Order and Disorder: The Impossible Task of Trumping Reality
There is a disconnect. Some of the funniest moments on television in the last year have come from Alec Baldwin’s grotesque portrayal of Donald Trump; Stephen Colbert and Trevor Noah are almost elegant as they stiletto the Donald. Political humour has never been more cutting - nor more needed. Yet, political drama is in crisis.
Former favourites have seen their ratings plummet. First during presidential election season, then once Trump was inaugurated. We are engrossed as politics itself becomes drama with Russia, Comey, possible impeachment being played out 24 hours a day on television and social media.
Is it just fatigue or is there something else going on?
As an example, ABC’s Designated Survivor, starring Kiefer Sutherland, opened its run well but haemorrhaged viewers as the election approached. However, the show that has been most obviously affected is Scandal. When it premiered it was an instant hit; its run has seen it evolve into conspiracy drama, where shady groups control governments and no politician is anything but a villain. It worked because it never tried to be plausible. It was politics as soap opera.
Kerry Washington’s Olivia Pope provides the show’s moral core as she grapples with an immoral world while trying to retain her “Gladiator” ethics. The battle lays bare a conflict between the in-your-face brutality of the plot twists and Pope’s increasingly failed attempts to retain her humanity.
As such, Scandal is more like a slasher movie rather than pure political drama. Its violence, metaphorical in most cases, is not surprising. We watch because we know it is going to happen. We want that moment of squeamishness. We want to see the heroine survive, blood splattered but unbowed.
But that gives it a half-life and Scandal was in decline before Trump. Yes, they nodded towards reality with a Trumpesque candidate and a disputed election result, but that Trump is more obviously repulsive makes its characters seem tame.
Despite Underwood’s numerous high-octane scandals, in terms of drama reality beat fiction
Of course, the premier political drama has been House of Cards, created by Beau Willimon. When it was launched as Netflix’s first original series, politicians from Bill Clinton to Barack Obama clamoured to be associated with its quality production values and sophisticated self-image.
Season Five was released on 30th May. Netflix do not release viewing figures but if critics reviews are a guide, then the show is suffering. This is, to some extent unfair: the series has been prescient in many of the issues of Trump’s candidature and presidency. Frank Underwood schemes to attain the presidency then uses the office to retain power. He skirts constitutional niceties to achieve his ends, his central policy “America Works” is as populist as the real president’s “Jobs! Jobs! Jobs!” mantra; Underwood plots to give his wife a position in his administration then the vice presidency. Absurd until you think of Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner in Trump’s White House.
The series has taken pains to remain relevant. Twitter and social media play large in its plots; real life events, issues and characters have House of Cards equivalents. Its Russian president shares his initials with Vladimir Putin; the central foreign policy threat to Underwood’s administration is the Islamic Caliphate Organisation, not a million miles away from Isis.
House of Cards defined streaming’s “binge culture” but Season Five defied it.
Written largely before Trump’s unexpected win, it contained an election marred by voter fraud, and a President facing impeachment. It simultaneously predicted reality but also jumped the shark. Perhaps it understood this paradox with its ambiguous ending that left many questioning whether the show would return.
Always over-rated, Netflix’s latest offering felt flat. Despite Underwood’s numerous high-octane scandals, in terms of drama reality beat fiction. Something that would probably please neither president.
If competing with Trump is a failed gambit, then Madam Secretary should be a tonic. Tea Leoni plays Elizabeth McCord, a fictional Secretary of State of an undeniable idealistic hue. In the sense that West Wing ran counter to the political reality of the time - Jed Bartlett was a Democratic president whose time in office overlapped with the Republican George Bush - Madam Secretary tries to inspire with its alien sense of ethics.
It nods towards Trump; however, it feels too removed. It is politics as fantasy. It utterly lacks House of Cards’ cynicism. Undeniably it suffers from the true lack star quality: it feels inferior to House of Cards. Its problems are more innate. In another age, it might seem to be a foreword, but it feels utopian - its unachievable world seems pointless.
Network after network have cancelled or passed on series that at another time they would have fought over. It is not just the big names that are suffering because of Trump.
Culture exists to help us make sense of disordered reality. Therefore TV politics has to exist in relation to reality
Eight years on it is easy to forget that Obama caused political drama to decline. No fictional idealism could compete with the hope of early Obama: the lustre needed to fade before drama could revive. Instead, television approached politics one step removed: The Good Wife, although primarily legal, approached politics at a different level, both lower than the Oval Office but detached; West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin enjoyed success with The Newsroom, a show that looked at real events through the lense of a fictional news channel. Once again, removed.
But maybe writers have often drawn the wrong conclusions from Sorkin’s most successful creation, and its enduring place in political mythology.
The show’s liberal pretensions masked a greater conceit. It never intended to compete with the real world. President Bartlet may have been Bill Clinton minus the erring libido, but he had other qualities too that spanned presidents. Unlike Underwood he had flesh. Unlike Secretary McCord, he had flaws.
The obvious parallel with the Clinton years hid that West Wing acknowledged - but did not compete with - the Bush years. While Bush invaded Iraq, Bartlet arranged the assassination of a diplomat from a supposed ally involved in a terrorist plot; while Bush wanted to spread democracy, the Bartlet Doctrine was a humanitarian interventionist policy. As such it became in part a counter-factual not just idealised nostalgia. It danced, imperfectly, between two worlds.
If political drama hopes to succeed it cannot ignore Trump but nor can it replicate him. It cannot patronise viewers by trying to speak of their world. But it can acknowledge the world that Trump has created.
Alternatively, the paradox might be that it is precisely because Trump is a cultural phenomenon that there might not be an answer.
Political drama has no God-given right to exist. Culture exists to help us make sense of disordered reality. Therefore TV politics has to exist in relation to reality. Its conceit needs to be sustainable.
Like Underwood, Trump breaks the fourth wall but through social media. His legendary tweets are the lense through which we view his presidency. They are drama in that they are addictive, even startling, but not in a sense that they help us understand.
It is like standing an infant next to a world-class Jazz musician. Both will create chaos but only one will have meaning.
Whereas we can view Kennedy through the prism of Camelot or Nixon through the prism of flawed humanity leading to self-destruction. There is no sense to Trump. His presidency lacks meaning. We cannot explain it because there is nothing to explain, just the relentless noise of a boorish ego. Therefore no fiction that tries ape his presidency can provide the narrative drama needs. It becomes just action.
Trump has set political drama an impossible test.
Or maybe, if there is the possibility of understanding Trump, viewers do not want to know the answer.
About the author
Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).
A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.
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