The Lite Beer of American Satire
Libby Watson finds American satire lacking:
That’s part of why British political discourse makes American politics look like tea at the cricket club. When Congressman Joe Wilson yelled, “you lie!” at President Obama, it was a national incident, but raucous shouting at the Prime Minister during Prime Minister’s Questions has been a weekly institution since the 19th Century. We throw eggs at our politicians; we nick their bikes; we certainly don’t stand when they enter the room.
This jeering hatred of politicians is integral to The Thick of It. Malcolm calls minister Nicola Murray a “psycho-fanny,” and violent threats that he’ll “sell off [her] fucking flayed skin” are standard. And these politicians are worthy of hatred. Nicola is a total “omnishambles;” her predecessor Hugh uses the story of his adviser Glen’s special-needs son to lie to Parliament. The advisers are as terrible. Malcolm is the “Malchiavellian” scumbag behind it all, but every single one is slimy, backstabbing, and horrible. Ollie is a “man worm,” who helps depose both Nicola and Malcolm. Others trade nicknames for a mentally ill man: “The fucker’s a nutbag.”
It’s certainly true that our style of politics – as acrimonious as it often is, can be compared as “gentle” compared to British politics. It also makes sense to me that The West Wing is a truly American type of program.
Having seen both, I also mostly with her comparisons of the American and British versions of House of Cards, though that’s more complicated than it initially appears. Our Underwood was, I’d argue, actually considerably more villainous than their Urquhart. The British version, though, had a very American over-the-top feel while British satire tends to be more… patient.
I think Watson really nails it here, though:
It’s not only hatred, though—Brits don’t have the forgiving impulse that America has for its politicians. The fall-and-redemption story is familiar in American politics. Last year, we got a Congressman Mark Sanford as proof. George W. Bush’s paintings of dogs hang on the national refrigerator, with him trotting them out in a fluffy Today Show interview with his daughter.
And I think the the politics discussed throughout is symptomatic of our interest in the redemption narrative rather than being about politics in particular.
To take it out of our statehouses and DC, I consider The Office to be indicative of this. On first blanch, their David Brent was two-parts creepy and one part annoying. Our Michael Scott was two-parts annoying and one-part creepy. As time progressed, the difference became more increasingly important. Early on in the series I wrote the following about Scott:
The most telling scene with Michael Scott was when he was showing a video of his younger self on a kiddie show of some sort. He is asked what he wants most from life and he says it’s to get married and have 100 kids so that none of them could decline to being his friend. One of the saddest scenes on television pretty much ever.
Frankenstein’s Monster said something along the lines of “I am a monster because I am in pain.” Whenever I run across someone either in real life or in entertainment that has an emptiness in their heart, it makes me very wary.
Michael Scott’s younger years are never spelled out and though he likes to talk about himself he doesn’t really do so in honest or accurate terms, so we’re left to speculate. Nonetheless, it seems relatively apparent to me that Michael hasn’t just been hurt by what social rejection almost certainly took place in his past, but rather that he’s been scarred by it. I see within him a certain darkness in his soul where the part of him that is loved and accepted should reside. That’s not to say that he is completely unloved and unaccepted as his mother seems to love him (if not respect him) and Dwight functionally (if not earnestly) respects him, but it’s clearly not enough.
The dangerous Scott painted in this portrait is beyond redemption. And yet, however, he was redeemed. It’s not just that Scott had over seven seasons to find his redemption while Brent had only two. Brent could have had ten and it wouldn’t have mattered. Not only because of the two-part-one-part difference, but because Scott’s happiness and Brent’s being forced out were both natural extensions of how each side likes our stories told.
Whether about politics or a guy running an office.
Intellectually and artistically, I have a preference for the British model. Our House of Cards and The Office are more entertaining, but theirs are stories better told. But I have the heart of an American, I suppose. The British version of the Office was simply hard for me to watch. House of Cards was easier, but I am still disinclined to ever go back and watch it. I seem to appreciate their approach from a mild distance.