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The perception of politicians on TV

Last updated 13:02 05/11/2012

As I watched the second season finale of Boss on Saturday (SoHo, 8.30pm) - the end of a season which was far more interesting in terms of our leading man, but which took the show in a couple of bland directions where the supporting cast were concerned - I found myself wondering why politics is so often the backdrop for the stories we see on television.

20121105It's an interesting question to consider this week: aside from the conclusion of Boss, we've got a new season of Armando Iannucci's political satire The Thick of It starting on Friday (UKTV, 9pm), new episodes of Homeland (TV3, 8.30pm) and Boardwalk Empire (SoHo, 8.30pm) on Monday, not to mention coverage of the US presidential election on Wednesday.

The last one isn't fiction, just so we're clear* - but perhaps our obsession with political news coverage goes some way toward explaining why politics shows up so often in drama productions.

It seems to me that, as voters and citizens, we swing wildly between two different points of view on the act of governance: on the one hand, we consider the job of government minister to be vital, maybe the most important job available, and the key to the smooth running of our country and of a successful democracy - and to that end, we believe that whatever our political representatives are doing is of utmost importance, making it ripe for drama.

On the other hand, I think many of us suspect that our representatives are power hungry and inept, underqualified to perform tasks they are being asked to do, and motivated by something other than a desire to improve the lives of those they represent. In the extreme, we think politicians are morally bankrupt.

I mean, we do colloquially refer to them as "crooks", after all.

In a weird way, the way politicians are represented in fictional television reinforces what we already believe: on Boss, the all-powerful mayor of Chicago, Tom Kane, is either making corrupt deals and going back on his word, as we saw with the Lennox Garden deal that was at the centre of this season, or he's shown to be doing the most important work imaginable, like with the budget fiasco in the season's second-to-last episode. It doesn't matter if the work is actually important or not, it's played out on screen as though there is nothing more important in the world.

On Homeland, even as our main man is revealed as a terrorist, we see him surrounded by politicians who seem horribly inept; Brody's entire reason for becoming a terrorist boils down to vice-president Walden's perceived lack of empathy and moral fortitude. On Boardwalk Empire, we repeatedly see Nucky (himself a local body politician, and based on a real-life bootlegger named Enoch Johnson) trying to subvert the prohibition law and making protection deals with politicians more powerful than he is (like Happy Gilmore star Christopher McDonald's Harry Daugherty**). On The Thick of It, and American version Veep, we repeatedly see complete ineptitude.

Even when a politician shows up on a crime procedural such as CSI, he or she is usually either gunned down for their stance on some important issue, or they've wound up dead because of some back-alley deal gone wrong.

At least part of the reason boils down to the fact that these two states - perceived importance of governance or ineptitude/moral bankruptcy - provide the best opportunities for drama and/or humour.

But I also wonder if, as I say, part of the reason we see politicians behave like this on our favourite shows is because we believe that our representatives are actually behaving this way in real life.

What do you think: are politicians on television a reflection of what we believe real-life politicians are like?

(*) I won't lie: I was tempted to make a few Daily Show-style jokes to that effect.

(**) Yes, I just wanted to write "Happy Gilmore star Christopher McDonald" in a blog post. I love that film, but it entertains me no end that one of its actors ended up in one of the best dramas on television.

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