The British are coming! And they’ve already taken over the capital—at least on TV.
Shows and films set in Washington have undergone a dramatic revolution. Gone are the starry-eyed days of The West Wing and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. In are the Machiavellian intrigues on House of Cards, the blundering characters on Veep, and the scandals on, well, Scandal. This shift reflects the viewing habits of a more disillusioned American public as well as the sensibilities of millennials (the Girls generation doesn’t do feel-good).
But the changing portrayal of Washington is as much a geographical shift as a generational one. Two of the leading shows in this cynical wave—House of Cards and Veep—are British in origin. House of Cards, whose second season debuts on February 14, is an American recreation of its British namesake—hence the (spoiler alert!) convoluted plotline in which Kevin Spacey’s character seeks to maneuver directly from being House majority whip to president. (In the U.K.’s parliamentary system, an MP can become prime minister by taking down the government; in the American system, Spacey has to take a detour through the vice president’s office.)
Veep, for its part, descends from a long line of British government spoofs—think of it as “Mr. Bean Goes to Washington.” Veep’s Scottish creator, Armando Iannucci, was behind the BBC’s Whitehall satire The Thick of It. His movie spinoff In the Loop lampooned the Anglo-American “Special Relationship.” Iannucci was, in turn, inspired by the BBC’s 1980s classics Yes Minister and Yes, Prime Minister—the best depictions from either side of the Atlantic of government at its most surreal.
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Enlightened fans are accustomed to never getting what they want. Critics championed the HBO series, which starred Laura Dern as an earnest idealist rebuilding her life following a rehab stint, but the show’s devoted disciples never recruited a sizable flock of fellow viewers. Consequently, despite the impassioned pleas and online campaigns, the show got the ax in March after two seasons. So when Dern received an Emmy nomination for outstanding lead actress in a comedy series this year, it felt a consolation prize. Enlightened may have been a common should-win pick in Emmy preview columns, but few observers actually predicted a win for Dern last night. (They were correct: Dern lost to Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Veep’s acerbic Selina Meyer.)
One of the narratives surrounding Enlightened—besides how audiences missed out on creator Mike White’s brilliant writing (evident in the show’s haunting, existential monologues)—was that it never truly fit the comedy label thrust upon it, perhaps in ways in ways that hurt its chances of survival. Yes, viewers were supposed to sympathize with Dern’s earnest but deluded Amy Jellicoe, but were they also reveling in shadenfreude? In the first season, Amy was that girl in the office: After seeking treatment following a humiliating workplace breakdown, Amy was totally absorbed in her new-age philosophy and completely lacking in self-awareness in ways that could be tremendously funny. But there was also a kind of sadness in her obliviousness, an admirable optimism in her search for purpose, and a vulnerability in her healing process that all resonated despite her flaws. This was especially true in the more plot-driven second season, when Amy decided to become a corporate whistleblower following another office humiliation. The layers of Amy felt less and less comedic as the show went on, but the way Dern pulled them off was still an award-worthy feat.
It’s weird that the emerging consensus on HBO’s Veep is that it’s unenjoyable because it’s not realistic, and it’s not realistic because it’s too cynical, given that the meme for the last two or 20 years has been that Washington is broken.
The show, starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus as an unprincipled and powerless vice president was endorsed as quite accurate by Jeff Nussbaum, who served as a speech writer for two vice presidents. Nussbaum told GQ’s Reid Cherlin that Veep hits the mark with its wall-to-wall cussing (including “pencil f—king”), the portrayal of patronizing presidential staff, the terrible advice offered by civilians, the codependency of some aides, and even the sets. And yet, it is wrong, all wrong—at least according to political reporters.
"If the aim of this show is to get viewers to disrespect everybody in elected office, mission accomplished," The Daily Beast’s Eleanor Clift writes. On Slate’s Political Gabfest, David Plotz said, “The West Wing was inaccurate in that it left out all the incompetence, hilarity, vanity, self-obsession, narcissism of American politics, and this show left out all the idealism and attempt to accomplish things in American politics… But as it happens, this is a moment when there isn’t a lot being accomplished in American politics, so maybe it rings more true.” Plotz’s colleague, John Dickerson, reported that, no, it’s worse: “A show that’s so soaked in cynicism about politics as a work of art smacks as lazy.” […]
The West Wing's idealism was more accurate than Veep's cynicism, Macleans' Jaime Weinman says, because “if you look at political gridlock today, and the causes of it, you’ll often find that it’s caused by anincrease in idealism, and more idealistic people working in government. In the U.S., there’s a lot of hand-wringing about gridlock and the inability of government to get anything done, but the reason for that is that ideology is more important than it ever was before.”
Maybe it depends on how you define “before.” The idea that “Washington is broken” is certainly repeated endlessly these days. Take, for example, The Washington Post's Chris Cillizza and Aaron Blake explaining why Sen. Bob Portman’s support among political insiders makes him a bad choice for vice-president. “People really, really dislike politicians,” they write. “They hate Washington. They think politics is broken — maybe irreparably.” Maybe irreparably? Americans sound primed for a cynical show!
Read more at The Atlantic Wire. [Image: HBO]