Stranger than fiction: Politics on television versus politics in real life

Remember when Frank Underwood, the ruthless and maniacal President of the United States on the Netflix drama House of Cards uttered the infamous words, “Democracy is so overrated?” Or how about that time he cold-heartedly proclaimed, “I have often found that bleeding hearts have an ironic fear of their own blood?” For someone who has managed to hold on to the country’s highest office despite murdering (yep!) multiple people in his way, “The road to power is paved with hypocrisy and casualties. Never regret.” was also a matter-of-fact statement right up Underwood’s alley. And thus, it was no surprise when he declared, “My motto is: Always get even. When somebody screws you, screw them back in spades.” Except wait, that wasn’t Underwood. That was Donald Trump, the laughably caricaturish and scarily demagogic presumptive nominee of the Republican Party for President of the United States in the 2016 election. This is what politics looks like in 2016. At par, and sometimes even stranger, than fiction.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus in the popular show Veep.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus in the popular show Veep.

American television has had a long fascination with portraying politics and other things presidential. Three shows about presidents currently top ratings: House of Cards (HoC), Veep, and Scandal (Scandal is apparently partially based on former George H.W. Bush administration press aide Judy Smith). In an astutely documented Guardian article, television critic Judy Berman writes, “When these shows premiered within a year of each other in 2012 and 2013, each series brought its own brand of pessimism – Scandal’s high camp, Veep’s eye-rolling disbelief, and House of Cards’ unrelenting cynicism – to its depictions of the political class.”

When Veep first aired as an insightful satirical take on Washington DC, it was viewed as the funny fictional exaggeration of the actual political scenario at the time. This was back in 2012, when Barack Obama had just won his second term as POTUS; Hurricane Sandy had wreaked sufficient havoc and The POTUS had fine-tuned his “Change” slogan from four years ago to “Forward”. And for all of Mitt Romney’s “Republicanisms”, he was a Harvard graduate and a businessman who could hold his own in an intelligent debate with the incumbent President. At that time, a show like Veep worked because, in the words of Julia Louis-Dreyfus (who plays the titular “Veep” Selina Meyer, who later goes on to become the POTUS), “The show works because “it’s not noble.”

This is a TV version of Washington that, at long last, is neither scandalous nor intriguing nor Shakespearean in scope and feel; nor does it buy into the notion that Washington operates under a master plan. It’s a wallow in the town’s most narcissistic tendencies, which has nothing to do with shaping history.” These narcissistic tendencies manifest themselves on the show in the most effective manner as insults, often uttered by Selina and directed towards her staff, especially her man Friday and bag-man Gary Walsh, and the White House spokesperson Mike McClintock. During the first couple of seasons, viewers would’ve been forgiven for believing certain vitriolic remarks and jokes made on the show were too far-fetched.

Cut to 2016, and that’s a claim nobody is making anymore. Veep’s wickedly delicious humour and vulgarity, that may have seemed unrealistic for a presidential candidate just a couple of years back, doesn’t seem quite so out-there anymore. On the other hand, in the age of Trump, Cruz (and even Clinton), and the sheer overall madness of the 2016 Presidential elections, Veep (and other political shows) has had its work cut out to keep up with the absurdities of politics IRL.

While many have praised the show for refraining from quipping about the current political situation by remaining Trump-free, Hillary-free, and Bernie-free, the gap between fact and fiction has started to consistently blur. Between Trump discussing how “well-endowed” he is to his former butler suggesting that President Obama be killed to Hillary Clinton making cringe-worthy racist jokes to Ted Cruz’s offensive take on North Carolina’s LGBTQ discrimination laws, real-life politics (not limited to the US) has overtaken television to reign supremely absurd and disturbing. It’s no wonder then that Trump’s candidacy is described as "the Seinfeld candidacy" (because it’s been about nothing) and Jon Stewart likened watching Clinton’s campaign to watching basketball legend Magic Johnson’s talk show.

When Frank Underwood uses hyperbole as an exaggeration for dramatic effect (“Every Tuesday I sit down with the speaker and the majority leader to discuss the week's agenda….they talk while I imagine their lightly-salted faces frying in a skillet”), viewers shudder, but move on with their lives. But when Donald Trump brazenly admits that “Good people don’t go into government” or that “It's always good to do things nice and complicated so that nobody can figure it out”, it’s not quite so easy to shake off that dread and move on.

Until the elections take place later this year, we can laugh with Veep, and play a game of Who Said It: Donald Trump Or Frank Underwood?

  1. Politics is no longer theater, it's show business. So let's put on the best show in town.
  2. When money is coming your way, don’t ask questions.
  3. Power is a lot like real estate. It’s all about location, Location, Location. The Closer you are to the source, the higher your property value.
  4. I think apologizing is a great thing, but you have to be wrong. I will absolutely apologize, sometime in the hopefully distant future, if I’m ever wrong.
  5. Yeah, he can go after me all he wants. But go after my wife? No class.
  6. If you can’t get rich dealing with politicians, there’s something wrong with you.

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Updated Date: May 14, 2016 16:25:26 IST

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