TV UK, 28 October

Bush imitates Bartlet.

Dolan Cummings

Topics Culture

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A reviewer in the Times Literary Supplement recently cited The Century of the Self, a four part series broadcast on BBC2 two-and-a-half years ago, as evidence that television is not ‘dumbing down’ after all. Presumably a second series by the same writer now constitutes a golden age of highbrow programming. Hooray!

In any case, Adam Curtis’ The Power of Nightmares (BBC2, Wednesdays at 9pm) is worthy of celebration in its own right. The programme offers an intelligent critique of the war on terror, pointing to the intellectual affinities of those who are waging it with their overblown enemies. The presentation may be a little over the top, and the programme at times leaves itself open to the accusation that it is doing some conspiratorial scaremongering of its own. But the material and the analysis on which it is based are undoubtedly valuable.

Politics aside, what is heartening about the series is Curtis’ clever use of archive material and interviews to construct an argument that is fundamentally televisual, as opposed to an illustrated lecture or, more common these days, a clumsy patchwork of dramatic reconstruction and patronising narrative. Television is used as an intellectual resource, rather than a medium for which allowances have to be made.

One of the more intriguing suggestions in the opening episode was that Perry Mason had been an expression of Straussian political philosophy. The programme made a convincing case that the 1960s legal drama embodied a conservative deference to authority. The same could be said of the later series Ironside, which also starred Raymond Burr, and included several explicitly political episodes taking on student radicalism and urging respect for the police.

On the other side, 1970s shows like Petrocelli and Quincy captured the spirit of liberal positivism. Petrocelli, a radical lawyer, would defend victims of the legal system by uncovering deceit and hypocrisy, while Quincy, TV’s first (I think) pathologist, would embark on crusades to reform the law and improve the lives of those left behind by his cadavers. Both shows dealt with issues like drugs, child abuse and racism, but suggested that these things could be fixed with a little commitment and political will.

Contemporary TV, unsurprisingly, doesn’t fit either paradigm, or any other obvious one. The politics of the ‘third way’ simply don’t have the popular resonance to make TV drama. CSI perhaps comes close, with its combination of technical positivism (the evidence never lies) with social pessimism (people do). But it’s hard to place the likes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Six Feet Under, or even The Shield (cop shows are generally quite transparent) in any political tradition.

It seems rather that politics is taking its lead from TV. In an old episode of The West Wing, President Bartlet tries to persuade Britain to join a military operation, even specifying, ‘just one division of Black Watch’. One wonders if the series’ writers have somehow made it into the real world of politics. Again, in one of the US election debates, John Kerry likened George Bush to Tony Soprano, but it was Kerry’s much-hyped concern about cargo containers entering the country unchecked that was exercising Tony the other week – in an episode screened in the USA over a year ago.

While television is a valuable resource for anyone interested in exploring ideas – and a source of storylines for desperate politicians – contemporary politics is of little use to television writers (The West Wing succeeds on the basis of personal dynamics, rather than Bartlet’s imaginary political philosophy). TV may or may not be in the midst of a golden age, but politics is really dumb.

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