July 2, 2015

The Senator, and the problem with politics as part of series TV

HAL HOLBROOK, BLEEDING HIS HEART UNTIL THERE'S NO BLOOD LEFT, IN THE SENATOR
The arrival on DVD of the 1970-71 series The Senator, one of the multiple parts of the wheel series The Bold Ones, has caused a certain amount of discussion among classic television viewers. Although there were only nine episodes made, the series made its mark primarily due to the fine performance of the always-stellar Hal Holbrook in the title role of Hays Stone, the idealistic young man turned U.S. Senator, and a number of well-written scripts.

You can find any number of articles that give you a comprehensive overview of The Senator (such as this excellent one), but that's not really what I'm interested in here.  No, what I'm interested in is the show's politics, and specifically, the partisan liberal advocacy - or, as Stephen Bowie puts in when talking about The Senator, the "unapologetically didactic scenes"  - that is pretty much taken for granted as television's default position.

Now, before we go any further, understand that I don't want this to come of as a political screed of my own.  I think most of you regular readers can guess where I fall on the political spectrum, but I really do try hard to keep that out of the discussions here unless there's a very specific reason for doing so, and those reasons don't come up very often.  My point is that hearing one side of the political issue, whether it be liberal or conservative, gets very tiresome after a time, and I don't think it does the audience any favors to hear such a monolithic viewpoint week after week.  If I were being hammered by a conservative political viewpoint on a regular basis, rest assured I'd feel the same way - I'd turn that series off as well, or at least turn to Fox News.

I had the opportunity to see part of an episode of The Senator on Antenna TV a while back, and I found it somewhat less than compelling.  Yes, the acting was top-notch, the filmmaking (though unmistakably sporting the dated shooting style of the '70s) was well done, and the writing was literate.  What bothered me about the show was its very earnestness, its preachiness, its assumption that the liberal position was the only one that could possibly be reasonable.  As one commentator remarked, "people watching the programs of that era might assume that every right-thinking person voted for the guy who got 39% of the vote and lost 49 states in 1972."  The guy to which the commentator was referring was George McGovern, the abysmal Democratic presidential nominee, about whom the critic Pauline Kael is famously* quoted as saying, "How could Nixon have won? Nobody I know voted for him."

*And perhaps apocryphally.

And it's not just shows that are explicitly political - take a show such as Quincy, for example.  When it was simply Jack Klugman's medical examiner helping to solve crimes, it was a tolerable piece of fluff, albeit hampered by Klugman's one-note intensity.  But in its last seasons, when Quincy began to emerge as a crusading advocate for one social issue after another, the show became virtually unwatchable.  And this doesn't begin to touch on other shows of the era, from The Defenders to East Side/West Side.

Now, we shouldn't be surprised by any of this; after all, Hollywood is liberal, actors are liberals, writers are liberals.  I don't mean that everyone in Hollywood is a liberal, nor do I mean that every show coming out of Hollywood comes from the playbook of Saul Alinsky; we all know of conservative actors and writers out there, some of them very successful.  But when it comes to the actual portrayal of competitive, partisan politics, there's generally only one way to play it, and that's from the left.

I can't speak to shows such as The West Wing and how they handled the political side of things, but the problem with political shows in general is that even though we're always saying "nothing ever changes," the issues discussed in a series such as The Senator do tend to be dated. What doesn't change is the Golden Rule of Politics: whoever has the gold rules.  And it is power - the accumulation and exercise of it, and the success which derives from it - that is really what politics is all about.  It's the part of the equation that television seldom understands, because those who create the political series often do so in order to advocate for a series of partisan political positions.

As an alternative to this, I'd cite two of my favorite British series - Yes Minister/Yes Primer Minister and House of Cards.  (The superior original version, as opposed to the American Netflix remake.)  Both of them focus on the Machiavellian side of politics, rather than the issues themselves.  In the case of the hilarious Yes Minister/Yes Primer Minister, it's the absurdity that's intrinsic to politics; with House of Cards, it's the brutal ruthlessness.  It's true that, being specifically British, the issues raised may be less obvious to a non-British audience; nonetheless, it's very difficult for a viewer to identify which party the principal characters belong to, and in the end it's not very important.  Because the nature of each series tends to skewer politics, we don't care what the issues are; we're more interested in the machinations that accompany the efforts of the principal actors to accumulate power than we are with the success or failure of a specific point of view.   Neither of them really emerge as partisan programs.

