August 2015

Arts & Letters

Politics and power

By Luke Davies
Why we keep watching ‘The Americans’, ‘Veep’ and ‘House of Cards’

It’s been 16 years since the launch of The West Wing, Aaron Sorkin’s frenetic, intelligent, densely worded political soap opera. George W Bush was elected president during the show’s second season, and over the course of its seven-year run it became a kind of alternative-presidency wish-fulfilment drama for liberals. Like The West Wing, The Sopranos first screened in 1999, and the two series are now considered harbingers of the shift away from the pre-eminence of movies. It’s a golden age of television, we’re constantly reminded. When Martin Scorsese moves his energies towards TV (Boardwalk Empire and a yet-to-be-titled rock ’n’ roll drama), you know something is going on.

Not only is distribution changing – the big screen will be the domain of bombastic, easy-on-the-mind franchise films, with a niche in major cities for art-house theatres, while smaller screens, on multiple devices, will become the viewing norm – but the method is changing too. We like, more and more, to binge. It is a long way from the paucity and poverty of earlier decades. Gilligan’s Island, Steptoe and Son, Baywatch: these relics are all but unwatchable now, as are most of the future relics currently on the box. In the US, the three major networks – NBC, ABC, CBS – are incapable of making shows of any value. Elsewhere, however, there is much good television to be found, particularly in the “premium” cable services, and increasingly with newcomers such as streaming services Hulu and Netflix. The problem now is there’s not enough time, and one must make educated choices about what one does, and doesn’t, watch. It’s not enough to say, “I’ll have to stop watching Survivor or The Voice.” If you want to work, sleep, eat and play, you’ll have to sacrifice some good shows, too.

Some of the best series on air continue to investigate worlds of politics and power. Game of Thrones is a little like The West Wing, if The West Wing took place in a medieval-influenced post-apocalyptic non-democracy with dollops of physical violence and gratuitous nudity, and was delivered in Shakespearean-generic rather than Sorkinesque-manic. Enjoyable luridness aside, Game of Thrones achieves moments of haunting beauty, not so much when it functions as fantasy (dragons, mists, eerie ice-wastes) but when its power-hungry characters come face to face, plotting, pacifying, deceiving, manoeuvring, parrying, second-guessing. “Politics is show business for ugly people,” the saying once went, but it’s not the case with Game of Thrones, which seems largely populated with striking character actors.

House of Cards (a remake of the pleasantly over-the-top BBC series from the early 1990s) is set in the world of politics, but is less a political tale than a story of driven revenge. Its executive producer is David Fincher (director of Fight Club, Seven, Gone Girl, none of which has any real interest in politics), so it’s no surprise that while it’s dressed up with dazzling political intrigue, the show’s driving force is sociopathia – its tendrils throttling everyone. The breaking of the fourth wall, which seemed perfectly mischievous and oh-so-British in the original (Ian Richardson as the Machiavellian Conservative Party whip Francis Urquhart confides to camera with a twinkle in his eye and a chipper honesty about his unpleasant deeds) somehow becomes a little arch – tiresome, even – in the American series. Though Kevin Spacey as Francis Underwood is chilling fun.

Veep, a half-hour HBO comedy, is worth any catch-up binge: it was good from the first episode, but by season four, its latest, it has become the best show on television. Like House of Cards, Veep’s antecedents are British. It’s the first American outing for series creator and director Armando Iannucci, a comic genius whose credits include I’m Alan Partridge and the brilliant The Thick of It (similar to Veep, though set in corridors slightly more distant from the centre of power).

Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Elaine in Seinfeld) plays vice-president “Veep” Selina Meyer, a frustrated, inept and self-absorbed second-in-command. She’s surrounded by lackeys, some smarter than others, all cogs in the machinery of government. Iannucci’s skill is to imbue more than a dozen characters with real personalities and depth, and to let them collide in freewheeling but tightly controlled comic chaos. The show had the odd patchy moment in the first couple of seasons, but by the third it was clear there’s not an ounce of fat on it. Its comedy can be belly-deep, but its points are serious. Veep eviscerates Washington political life, viewing it as theatre of the absurd and a labyrinth of lunatics. “Watching the political process,” Iannucci has said, “your instinct now is to laugh because the alternative is to cry.”

In the excellent BBC miniseries Wolf Hall (based on the books by Hilary Mantel) nobody laughs because here, in early-16th-century England, politics is a mortally perilous business. It is also both a graceful public dance and a private choreography of negotiations, threats, deceits and manipulations.

