Why the British Are Better at Satire

Political mockery thrives on a more cynical spirit than Veep and the American House of Cards can muster.

Heidi Gibb

If there was ever an era ripe for political satire in America, the current one displays all the symptoms: rampant dysfunction in Congress; a paralyzed, peevish administration; dynastic ambitions in not one but two families; a surfeit of outsize and frequently cartoonish figures jockeying for space on the national stage. Given the wealth of material so near at hand, I was eagerly anticipating David Fincher’s adaptation of the brilliant 1990 BBC miniseries House of Cards when it debuted on Netflix two years ago. At last we would see biting, eminently British political satire applied to an American milieu.

With Season Three about to begin, it’s safe to say that this hasn’t happened. The U.S. version of House of Cards is sleek and often intriguing, but by now it has made clear that its specialty is melodrama, not satire. The show’s chief writer, Beau Willimon, and its star, Kevin Spacey, have slowed the pace and solemnized the spirit of the briskly malevolent original. Gone is the jaunty, triumphal bombast of the British theme music as an aerial camera spirals in on Westminster. The new opening is a glowering nocturnal vision of Washington, set to dread-laden strings and synthesizers. As our diabolically crafty protagonist schemes his nefarious schemes within the confines of the Beltway, the theatrical stature and sardonic wit of his London predecessor have given way to a more conventional portrait in menace. This is a show that intends to be taken seriously—and is all the less serious for it.

Failure is a wellspring of British comedy, but its American counterpart rewards optimism.

House of Cards is not an isolated phenomenon. Despite the glut of television series that deal in Washington intrigue, genuine political satire is remarkably hard to find. There’s farce (Alpha House), drama (The Americans), and farce masquerading as drama—with more self-awareness in some cases (Scandal) than in others (Homeland, State of Affairs). The past few years have seen two series about a female secretary of state inspired by Hillary Clinton (Political Animals, with Sigourney Weaver, and Madam Secretary, with Téa Leoni). And yet viewers looking for political fare with a real comic edge have had nowhere to go but HBO’s Veep, an Americanized variation of the British series The Thick of It imported to our shores by the original’s creator, the Scotsman Armando Iannucci. What is it that the Brits understand about this enterprise that we Americans don’t?

Let’s begin with House of Cards, which reveals what happens when dark political satire makes its way across the Atlantic. The BBC version, adapted from a novel by the former Thatcher adviser Michael Dobbs, describes the swift rise to power of Francis Urquhart, played with lupine relish by the great Ian Richardson, a founding member of the Royal Shakespeare Company. An old-moneyed conservative and the chief whip of the Tory government, Urquhart at the outset is content with his job keeping the parliamentary troops in line—“putting a bit of stick about,” in his indelible phrasing. But when he is denied an anticipated promotion, he begins a vengeful quest that will win him the prime ministership by the end of the four-episode miniseries. (House of Cards is the first in a trilogy that also includes To Play the King and The Final Cut.)

Willimon’s translation to contemporary Washington is faithful enough to these narrative particulars. In Urquhart’s place, we have Francis “Frank” Underwood (Spacey), the Democratic House majority whip from South Carolina. Similarly slighted for higher office, he pursues a similar course of revenge, one that will eventually require a relocation up Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol to the White House.

Tonally, however, the two shows are like night and day, except the BBC version is simultaneously lighter and darker. Richardson imbues Urquhart with a Mephistophelian glee. There is a winking naughtiness in his frequent asides, when he breaks down the fourth wall to bring viewers into his venal confidence. The glint is there, too, in his knowing refrain to the media: “You might very well think that. I could not possibly comment.” But Urquhart is not to be mistaken for a rootless schemer. A bred-in-the-bone conservative, he is the embodiment of an ancient and ominous sensibility—a force as much cultural as political, and at war with modernity itself. This is a man who goes so far as to rebuke the king of England: “My family came south with James I. We were defenders of the English throne before your family was ever heard of.” Urquhart’s shadow looms over Westminster like Smaug’s over the Lonely Mountain.

Frank Underwood has no such cultural gravity. He’s an up-by-his-bootstraps conservative Democrat—a reasonable choice given the differences between British and American political ascension, but a diminishment nonetheless. In place of Urquhart’s Shakespearean asides, Underwood delivers cornpone homilies that tend to be funny in precisely the wrong way—not witty, but ridiculous. (“They talk, while I sit quietly and imagine their lightly salted faces frying in a skillet,” he seethes at one point, irked by his adversaries.) He frequently comes across, to borrow the memorable term deployed by John J. DiIulio Jr. following his brief stint in the George W. Bush White House, as a kind of “Mayberry Machiavelli.”

Underwood has no meaningful ideology or purpose beyond the acquisition of power. Like his predecessor, he occasionally dabbles in homicide, but he poses no evident threat to the body politic itself. Two seasons in, he has not yet sought to start a war or turn back the clock on civil rights or otherwise realign the course of the nation. He’s a pro-Establishment centrist—essentially a southern-fried version of Steny Hoyer, the current Democratic whip. What’s so scary about a guy like that?

