Fictional seven-party politics: who would win a battle of the best on-screen leaders?

Jools Ayodeji, Nottingham Trent University and Philip Nodding, Nottingham Trent University

Politicians themselves may have their faults, but recently we’ve been thinking that perhaps wickedly inventive screenwriters should shoulder some of the blame for disillusioned, apathetic voters. It’s possible that they’ve raised public expectations by creating characters that we prefer to watch – leaving us underwhelmed by the banal and predictable platitudes of the real life party mouthpieces.

After all – who would you rather listen to in a political debate – Jed Bartlet (The West Wing) or Jeb Bush? Or in Number 10 would Ed Miliband or Hugh Grant (Love Actually) be more likely to get the public’s attention?

For the past century the entertainment industry has created political characters with guile and gusto, who speak their minds and damn the consequences. The more you think about it, the more you realise how many great charismatic, dramatic and sometimes hilarious characters have been created by top notch screenwriters.

Think Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi) – the foul-mouthed spin-doctor and kingmaker in the BBC’s The Thick of It or poor old Jim Hacker (Paul Eddington) of Yes Minister fame – bullied and cajoled by his manipulative permanent secretary Sir Humphrey (Nigel Hawthorne).

Here are seven of the best – an election between these formidable opponents would certainly be something to sit up and pay attention to. Who would you vote for?

Birgitte Nyborg (Borgen)

This drama about Danish coalition politics features Birgitte Nyborg, a strong but conflicted female prime minister (Sidse Babett Knudsen). A 2013 survey by the Copenhagen Business School suggested that the show had helped viewers become more engaged with real life politics. With just the right amount of personal baggage to make her “relatable” to the public but with enough material to be “monstered” by the tabloids on a daily basis, riding on her campaign bus would be a blast.

President Jed Bartlet (The West Wing)

Martin Sheen’s performance as the Democratic White House incumbent Bartlet captured the hearts and minds of American and UK viewers. A poll saw the fictional president with a popularity rating of 81%, compared with that of the real life President Obama at 48%.

Campaign in poetry, govern in prose is the adage. But Bartlet is so principled he wants to govern in poetry also. Such strong principles are certainly attractive in today’s climate of rampant mistrust – he would never have to resort to erecting an 8ft stone tablet engraved with six “commandments” in the rose garden to try to convince.

The Amazing Mrs Pritchard

Enough of these professional politicians. How about if an ordinary Northern housewife took it upon herself to be prime minister? Screenwriter Sally Wainwright imagines just this in The Amazing Mrs Pritchard, starring Jane Horrocks. Fed up with the same tired old party politics Mrs Pritchard’s refreshingly honest no-nonsense talk grabs the public’s imagination and projects her straight into Number 10.

There’s a great scene where she’s confronted in the toilets prior to a crucial TV debate by Janet McTeer’s hardened Tory MP who hopes to psych out her inexperienced opponent – but Mrs Pritchard manages to turn the tables and unsettles her rival just before they go on air (by offering her a top job in her new government). Great fun, and an appealing prospect, but I’m not sure she’d see such success amongst this formidable bunch.

Francis Urquhart (House of Cards 1990)

Ian Richardson plays the unscrupulous Francis Urquhart in this classic political tale. He’s a silky, smooth, duplicitous civil servant who enters politics and climbs the greasy pole inch by murderous inch until he becomes prime minister.

Adapted by the soon to be doyen of the TV adaptation Andrew Davies, this is politics as we dread it, decisions made behind doors, the public good subservient to individual political desires and ambitions. Urquhart — a devious, manipulative individual – addresses the audience directly and honestly, recognising and relishing his own evil irresistible ambition. No thanks.

Frank Underwood (House of Cards 2013)

Or what about the more recent reimagining of House of Cards for a US audience? Starring Kevin Spacey as the ruthless president, he’s a sophisticated and dangerous creation whose political double-dealings would put Machiavelli to shame. This is a brilliant show that reaches a new generation of potential voters, asking awkward questions about the motivation of politicians. The ultimate backstage, behind closed doors ruler-ship – somewhat reminiscent of Mandelson.

It seems probable that Underwood would trample all these others underfoot – we’d reach the ballot box and find that his was the only name there.

Senator Bill McKay

Ed Miliband might now have his own fan club but he’s unlikely to be able to compete with 1970s heart throb Robert Redford when it comes to attracting female followers. Redford stars as Bill McKay in The Candidate, a wet-behind-the-ears US senatorial contender for the Democrats who is expected to lose by a landslide and therefore feels free to speak his mind.

