NBC/Starz/FoxPerhaps to brace us for what promises to be an exceptionally brutal 2012 presidential election, scripted television has taken on politics in a major way this fall. Campaigns are everywhere on TV, from established sitcoms (Glee, Modern Family, Parks and Recreation) to newcomer prestige dramas (Boss).
And while D.C. often gets dismissed as Hollywood's homely cross-continental cousin, in a way, it's not surprising when campaigning shows up in pop culture: The subject, with its sex scandals, brave stands, and backroom deals, is plenty entertaining. "Politics is sort of the mainstay of theatrical behavior in our contemporary culture," says Kelsey Grammer, who makes a break with his comedic past (Fraiser and Cheers) in a striking performance as Chicago Mayor Tom Kane in Starz's Boss. "You don't really need to blame that on any one person, or any one mayor, or any particular party. Both parties are capable of behaving nobly and dastardly."
But politics carries risks for those in Hollywood who take it on. This fall's shows do best when they mine the territory's inherent drama and ridiculousness, and worst when they try to summon grotesques from the shadows.
"There's a demonic quality that comes with anyone who stays in power for a long time," Grammer says.In their own ways, each of these shows skewer the silly side of government and elections. But Glee seems to think that the skewer it's wielding—villainous gym coach Sue Sylvester's run for state legislature on the platform that the arts ruin students' lives—is sharper than it is. It's not that conservative opposition to public support for the arts and arts education isn't real. After all, Kansas's Governor Sam Brownback shut down his state's arts agency this year, sacrificing federal funding for the arts in the process. But as is often the case, Glee seems to think that it needs to venture into overwrought parody to be effective, when reality is often funny and horrifying enough on its own.
Both that show and Modern Family have tackled the idea that it would be good to have more women run for office, but they've framed that idea more as a source of self-esteem for individual candidates rather than as a vehicle for meaningful policy change. As Feministing editor Chloe Angyal pointed out in a Bloggingheads episode we taped together recently, Claire Dunphy's decision to run for city council is directly motivated by the encouragement of her stepmother Gloria, who tells her to overcome her fears of returning to work now that her children are school-aged. But rather than setting Gloria up as her campaign manager or exploring what Claire's platform might look like, the show immediately cut to an image of Gloria deploying her considerable physical assets to help her husband close a business sale.
Similarly, Brittany S. Pierce's run for student council president on Glee isn't really inspired by specific changes she wants to make at McKinley High. Rather, while managing another student's campaign, she becomes convinced of her own specialness. When she kicks off her election bid with a raunchy rendition of Beyonce's "Run the World," it's cute, but it's also a substitute for actual ideas. As The Onion joked in a 2003 article, this is "Women Now Empowered By Everything a Woman Does"-level feminism.
Parks and Recreation, by contrast, has been establishing Leslie Knope's resume and her campaign platform since its opening episode. In previous seasons, she's saved her department—and a beloved children's concert—from budget cuts, filled in an enormous pit, and pulled off an epic harvest festival. This year, she's handling a potential scandal about her birthplace with an aplomb that defied President Obama and founding the best scout troop ever. And the show's made a point of demonstrating how her abilities and persistent cheerfulness have won over even her dedicated libertarian colleague, Ron Swanson, who can't help himself. His small-government convictions shrink in the face of what Leslie's able to accomplish. The notion of swaying someone like Swanson through mere competence may amount to liberal fantasy, but it's a nicely small-scale one, rooted in the modest hope that local government can make life just a little bit better. It's certainly better than bigger, more harmful flights of fictional-political fantasy: Say, to imagine that a single speech by the president will turn the country around, as it does in Aaron Sorkin's painfully sincere romantic comedy The American President.
It's Boss—one of the most ambitious shows of the new TV season, along with Showtime's Homeland—that veers most dramatically between the intelligently realistic and the grotesque. It may be an inevitable outcome given Boss's stated ambitions. In the show, "the stakes are enormous" for the principles, as Grammer puts it. His character, Kane, is "losing his kingdom," and facing "the betrayals are betrayals of a lifetime." Kane doesn't respond all that humanely, but there's a reason for that, Grammer says: "There's a kind of demonic quality that comes with anyone who stays in power for a long time."
Grammer's magisterial, strange performance as Mayor Tom Kane has a little bit of the supernatural to it, along with some agonizingly human moments. In the opening scene in the pilot, Kane is receiving devastating medical diagnosis, a horrifying prophecy of his own decline. He says fewer than 15 words during the consultation, but the silent work he does is devastating, and his fight to compose himself during a car ride to a speech reveals a tremendous will.
But the show struggles to make Kane's surroundings as strange and fascinating as Kane himself. There are bright spots. One of the show's core political conflicts—a fight over an expansion of O'Hare Airport that turns out to be on land that includes Native American burial ground—has promise, plumbing to the heart of historic Chicago ethnic conflicts and raising the specter of literal ghosts to accompany Kane's metaphorical ones. And Sam Miller, a Chicago Tribune reporter played with a dour humor by Troy Garity, who also served a stint on NBC's short-lived period show The Playboy Club, is fun. He serves as a proxy for the audience trying to figure out the complicated skeins of loyalties and conflicts, and his adventures are reasonably grounded in the real life of an investigative reporter, giving his scenes heft and humor. Miller literally lifts the curtain on corruption at a mold-infested model school, and gets himself in trouble on the job when he tries to ingratiate himself with a group of construction workers by eating a sandwich and ends up gagging on the incredibly hot peppers. Boss doesn't have to invent bizarre adventures for Miller—instead, it wrings the drama out of genuinely plausible events.
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The show succeeds when those gods and monsters are mired in procedure, as Kane and Miller often are. The site of an incumbent governor lofting an iPad into a marsh in a fit of pique and then ordering an aide after it is both very funny and a nice reference to Primary Colors, the satire of the Clinton administration that increasingly looks like the gold standard for explorations of political darkness. Where Boss goes off the rails, though, is when it mistakes luridness with meaningfulness.
A twist on a political sex scandal that leaves an up-and-comer getting it on with his lover in increasingly public places is one of the more genuinely egregious use of cable's license to depict sex I've seen in quite some time. Kane's daughter, apparently a priest, a doctor, and an addict, checks so many urban-politics boxes at once that her personality disappears under the weight. While there's no question that Aldermanic debates can be brutal, it feels showy and crude to have Kane tell the City Council, during a contentious debate, "Let the streets run with shit." Overblown moments like that don't as effectively paint Kane a South-Side Satan as does a brutally violent, darkly funny, and far realer scene later in the pilot does.
"This here, this is the contest," Kane snarls at the nephew of a man who's come to meet him after derailing the O'Hare project. If television shows, comedies and dramas alike, want to say something meaningful about politics, they should heed that lesson. The measure of a truly grown-up show, and of a truly adult approach to politics, is resisting the temptation of contrived stairwell sex, goofily aggressive campaign videos, and empty girl-power campaigns.
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