The rest of the cast of the Netflix version has been similarly declawed. Urquhart’s wife, Elizabeth, is a remote and terrifying figure, Lady Macbeth without the moral scruples; Underwood’s wife, Claire, is a more complicated but ultimately less compelling character who spends much of the second season tangled in a web of backstories about sexual assault and abortion. Urquhart’s primary flunky has likewise been humanized beyond recognition. The original, the junior whip Tim Stamper, is a vile little reptile; Underwood’s chief of staff, Doug Stamper, is lovelorn, conflicted, and a recovering alcoholic. And so on down the line. The Americanized characters are primed for soap opera, not for satirizing a political system.

In Britain, jeering at— and among—politicians is a national pastime.

Indeed, as Underwood faced off against an insidious billionaire with the ear of the president in Season Two, one could even feel the tug of precisely the kind of earnest political saga that the British original turned on its head, the “one honest man” narrative that has dominated American political fiction for well over a century. The critic Christopher Lehmann has described the “strikingly continuous American political fable [that] pitches a political naif’s fateful interest in the machinery of reform against the backdrop of irredeemably fallen, endlessly seductive relations of power in the nation’s capital.” That fable dates back as far as Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner’s 1873 novel, The Gilded Age, and continues on through Henry Adams’s Democracy: An American Novel, Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, and Joan Didion’s modern updating of Adams’s novel, Democracy. The same narrative has thrived onscreen as well. One needn’t be a Frank Capra fan to appreciate the mythic hold of his 1939 film, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, on the nation’s self-image. The movie spawned a 1960s TV series of the same name, as well as loose remakes in 1977 (Billy Jack Goes to Washington) and 1992 (The Distinguished Gentleman). And the Mr. Smith template—of a noble hero willing to speak truth to power—is apparent in countless other variations, from The Candidate to Dave to The American President and its TV semi-spin-off, The West Wing. Even the relatively edgy comedy Bulworth followed the same general arc.

The British House of Cards zealously inverts this formula. Urquhart is a figure of pure (if charming) malevolence, the worm in Britain’s apple, the one truly dishonest man. His opponents may be pompous and vain, but he is the singular locus from which bad acts ripple outward. Underwood, by contrast, gradually becomes more antihero than genuine villain, one shark among many slicing through the political waters, and not necessarily the worst. In making Underwood’s principal foil an unelected billionaire who manipulates foreign policy to serve his own financial interests, Willimon can’t help but highlight his protagonist’s humble roots and striver credentials. If you overlook a murder or two, Underwood could almost lay claim to the classic mantle of the reformer who fights the good fight against corruption in politics. When he ascends to the presidency at the end of Season Two, there’s little sense of imminent danger to the nation. In many ways, he seems better suited to the office than the malleable chump who preceded him. Mr. Smith may not have come to Washington, but neither, thank goodness, has Francis Urquhart.

At the lighter-hearted end of the satiric spectrum, HBO’s excellent Veep draws on another prominent strain of British humor, the comedy of futility. The underlying premise is that there is no need for an Urquhart-like archvillain; the system itself is so fundamentally broken that no one could hope to change it—for either good or ill. Thus in the 1980s BBC series Yes Minister (and its sequel, Yes, Prime Minister), the central joke is that a cabinet minister finds his reformist ambitions unendingly thwarted by the bureaucracy over which he theoretically presides. For The Thick of It, which was inspired by Yes Minister, Iannucci updated the gag by making the politicians slaves to the daily news cycle, so desperate to avoid ridicule in the press that they rarely have the time or will to do anything else.

Iannucci has neatly adapted the model for an American audience with Veep, which enters its fourth season this spring. But like House of Cards, it lacks the edge of its British forebears. From the beginning, the show was envisioned as a gentler variant of the razor-sharp The Thick of It and Iannucci’s equally fierce 2009 spin-off film, In the Loop. As HBO Chairman and CEO Richard Plepler put it, the idea was a transatlantic import that “softened the voice a little bit, through irony.” In place of the high-stakes machinations of House of Cards and other recent fare, Veep offers a decidedly un-American take on governance in its portrayal of a harried and impotent vice president and her staff, a coterie of enablers and hangers-on variously differentiated by their levels of ambition (generally high) and competence (universally low). A parade of petty foibles and grievances, Veep dispenses with subterranean conspiracies and lethal outcomes. The most brutal punishment meted out—and it is meted out liberally—is public humiliation. In this, the show is very much like The Thick of It, which takes place primarily in the fictional U.K. Department of Social Affairs and Citizenship (known by the droll acronym DoSAC), a pitiable backwater where second-tier politicians and civil servants are stowed to keep them away from any policy making of actual import.