He’s funny and smart and resists the urges of his safety-first spin doctors –- and in doing so convinces the electorate that there is another way. He’s also wonderfully human, as illustrated in the scene where he gets the giggles half way through a vital political broadcast.

Coriolanus

None of these appeal? Then how about a Roman general, transposed into the modern world. Skillful, ruthless, slightly foolhardy soldier turned reluctant politician Caius Marcius Coriolanus won’t bow down to his public any more than he would his enemies.

The inner life of politician is so often hidden to voters that those who seem natural are anomalies. Coriolanus’s explicit disdain for politicking separates him not only from other politicians, his mentor, his powerful mother, but ultimately from the people he seeks to rule. How he’d react to the amplified political wrangling of our world is a scary thing to contemplate.

So who’d get your ballot paper cross? Birgitte would be a good bet for those favouring a coalition; Barlet if you like tough but fair; Pritchard for the romantic dreamers; Underwood and Urquhart for the ruthless pragmatists; Coriolanus for those in favour of the iron fist. But it’s Redford’s Bill McKay who would seem best to capture the mood of the moment – a population desperate for something fresh, honest and unscripted.

So don’t ever let anyone tell you that politics can’t be invigorating and dramatic. It can: in the world of make-believe at least.

The Conversation

Jools Ayodeji is Lecturer/Senior Lecturer at Nottingham Trent University.
Philip Nodding is Lecturer/Senior Lecturer in Film at Nottingham Trent University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
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True Detective, Breaking Bad – the simple truth about complexity

Suzie Gibson and Dean Biron, Griffith University

Nothing is produced in a cultural or social vacuum. All forms of representation intersect and interact with our contemporary world, whether we like it or not. This includes recently acclaimed television programs such as True Detective, Breaking Bad, House of Cards and Game of Thrones.

The fantasy elements of Game of Thrones enhance its images of a brutal world driven by the will to control. This is highly relevant when conflicts in pursuit of power – often underpinned by violence – continue to take place across the globe.

Medieval costuming, settings and magic may seem distant. Yet even Julia Gillard, a fan of the series, linked Game of Thrones to her impending doom as prime minister and the Rudd sword that would eventually slay her.

It is surprising, then, that Jason Jacobs’s recent Conversation article on Game of Thrones claims that social and political context has little if any bearing on its success. Instead, the show is elevated for resisting what he calls the tendency to exhibit “boutique contemporary issues”.

Gender inequality is offered as one example of an issue commonly woven into cultural narratives in a didactic manner. Setting aside his unsettling broad-brush treatment of contemporary feminism it is unfortunate that Jacobs conceives of discrimination as a “boutique” matter.

On the contrary, such collective problems demand critical inspection in cultural settings. Social content is something neither authors nor viewers can avoid. In the words of Duke University academic Fredric Jameson, we are each “condemned to history” in the inherent sociability of our lives.

Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood and Robin Wright as Claire Underwood in House of Cards.
Courtesy of FOXTEL

Jacobs goes on to argue that Game of Thrones is the best form of entertainment chiefly because it avoids complexity. Such complexity – lauded in an earlier Conversation piece by Jason Mittell – is instead seen as largely negative in the programs Mad Men and Breaking Bad.

But complexity is not the same as complication. Narrative power is produced through sophisticated storytelling. This enables many perspectives to emerge and audience pleasure to be heightened. Moreover, without complexity there is no simplicity: each relies on the other for meaning.

In the same way as other aesthetic forms such as literature and painting, a quality television series can ask important ethical questions. This involves making compromising and morally messy decisions, because the world we live in is difficult and complex. Television that responds to the urgent need for self-questioning cannot be so easily written off as convoluted.

The myth of the cultural divide

Well written and produced programs such as House of Cards and The Wire provide levels of meaning accessible to some, though not necessarily to all. That does not mean that they are less worthy. On the contrary, what is revealed is a wide assortment of narratives that respond to a diversity of viewers.

Audiences are not a uniform mass of receivers interpreting televisual texts in the same way. We are a varied lot, an unpredictable array of individual consumers. Appeals to “entertainment” value may seem to renew the division between purportedly complex cultural artifacts of limited audience reach, and the allegedly modest, accessible-to-all variety – the old “high versus popular” debate.