Am I saying that there's no place in scripted television for an intelligent discussion of political issues?  Not at all.  Am I saying that partisan advocacy for a particular point of view should never be shown?  Again, no, although it should be done sparingly.  What I am saying is that you don't have to be political to write about politics; the men and women involved, and their internal struggles, are often more interesting that the issues they debate.  (The current show Veep is often cited as an example of this, though from what I've read about it it I'm not quite so sure how successful they've been at keeping ideology out of it.)

We all know that Rod Serling started The Twilight Zone in part because of the interference of networks and sponsors in his attempt to discuss current events.  He was absolutely right that the television writer needs to be free from this sort of interference.  But Serling was a very clever man, and at times a brilliant writer; given the opportunity to write about politics in the same way he discussed business in his excellent teleplay Patterns, he would be more than up to the task.  Take his screenplay for Seven Days in May - although nuclear disarmament and the question of how far we can trust the Soviets is the central political issue, a much larger one - the constitutional guarantee of civilian control over the military, and the possibility of a military coup - is what really drives the story.  It's a position that liberals and conservatives can both agree on (I think), and the telling of it makes for a riveting story.  The same can be said for the much sudsier Advise and Consent, or the thriller Fail Safe.  Yes, there are partisan issues in each one, but they take a backseat to a different, human, type of drama.

Doubtless there are programs, then and now, that I'm overlooking, including the current House of Cards.  But for all that the '70 were a time when serious adult themes could be discussed head-on, it was also the beginning of a partisan liberal activism that became de rigueur on television, and remains so to this day.  Viewers, I am convinced, still want to see quality programming, but perhaps they'd rather save the preaching for church.  And if they don't want to hear it there, maybe they don't want to hear it on TV either.  Could be that's why The Senator never made it to a second season.

3 comments:

  1. You can probably trace a direct line from 'The Senator' to Jeff Daniels' oft-quoted "America is not the greatest country" speech from 'The Newsroom,' because so little has changed in that regard. The right needs their own Aaron Sorkin, someone who can eloquently express the value in their philosophy, though perhaps with less of the arrogance Sorkin incorporates into his political crusaders.

    Another excellent piece.

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  2. It's ironic that Hal Holbrook starred in this series, given that he's one of the few Hollywood actors who's given contributions, along with his late wife, Dixie Carter, to Republicans in the past.

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    1. I don't know the source of Jon H's information, but the DVD release of The Senator includes a new interview with Hal Holbrook, in which he identifies himself as definitely left-of-center.
      Dixie Carter, his late wife, was from the other political side, as was her family, of whom Holbrook speaks with great fondness (they used to call him things like "that Yankee Commie", not without affection).
      It might also be worth noting here that Hal Holbrook has lived most of his life in either New York or Los Angeles, where the right-left/Democratic-Republican lines have never been as stringently drawn as they've been in certain other areas of the country.

      As to today's "PoliTV", ABC's Scandal is a ludicrous sex-fest which lost control of its storylines several years ago.
      On the other hand, CBS's Madam Secretary depicts a Presidency that tries to think before it acts, holding "ideological purity" to a minimum.
      The title character is a former CIA official who is now Secretary of State; she's married - happily - to a professor of comparative religions; they are shown to be practicing Catholics, and are quite conscientious about it.
      The president (played here by Keith Carradine) is low-key and reasonable, though a political creature for all that; in other words, realistic.
      Parties aren't specified, but I'd guess that this administration would be center-to-left Democratic; take that for what it's worth.
      You may infer from the above that I prefer Madam Secretary to Scandal.

      There is also Veep, the HBO farce-comedy with Julia Louis-Dreyfus as the title character who this season ran for the top job. The season finale wound up with my own favorite political nightmare scenario: the Electoral College ended up in a 269-269 tie vote.
      The episode ended with everybody on both sides in a panic - because no one was sure exactly how the House of Representatives elects a President under this circumstance.
      Frankly, nobody I know has any idea how this is done - since it's never happened, they all assume it won't.
      There's been no Internet uproar about Veep's finish; I guess nobody saw it.
      Too bad: The EC tie may not happen, but the way both major parties are fissuring these days, we could be looking at schisms within them that the Constitution has no provision for.
      Someday, probably within our lifetimes, a Presidential election is going to wind up in the House - and all of us are unprepared for it.

      ...and on that cheery note ...

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And now for something completely different.