Then there’s The Americans (the third season recently screened in Australia on Foxtel’s SoHo channel), a series that’s not on the radar like these others, though it should be. It’s a beautifully scripted drama of the day-to-day mechanics of geopolitical intrigue, which (unlike Homeland) doesn’t preach, harangue or dumb down. In The Americans, politics’ ideological foot soldiers scramble about in rabbit warrens of secrecy and paranoia. World politics are implicit, but backgrounded. The real game is between the CIA and the KGB. (Show creator Joe Weisberg worked in the CIA’s Directorate of Operations, and the CIA Publications Review Board vets all his scripts.)

As the first season begins, we’re in the early 1980s. Ronald Reagan is president. Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell) are married, with a teenaged girl and a younger boy, and running a travel agency in suburban Washington, DC. They’re the all-American family. In truth, as we learn from flashbacks, Philip and Elizabeth graduated from KGB training in the early 1960s, were thrown together as a fake couple, and were sent to the US to blend in, develop a life and wait. By day they organise Caribbean cruises; by night they perform dastardly deeds on behalf of their controllers.

Daughter Paige (Holly Taylor), sensitive and moody, is starting to work out that her parents are a little secretive and weird at times: an awful lot of travel matters need to be attended to in the middle of the night. Son Henry (Keidrich Sellati) is a little more clueless … for now. Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), their friendly neighbour whose marriage is on the rocks, just happens to be an FBI man working in counter-intelligence. Russian–American tension is at its peak. Reagan is in full John Wayne posture-mode. The computer age is beginning. And Philip realises not only that he actually might love his “wife” after all these years together, but that the US is perhaps not such a bad place after all. (Elizabeth is horrified when Philip hints at the notion. She’s all about the Motherland.)

This delicious tension – between the personal and the professional – defines the first couple of seasons. As with Michael Chiklis in The Shield or Ian McShane in Deadwood, we find ourselves rooting for the supposed “bad guys”. Philip and Elizabeth are dispassionate KGB killers, but in establishing a family as a cover, and living out that life for close to 20 years, they’ve had to endure tremendous inner conflict. Do they hide their true selves from their children forever?

Early in the third season, one of their controllers (Frank Langella, as a debonair old-school operative) tests the water with Philip and Elizabeth regarding the KGB’s “next generation” plan. Perhaps Paige, he hints, could be a candidate for recruitment. Philip is aghast, and completely opposed to the idea. Elizabeth is more open to it. Much of the suspense in the third season revolves around how this dilemma will play out. To her parents’ dismay, Paige has joined a Christian fellowship. The good news, though, is that it’s not a conservative Christian fellowship. They go out on anti-nuclear rallies. Their pastor is something of a hippy-dippy type. Does Elizabeth see a way in?

Rhys and Russell inhabit their characters magnificently. Like the best shows, The Americans feels like it builds outwards from within. There’s a full reality at play, not a signposted one. Some suspension of disbelief is called for: presumably in the life of even the busiest spy, not every day is so filled with heart-stopping scrapes, complex operations and new people to kill, kidnap or seduce.

The characters, Philip and Elizabeth, are good actors too. With subtle changes in appearance – here a wig, there a pair of glasses – they play many roles in their lives as spies. World affairs swirl around them. They’re always a step away from catastrophe and from being unmasked. Their worldviews morph and shift as the series progresses, and events unnerve them. They’re the purest form of political operatives – skull and bones, down and dirty, lives lived on constant high alert. This gives the show its endless flow of adrenaline. But they’re deeply human too, with old belief systems constantly being assailed, and with children who have their own belief systems and are islands unto themselves. That gives the series its dramatic punch.

Veep makes high comedy of what is essentially a politics of fear: all of its characters are like frightened clowns, which isn’t too bad a description of the current American political state. The Americans has no room for humour, since its energies are spent so painstakingly and lovingly building up the show’s sustained mood of sombre claustrophobia. Of today’s TV tales of politics and power, it is the most successfully chilling, even if the Reagan-era feverishness it depicts pales beside the new world tensions of ISIS and its tech-savvy theatre of violence. By the end of the third season, it has clocked nearly 40 hours. It gets to do what a feature film, such as the excellent Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011), cannot: relax, sprawl, keep building, keep burrowing.

Luke Davies

Luke Davies is a novelist, screenplay writer and poet. He is the author of Candy, God of Speed, Totem (the winner of the Age Book of the Year in 2004) and Interferon Psalms (winner of the Prime Minister’s Literary Award in 2012). 

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