Bryan Cranston as Walter and Aaron Paul as Jesse in Breaking Bad.
Courtesy of FOXTEL.

That argument is long dead. When Man Booker prize winner Eleanor Catton speaks of being influenced by the The Wire and Breaking Bad in writing The Luminaries (2013), this only helps confirm the waning of any boundary between high and low culture. Reception can also change over time, with “difficult” art evolving into popular.

Television, once considered by many as the exclusive location of mostly worthless diversion, is home to much that may be seen as important art. Jacobs reasonably calls for judgements of taste to be a part of the academic’s critical arsenal. Yet his evident distaste for all matters contextual (social and historical) risks reviving a culture war that is a relic of the 20th century.

Further, raising a single television program above “most other contemporary cultural output” takes the process of cultural evaluation to an unhealthy level of precision. The almost infinite vista of cultural forms available to audiences in the 21st century – in television, film, music, literature, and elsewhere – surely demands more cautious language on the part of scholars and critics.

Generic complexity

There is no such thing as generic or aesthetic purity. Breaking Bad’s sharp indictment of US health care does not prevent moments of experimental fantasy. A cinematographic style that might at first appear incongruous can in fact tap into questions fundamental to our existence.

True Detective, arguably the most literary series of all, depicts an astonishingly dark realm of violence and despair. Its film noir elements, including ghostly crime scenes, exposes audiences to nightmarish gothic moments where the divisions between reality and fantasy begin to blur.

Genres are almost always intertwined, which means that all kinds of narratives adopt different styles of storytelling. These can be both escapist but also strangely familiar. What makes these contemporary television programs particularly successful is their ability to skirt the boundaries between simplicity and complexity, fantasy and reality.

See also:
Breathtaking television: why Game of Thrones leaves the rest behind

The Conversation

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7 Reasons To Love ‘House of Cards’

1. Binge Watching on Netflix

It’d be unfair not to mention the fact that you can drop everything you’re doing for 13 hours and watch the whole season from start to finish, and even re-watch what you missed and take notes (if you are like me!). This is a way to experience a story that was only recently realized by society and finally mastered by Netflix with their first couple of original series, and with the extraordinary writing, casting and direction of House of Cards we finally have the first, brand spanking new form of television for the 21st century.

2. Tea Party Dismissal

It’s not fair to shit on a political party — in most cases. Unfortunately for the Tea Party, there hasn’t been one instance where they’ve deserved respect from the majority of voters in the U.S., and for good reason: they never seem to have a solution that satisfies the majority. If it’s freedom they are after, it’s the needy they neglect. If it’s security they’re after, it’s the constitution they neglect. If it’s more emphasis on Christianity they’re after, it’s pragmatism they neglect. This is what consistently make the party too extremist for a moderate political system. That’s why it’s important that this concept be integrated into such a political show where our main character is the Vice President.

We’re already seeing the inner workings of Congress on a daily basis, and to see how some people within Congress get blinded by their own extremism and miss the opportunity to prevail because they were too involved in themselves is a crucial point to make. What’s more is that this show is not about the political party you are associated with, but about power and control, the foundations of politics. After all, Frank Underwood is a Democrat, but you’d never guess it by the way he acts!

3. Cyber Warfare, Tor and the Deep Web

One of the most important aspects of the age we live in is the technology we use on a day-to-day basis and how inseparable humans and tech have become. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been one TV show or movie that actually addresses this concept in a way that resonates with anyone in an acceptable way for about 30 years. I mean, let’s be honest: War Games was cool because it showed exactly what it’s like to perform those types of tasks on a computer in the 1980s, and Tron was cool because it showed exactly what computer nerds were envisioning while using the computer. Somehow, Hollywood decided movie-goers had lower IQs than What’s worse is that most plots involving computers treat the viewer with such a disregard for our comprehension of the internet that it’s beyond laughable and down-right insulting. After all, we’re not oblivious to the fact that Microsoft Excel has literally zero application to split-second hacking, yet whole plot of the movie Unthinkable culminated in defusing a nuclear bomb by typing gobbldygook into a spreadsheet and subsequently became an internet meme as a testament to how low Hollywood had sunk to appeal to the younger generation; that real hacking is typically command-line-based and that there has never been, nor will there ever be, a pac-man representation of eating memory and data as shamefully displayed in the end of Hackers; and that literally no one will ever hack something in 30 seconds with a gun to their head while getting a blow-job from a stranger like Swordfish wanted us to believe. Instead, What House of Cards has done in Season 2 is bridge the gap between fantasy and reality by introducing the Tor and the Deep Web to the mainstream in a way that Law and Order and other shows had failed. In Episode 3, Washington Herald journalist Lucas Goodwin enters a dark world of trust and deception for the first time and we see how easily he is manipulated through social engineering in order to get to the truth.

