Saturday, May 13, 2017

TV and the Changing Face of Political Dramas

"Sir, you are now the President of the United States.” That’s from the opener of Designated Survivor, the latest in a long line of TV shows about fictional American leaders.

The key to writing great presidential dramas is fusing a reflection of reality, with elements of fantasy. But the current American presidency is proving more surreal than any administration written for the small screen, so what happens when the plot in the real world becomes stranger than fiction?

For one, an adjustment of television tropes. Many of the “crises” in political dramas are fuelled by fear of negative public perception. The “polls” are regularly referenced to inspire narrative—nothing can prod a president into action faster than a drop in the polls. 

The series Designated Survivor revolves around a lower tier civil servant who ends up president following a bombing that takes out most of the government. As a result it’s an uphill battle for President Tom Kirkman, played by Kiefer Sutherland.

Unfortunately an onscreen president trying to curry favor and negotiate support for his initiatives starkly contrasts with the current offscreen president who writes executive orders when government doesn’t agree.

What’s playing out onscreen is old school: the inexperienced president respects the longstanding boundaries of his office, and takes public opinion seriously.

Watching this during the Trump era is like viewing something from the past, even though it’s set in the present. The story is good, and prior to the current political climate would qualify as an infallible interpretation of a worst case scenario, but the reality has become incomparable.

For many, one of the greatest presidential dramas is House of Cards. Machiavellian President Frank Underwood—chillingly played by Kevin Spacey—is not openly defiant of standard presidential expectations; he maintains a kindly uncle façade. But below the surface, his morally grey behavior becomes increasingly dark, culminating in the murder of a journalist.

President Underwood is wary of acknowledging anything that could potentially lead to impeachment. House of Cards is the story of a conservative government, with a rotten apple at the core. But will the new season seem shocking now? Can President Underwood’s self-serving choices and his tendency to decimate the careers/lives of others challenge and enthrall the audience as it once did?

When it comes to women appointed to the US presidency, scripted television has been quite progressive in exploring the idea. To name a few examples, over a decade ago Geena Davis hit screens in Commander in Chief as President MacKenzie Allen, and Alfre Woodward was President Constance Payton in the recent State of Affairs, playing the first African American female POTUS.

Casting a woman in the role of president doesn’t seem to draw audiences as strongly as shows with male presidents, perhaps partly due to the country's complex cultural attitudes regarding the appointment of a woman to a position of ultimate political power. (Waiting to see Gillian Anderson play an American president though; she might just buck the trend.)

The material is both helped and hindered by the fact the writers and the audience has no real life counterparts to compare with the characters (don’t even get me started).

In the past, as a character the US Commander-in-Chief offered viewers an interesting paradigm: the most powerful person, yet answerable to many; responsible for the safety of all Americans, yet personally in danger; protected, yet vulnerable. While there are darker fictional incarnations of POTUS who succumb to a thirst for power, more positive, humanitarian portrayals are often onscreen presidential favorites.

Arguably the greatest presidential drama is West Wing. Or, as my parents called it, the walking show. President Josiah Bartlet, wonderfully portrayed by Martin Sheen, personified an ideal American president—constantly trying to do good while hampered by the machinations of others. Striving, even whilst compromising, to engender positive change for American citizens. Empathy portrayed as a source of strength, not weakness.

The hallowed halls of the White House have long been a storytelling haven for TV writers, and never has the bureaucracy of government been so riveting as when it’s happening in the Oval Office.

But scripted POTUS dramas of the future will require different narrative devices. The real world boundaries that shaped the format of the political genre on TV, have been decimated by current day politics.

Visual fiction will have to catch up, and embrace new, previously unimaginable parameters of presidential and governmental behavior—the good, the shockingly bad, and the downright unbelievable.

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