But Iannucci’s wicked political take has clearly been tempered for his new American audience. The Thick of It is conspicuously devoid of anything resembling a likable protagonist. The show’s most memorable character by far is Malcolm Tucker, the prime minister’s magisterially profane enforcer, who blows into legislative offices like an ill wind to dole out verbal abuse, much of it anatomical in nature. The very first time we see him in the series premiere, he is calling a colleague “as useless as a marzipan dildo.” And he’s only warming up. Within moments, he’s sacking a cabinet minister who’d looked to early appearances to be the show’s protagonist.

The “one honest man” narrative has dominated American political fiction for well over a century.

In Veep, Vice President Selina Meyer (played to perfection by Julia Louis-Dreyfus) is presented far more gently. She’s selfish, yes, and frequently bumbling. But she’s also plucky and upbeat, and her frozen, toothy politician’s grin is at least as much a commentary on the absurdity of her official role as it is a condemnation of her character. And as Veep evolved over its second and third seasons, Meyer became both more appealing and more influential: by the end of the third season she had ascended, like Frank Underwood, to the presidency. (The conflict between her new position and the series title awaits resolution.) In The Thick of It, by contrast, any hint of personal accomplishment or upward mobility almost inevitably serves as prelude to an imminent and still-greater fall.

The way in which the serial abasements of The Thick of It have been revised into the spirited striverism (however heavily lampooned) of Veep harks back to our national fable of undaunted naïveté, and neatly encapsulates one of the signal differences between British and American humor. As the English comedian and actor Stephen Fry has noted, failure is a wellspring of British comedy, but its American counterpart rewards “optimism [and] a refusal to see oneself in a bad light.” Ricky Gervais, a co-creator of the original, British version of The Office—also considerably bleaker than its American progeny—put it more bluntly in a piece for Time. “Brits are more comfortable with life’s losers,” he explained, an attitude that enables a form of all-encompassing mockery. In America, such humor runs up against the national inclination to “applaud ambition and openly reward success.”

One might think that in political times as jaundiced and polarized as ours, we would be ready to swap the old fable of embattled do-gooders for a diagnosis of structural dysfunction and the bracing personal ridicule that goes with it. But even in a country proud of its antiauthoritarian heritage, there isn’t much precedent for that kind of skewering. For all the partisan furor on daily display, American politicians still enjoy a degree of deference from their colleagues, the press, and (occasionally) the public that their counterparts across the pond couldn’t dream of. In Britain, jeering at—and among—politicians is a national pastime. Remember when South Carolina Representative Joe Wilson yelled “You lie!” during a 2009 congressional address by President Obama? “It was a national incident,” Libby Watson wrote on The Atlantic’s Web site last year, “but raucous shouting at the prime minister during Prime Minister’s Questions has been a weekly institution since the 19th century.” It’s a combative temperament that our political satirists can’t help but envy. No less an authority in this sphere than Jon Stewart introduced a 2011 segment on David Cameron’s brutal give-and-take during a debate in the House of Commons by declaring, “England is awesome!”

Which brings us, at last, to the one zone in which American political satire has been thriving of late: the “fake news” redoubt of The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and most recently Last Week Tonight With John Oliver. Liberated from the narrative arc that so often seems to dull the edge of American political comedy, all three shows have discovered a style of acerbic exposé that seems almost British in sensibility: biting, antiheroic, unafraid of “putting a bit of stick about,” and—despite the liberal tilt of all three shows—happy to gore oxen on both sides.

The Daily Show and Colbert (which ended its nine-year run in December as its host prepared to inherit the mantle of David Letterman’s The Late Show) specialized in bite-size satiric fare, focusing on the quirks and pratfalls of individuals in the news. Now the newest of the “fake news” trio, HBO’s Last Week Tonight, has taken the model a step further. By offering longer explorations of at least one topic per episode, the show has proved able to dig deeper into institutional absurdities, legal, cultural, and political.

One week, John Oliver trains his eye on the restructuring of Argentine debt; another, on the Obama administration’s drone policy; a third, remarkably, on the sorry state of civil-forfeiture laws. Even more than is true of The Daily Show and Colbert, the humor of Last Week Tonight—while often quite broad—is fueled by a powerful undercurrent of outrage. The show serves as a compelling reminder that, when deployed properly, comedy can be a terrifically effective way to present serious topics. A June episode of the program, focusing on net neutrality—“even boring by C-SPAN standards,” as Oliver noted—famously persuaded so many viewers to contact the FCC that the agency’s comment system crashed. And what stands out about the man who hosts this frequently withering indictment of American politics, policy, and culture? He is—of course—a Brit.

In the end, Americans’ inaptitude for political satire may not matter, at least not as long as we can continue to lure its best British practitioners to ply their trade on this side of the Atlantic. It’s an irony that is not wasted on the Brits themselves. Articles in The Guardian and The Independent have bemoaned the dearth of good satire on U.K. television these days, with wistful looks in our direction. As The Independent’s critic sighed, “British political satire is arguably enjoying a golden age—but in America.” If I may speak on behalf of a grateful nation: we’ll take whatever we can get.