I like to watch TV dramas, but every so often I need to remind myself of the political attitudes I’m absorbing with the pleasure of immersion in a fictional story. I need to do this for all my favourite TV shows over the last year; ones that were made in different English-language countries, while still following the same sort of dramatic formulas.
It’s not just the kind of qualities given to the good guys and the bad guys, or the ways real life events are often re-written and believed more widely than the reality, or the ways certain activities are glamourised (usually those promoting capitalism) and others demonised. As outlined in David Wong’s End Times Report (h/t Draco T Bastard), it has to do with the way we humans tend to rework reality into a basic (fictionalised) story structure: most commonly in Hollywood films and TV it takes the form of a Three-Act Structure (problem enters status quo, struggle against dark forces, resolution and status quo resurrected). As Wong says, everything in our brains is a story into which we fit all the information we absorb. Information is worked into stories, each with a beginning, a middle and an end.
I will use a small, geographically diverse selection of shows I watched in 2012, to identify some of the political fish-hooks I swallow while watching TV:
I didn’t expect to like this show, but, in spite of myself got drawn into this well-crafted story-telling, which uses many of the fundamental dramatic formulas. The show partly takes a critical attitude to a small part of the 1%, the wealthy owners of the Grayson family corporation/s that abused his power and made Emily Thorn‘s father the scapegoat, wrongly convicted for an alleged terrorist attack.
But the show also reinforces the material excess of the wealthy in the glossy style and luxurious settings. Nolan Ross (Gabriel Mann) started off as a bit of a stereotype of a bi-sexual, morally weak, self-seeking, wealthy entrepreneur. (See video clip).
Increasingly he has become my favourite character. He is Emily’s some-time moral compass, as she begins to cross the line from righteous revenge to unrestrained malice. It turns out he is motivated by loyalty and gratitude to Emily’s father, and loyalty to his aunt. However, as James Wolcott explains, Ross is also drawn from the fictionalised real world many of us absorb from a variety of sources.
The other super-richie is Nolan Ross (Gabriel Mann), a tousled tech genius who created and cashed in on a Facebook-size sensation, and, like Jesse Eisenberg’s Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, is an alpha earner with beta deportment. […] Tech wizards are as handy for screenwriters as hedgies because both appear to conjure money from air—their powers are a form of magicianship.
However, in spite of the regressive politics, the gripping drama and morally-compromised characters keep me watching.
I like the way the fantasy genre can present imaginative worlds where real world ethical, political and social issues can be explored.
Game of Thrones deserves a mention, if only because the title echoes real world political power games. The graphics and visual settings and landscapes are awesome. I am not into it as much as shows like Battestar Galactica, or Once Upon a Time (the latter also about the corrupting influences of power and money).
I do like the mix of Hollywood glamour and UK gritty realism in GOT. I am particularly sympathetic to the social and political outcasts who are the watchers of the wall, in the treacherous and threatening northern environment. The “savage” warlord, Khal Drogo, is a bit of a stereotype of pre-industrial tribal people, who were too often colonised by European nations.
I am particularly ambivalent about the brutal patrarchal values that permeate this show. On the one hand it doesn’t really show the power games of patriarchal societies in a very good light. But its brutal anti-heroism, graphically displayed on the shiny little screen, kind of glamourises them.
Strike Back (UK)
This is a UK show that has taken a lot from the glamourisation of violence in slick Hollywood action shows. The title song of the latest season to show on Prime TV is particularly seductive, along with the silhouetted graphics and slick style.
I enjoy it more than Game of Thrones, partly because it has more women being assertive and/or in positions of authority. It is however, in Graham Greene territory of morally compromised people, sometimes breaking the rules, but trying to do the right thing at the edge of empire, in sweaty, decadent and rugged places. However, unlike Greene’s defrocked priests, SB characters are always agnostic, pragmatic intelligence operatives, acting for the UK on the edge of the US empire – often in colonised but rebellious territories that are exoticised in their foreign seediness.
Some Aussie TV shows are hybrids of US crime genres, adding a bit of Aussie down-to-earth mongrel and outlaw allegiance (goes back at least as far as Ned Kelly). Rush is fast-paced, centred on an urban tactical response team.
The team members are good at heart, just trying to do their jobs as best they can, but they also have human failings, where they cross the legal line: for instance Leon, the computer whiz for the team, sometimes uses the police electronic systems t do a little personal investigating for himself.
3 of the above shows normalise contemporary electronic surveillance technologies. In Rush and Strike Back that are used by the authorities to do their jobs, but also to maintain their power. In Revenge, Nolan and Emily use electronic surveillance to investigate the 1%ers, and to try to expose them to the authorities, as part of Emily’s revenge project.
This Naomi Wolf article (h/t Napkins) draws attention to the way authorities misuse surveillance on behalf of the powerful and wealthy elite, against those who try to challenge their power. Recently released official documents show that the FBI coordinated surveillance of Occupy protesters in the service of banksters.
Feel free to discuss the political aspects of the above shows, or any others you have watched this year. I watched all the above shows via Freeview NZ. If you are commenting on shows so far only shown in NZ on Sky, or outside NZ, could you please follow convention with a spoiler alert at the top of your comment:
***** SPOILER ALERT****