4. No Rating Oversight Means Pushing The Envelope of Acceptable Viewing

One of the more interesting facets of a TV series being released by a video rental service like Netflix is the fact that this same service makes a plethora of unrated movies and videos available. While other services specifically set aside adult film categories, Netflix has kept the focus on theatrical releases while maintaining the Non-Rated (NR) movies of its collection in plain view and within their algorithms “suggested” and “based on your interest” categories. This has allowed quite a few independent, foreign and unrated releases exposure to an audience that otherwise would have never given a hoot about. Not only does this vastly change the premium TV landscape, it also negates the whole rating system in general.

For example, in our Season 2 Episode 3 example, the journalist gets attacked by a hacker after entering the world of the deep web, and his computer gets inundated with nudey images before the hacker interferes and offers a chance to chat. While the images go by in a flash, we do see some flat out hardcore porno ranging from fellatio (including numerous images of erect penises) to cunnilingus and gay anal sex. It happens fast, but the fact that it’s on an online rental service that allows you to pause, rewind and repeat is nothing different than accidentally clicking on a spam link with a porno pop-up. The easy argument Netflix can make (which is entirely justified) is that these images are within the confines of artistic merit. However, it most certainly crosses a line rarely crossed before (if ever) and brings us into a much more liberal arena of popular entertainment where the necessary scenes are not cut for the sake of keeping advertisers or politicians happy and are, instead, left in to keep the story whole.

5. Innovative Integration of Text Convos

When I text someone, I don’t sit there and stare at the phone and wait for a response. That’s the beauty of texting, you can text and move on with your life. Since the invention of text messaging there just hasn’t been an appropriate way to show this form of communication on the screen without it coming across as obtrusive, too difficult to read or just hokey — often characters are forced to stare at their phone screen for far too long, we’re forced to watch a screen of a screen, and ultimately the whole concept of texting loses its value entirely.

The way House of Cards manages to pull it off is beyond just getting the message across to the viewer, it’s actually a next-level experience where you actually feel like you are the character receiving a message. It’s a simple design concept that’s never really been tried before, or at least not in such a creative way.

As an example, a reporter is having an affair with a politician. When texting each other from their respective settings, the editing never shows the phone screens and instead overlays the camera shots with the text messages as they come through, so we get to experience our character getting on a train or leaving work while carrying on their conversation, rather than the conversation being a boring scene in itself. This is one of the major facets of the production of this show that stands out from other shows based on real-life.

6. The Ned Stark Play

After watching the first season of Game of Thrones, I decided that killing the main character is the best way you could start a story. Nothing says motivation like, “you just destroyed the best thing that ever happened to the world and now I must take you down.” Peter Russo is probably the Ned Stark of House of Cards, and if you don’t agree then I urge you to put aside the obvious differences, like Peter’s alcoholism and Ned Stark’s sword wielding brawn, and take a quick glance at the parallels between the honorable stance carried by the House of Stark and the rallying Russo did with the shipyard workers. Like Stark, Russo fought for the little guy, putting himself at risk on a number of occasions, and eventually died trying.

Just like Game of Thrones, House of Cards now yields to the weight of a murder by one of the most powerful people in the country and that weight burdens every decision he makes. It’s impossible to take murder back, and when Season 2 starts up there’s yet another callous strike against the underdog that now sets a dark precedent in any confrontation moving forward.

7. The Main Character’s Initials are F. U.

As Frank Underwood colors in the penis of a bull on a sketchpad, he breaks the fourth wall by uttering a bit of universal truth to camera: “There are two types of vice presidents: doormats and matadors.”

If it weren’t for Breaking Bad or The Sopranos, we might not be entirely ready for a show’s protagonist to also be who we root for their downfall. The great part about a series that hasn’t yet ended is not knowing if our protagonist/antagonist will fall, begging questions about the moral direction and theatrical direction of the show. Will Frank Underwood prevail, or will his moral turpitude be undermined by the honorable underdog forced to fight within the shadows?