On Sunday, a presidential hopeful attended a routine campaign event and fundraiser. The event was overshadowed, however, by an emerging scandal over one of her advisor’s reported violation of federally privileged information that caused a significant loss in donors. The former Senator’s attempt to address the issue with the press was interrupted by a cacophony of ill-timed fireworks.
And it was all very entertaining.
The fourth season of HBO’s Veep – by The Thick of It’s Armando Iannucci, a showrunner whose precise comic style specializes in a kind of over-caffeinated, maximum volume absurdity that feels authentic to the surreal everyday dramas of high-drama policy life – seems like it could not have been better timed. With official announcements of presidential campaigns by Hillary Clinton and somewhere around a half dozen Republican senators, 2016 more or less began in sync with Selina Meyer’s (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) campaign for the elected presidency while holding a happenstance incumbency from the previous administration.
For a show ostensibly organized around the comedy inherent in the office of the Vice Presidency – a station so close yet so far from actual power – Veep wasted little time ascending its protagonist to those positions of actual power. The half-hour comedy is now organized around state visits and Middle East peace negotiations instead of superficial yet highly volatile visits to yogurt shops. Where The Thick of It kept its distance from the most concentrated circles of influence by following the Michael Claytons of government bureaucracy, Ianucci’s American counterpart seems restless to move to the center of governing control itself.
Television comedy and politics were formerly practiced almost exclusively on late night talk shows and Saturday Night Live, but today the two enjoy a proximity that seems unprecedented. Yes, Richard Nixon famously made a guest appearance on Laugh In, but that’s nothing compared to Joe Biden’s almost recurring role on Parks and Recreation, or the Beltway’s apparent love of Veep and Doug Stamper.
Not only does non-news political television offer a serialized funhouse mirror of contemporary politics that draws viewers from both inside and outside Washington, but these shows are doing so in a way that’s remarkably in sync with real-life politics. Behind the scenes of Clinton’s infamous Chipotle visit, one could imagine a Veep-like trading of barbs among staffers as to which type of burrito bowl would make her most appealing. The comedy that undergirds Veep already exists – unlike The Daily Show, its jokes don’t need to be specific or timely, but reflective of a news cycle that balances so many short-term ticking time bombs.
Same with the melodrama that informs Netflix’s House of Cards, which introduced a subplot focused on a Putinesque figure this season and had Pussy Riot make a guest appearance, complete with a music video of a punk show staged to critique the drama’s fictional doppelganger over its end credits. And don’t forget, the network that produced Veep also made feature-length drama out of the Florida recount and McCain/Palin, both directed by the guy also making whatever this is for them.
Yet what’s unique is that these shows now seem to work alongside the real-life drama of the actual election season.
I remember when The West Wing made its debut in the late ’90s. It felt like a strange move for prime time television drama, which (before the era of binge-watching) was largely the place of cops, lawyers, doctors or some combination therein. To make a show about White House staffers seemed relatively undramatic and narrow – a drama as dry and specialized as political news. But, of course, The West Wing proved the be the best thing Aaron Sorkin has been within fifty feet of, a television show that transformed everything from a state of the union speech to diplomatic negotiations into a type of eloquent (if grandiloquent) high-drama warfare. A source of affirmative, wish-fulfilling comfort for many during the nihilism of the Bush era, The West Wing possessed a seemingly genuine affection for public service that was, for better or worse, unabashedly nostalgic.
And like the recent American past that the series idolized as a battle of wits rather than personalities, The West Wing’s first election was decidedly anti-modern. During the series’ fourth season, the Bartlett administration won a second term without suspense or even slinging a single unit of mud. President Bartlet (Martin Sheen) won a second Democratic term the first week of November 2002, during the first real-life midterms of the George W. Bush administration.
Much more was made of the election to find Bartlett’s successor. The competition between Republican senator Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda) and Democratic representative Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits, as a character modeled after a certain junior senator from Illinois) reportedly brought The West Wing out of its post-Sorkin ratings trough, and culminated in the series’ sole “live” episode covering a real-time version of the first official debate between the two candidates. Breaking from its single-camera approach, this episode took advantage of its medium of transmission, modeling an actual debate on network television – except, as this is The West Wing, an idealized one with nuanced arguments about issues typically ignored in prime time as well as, to at least one critic’s dismay, a conspicuous absence of spin.
The live debate was treated as such by several outlets, which provided live-blogs and allowed TV-critics-turned-pundits (or vice versa) to argue for a winner. This episode aired in November 2005 – hardly an apolitical time, but the furthest from an election season one can get. Yet in the interim between a presidential election and a midterm, “The Debate” showed that a television populace was up for playing the election game whether or not that election was real.
“The Debate” is perhaps the most obvious example, but it also seemed to prove a rich territory for other shows to follow suit, from Veep’s season 3 primary debate to a three-way party debate in this February’s season of House of Cards. The alignment between media entertainment and politics is never so apparent as when fictional entertainment comes to reproduce the drama of electoral politics. And television is the medium for contemporary presidential politics – housing not only debates, inaugurations and state addresses, but the 24-hour cycles of infotainment-ready demagoguery as well. As mainstream politics can now be articulated only through the language of television, it’s no wonder that television narratives are cohering so adeptly with the cycles of mainstream politics.