterparts, reflecting contrasting attitudes on two sides of the Atlantic.

The West Wing, which aired from 1999 to 2006, is the granddaddy of the bunch. Arguably, the scintillating first two seasons were a landmark in American prime time television, proving that talky political dramas could draw viewers. Its success was due to a combination of factors: creator Aaron Sorkin's signature smart-alecky, rapidfire dialogue, shot in those long showy walk-and-talk sequences that made policy wonk talk exciting to watch. In other words, Sorkin found a way to make C-SPAN sexy.

But The West Wing, in turn, would not have succeeded without the onset of saturation media coverage by the likes of C-SPAN and other 24/7 broadcast news networks. Such coverage primed audiences for The West Wing's fictional, yet authentic, depictions of the horse trading that goes on in Washington.

But 9/11 killed The West Wing - real-life drama and trauma overtook fictional narratives - and Sorkin's clumsy attempts at making season three current simply resulted in a turgid, lumpen mess.

Yet, looking at the bigger picture, I would venture to say the liberal American demographic's disillusionment with the Bush government and its policies shaped the political hits that followed on the small screen in significant ways.

For me, the political drama which best captured the tenor of the times then was the action thriller TV series 24, which offered a way for Americans to vent their suppressed id with its oftentimes violent reactions to terrorism plots and characters. The show sparked discussion about rendition and torture in the real world, rather than tackling and dissecting the issues in a fictional setting, which is what the best political dramas are supposed to, but failed to do in the post 9/11 era.

It took more than a decade before Hollywood television executives dared venture back into the waters of political drama, and they have kept things strictly in the shallows.

Scandal, which debuted in 2012, took all the serious elements of political dramas (the Washington power player setting), added a few new twists in the form of an African-American female heroine, a white male in distress, a gay Machiavellian fixer, and chucked it all into the spin cycle with sex and paranoia to jazz things up. The result is an incredibly over-the-top soap opera masquerading as a political drama.

Yet, Scandal's success says a lot about American anxieties as well as how the American public has come to accept certain broad and negative narrative schemes about politics.

Creator Shonda Rimes has nailed down everything from liberal anxiety to conservative conspiracy paranoia. Her Washington is corrupt to the core. The good guys - the white hats in the show's parlance - are sceptics whose powers are for sale. The average man in the street is consistently, and oftentimes spectacularly, failed and betrayed by both ends of the political spectrum. So much so that scepticism is not just the unhealthy result of disillusionment but a sensible and practical defence since no one - not family, not friends, not lovers - can be trusted.

The American remake of House Of Cards takes things even further with its slick celebration of the scheming Francis Underwood, played with sly smarminess by Kevin Spacey.

Spacey's nudge-nudge, wink-wink soliloquys straight into the camera (borrowed from the British original) invite the viewer to revel in his nefarious plots with the glee of a frat boy planning the Best Prank Ever. The viewer becomes a co-conspirator, cheering Francis on, and partaking vicariously in his ill-gotten victories. Winning is all on the Capitol, principles and morality be damned.

This take is a distinct contrast to the 1990 British version. My memory of the show is a tad foggy, but what gripped me then was the very Shakespearean tenor of the series. It might have been about political manoeuvring in the British parliament of the 1990s, but the characters were obviously shaped in the likenesses of Henry IV, Macbeth and Richard III.

While the lead character was amoral, he operated within a very clear moral universe which marked him out to be the villain of the piece. As played by renowned stage actor Ian Richardson, who had actually played Richard III on stage, Francis Urquhart was most definitely Shakespearean in scale, intent and depiction. There is none of the moral equivocation that makes Underwood such a sleazily seductive character.

Like the British House Of Cards, there is an acknowledgement of a complicated world filled with Machiavellian evil-doers in Borgen. But as Prime Minister Birgitte Nyborg Christensen, actress Sidse Babett Knudsen manages to convey a complex character whose decisions are directed by a very definite moral compass. Rather than a weakness, her moral conviction is seen as an advantage and a strength which keeps her on the right path.

While the American House Of Cards and Scandal often offer only bad behaviour, albeit entertainingly bad behaviour, what sets Borgen apart is that it celebrates the possibility of a politician doing right.

The novelty of that belief in this 21st century world, beset by so much real-world ills and an urgent need for political will driven by moral intent, is a refreshing change to the stereotype of the sleazebucket politician that has come to dominate American pop-culture depictions.

sorfern@sph.com.sg

www.facebook.com/OngSorFern

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