Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Best Political-Drama Television Series...that I've seen...

The Good Wife
Well, this one is probably my default choice for the best serial drama on US television, and its clear-eyed accounts of the best, worst and middling impulses of politically ambitious folks, among its many other concerns, doesn't hurt a bit.

Borgen ***Do hit this link, and consider watching Borgen, which is repeating from episode 1 online and on the cable/satellite/KRCB (SF Bay Area, CA, broadcast) Link TV in the US... I've been pushing this one since catching the pilot a few months back, with its clever and well-worked-out and rarely melodramatic account of the changed lives of its cast of characters when the leader of the small Radical Party (in the series redubbed the Moderate Party so as to step on no toes legally) becomes the new Prime Minister of Denmark, its first female PM and one who is trying to cope with coalition maintenance, home life as a wife, and mother of two, and with her closest associates facing their own repercussions in the new reality. We in the US got to see this Next Project from the originators of The Killing before even the Brits did, and there's a second season due soon. "Borgen" is apparently Danish for "castle," the nickname for their Parliament building.

Yes Minister & Yes Prime Minister

The first great UK sitcom, and its sequel series, about governance, that I had the privilege to catch.

Absolute Power

The second, albeit with focus more on the spinners.

The Thick of It

The third, bringing it all back home, and spinning off a feature film, In the Loop.

The Wire

While all the seasons of this attempt to sum life in Baltimore at least touched on governance, one season took state politics as its focus...and it didn't hurt that that was one of the most sharply-written seasons.

Tanner '88

Funny, insightful, and with a much-later sequel series of its own. Probably set the tone for at least some of the later British as well as US productions.

The Prisoner

McGoohan and company's surreal and frequently deft critique of modern society, going a bit further than even Danger Man/Secret Agent had previously, did not spare either the ruling classes (of all stripes) nor the ease with which democratic efforts can be flummoxed and subverted.

The Gordimer Stories

A selection of eight short films, including an interview with Nadine Gordimer herself, which was shown on at least some PBS stations as a series, all the drama set in South Africa in depths of apartheid and the small and large tragedies those laws force upon the characters, and the attempts to subvert and overcome the noxious racist regime.

Parks and Recreation

A clever, intentionally goofy series, which nonetheless does manage to capture (in caricature) the range of governmental bureaucracy at least at the local levels in the US, from the almost insanely dedicated to the utter clockwatchers, the cranks who managed to land in a position and somehow keep it and the crusaders who know just what will save their villages even if...

honorable mentions:
Lou Grant
The Agency
Da Vinci City Hall
The Politician's Wife

All solid. If I'd seen more of the latter two, I'd perhaps move them into the first category...The Agency was CBS's one-season CIA drama, vastly better than its contemporaries 24 and Alias...but, then, Once A Thief the series, in syndication for its brief run in the US at that time, was better than they were, too, by being simply pleasant.

"the opposition" (not so great, in fact scoundrels, though often dearly loved by others):
The West Wing
--cute wish-fulfillment fantasy for centrist Democrats. Aaron Sorkin can write, but in the excellent Sports Night and the pleasant-enough Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip he was writing about life in television, which he actually knew something about.
--Rod Lurie, whom I knew in high school, loves to pick rather melodramatic subjects for his scripts, and load them with ringing speeches for his characters to deliver, thus making them catnip for the inner ham looking for gravitas. Sadly, Lurie almost never can make any of that sound like actual conversation nor come up with a believable character...firing Lurie off the series, as ABC did, and replacing him with Steven Bochco, who has his own tic-laden stylization, didn't help much. Geena Davis had fun with it.
Spin City and Benson and Murphy Brown
--Just shallow sitcoms, where it was assumed that making a topical reference or getting a cameo from someone actually working in politics or news reporting was the soul of wit. Actually, Benson didn't even try that hard. Pity...nearly everyone involved with these did better work elsewhere.


Prashant C. Trikannad said...

The late Nigel Hawthorne was outstanding as Sir Humphrey in Yes Minister which, no surprises, was Prime Minister Thatcher's favourite serial in the 1980s. I have seen all the episodes of both parts though I preferred Yes Minister to Yes Prime Minister. The portrayal of the bureaucracy's subtle control of government was brilliant.

Todd Mason said...

The others recommended are of comparable quality in dealing with the realities of politics, even if fancifully; the hall of shame are more-distorted fantasies stroking one POV or another.

Yvette said...

I guess I'm a fan of 'distorted fantasies' because I loved WEST WING and continue to love it. I own some of the dvds and enjoy it as much today as I did then.

But I also like some of the shows you mentioned, Todd. So I can't be all bad. :)

I've never seen THE GOOD WIFE because I don't have cable anymore, but I think Netflix might have some of the early shows. I'll have to check.

Todd Mason said...

Well, Yvette, no offense, but not only does THE WEST WING have only the slightest resemblance to politics and governance as they are performed, but it also portrays them as the participants want you to see them...which is genuinely pernicious.

Wish-fulfillment fantasy is Really not optimal in this arena.

Todd Mason said...

And you're not bad at all, Yvette! But THE GOOD WIFE being on CBS, you can't use an antenna? Netflix does indeed have the earlier seasons on disc, and possibly on streaming.

Ron Scheer said...

Not quite a political drama, but STATE OF PLAY with Bill Nighy, Kelly Macdonald, and John Simm is a favorite.

George said...

THE PRISONER electrified me when I first watched it long, long ago. The thought that a Government could kidnap and hold one of its agents was disrupting to my young mind. I became a sceptic of all things political as a result of that TV program.

Todd Mason said...

definitely seems to count as political drama, Ron, though the BBC page there seems to indicate it was a one-shot, a tv movie for the network, and one I'd enjoy seeing.

Yup, George, imagine the effects of THE PRISONER on a 5yo. It haunted me till I was able to catch it again, later in the '70s, on New England PBS stations.

iluvcinema said...

State of Play was awesome!
I think i am too thick for the humor of Yes (Prime) Minister.
I have not watched in the thick of it but did see In the Loop which I thought was funny.

I think based on the success of The Killing I should catch Borgen and be a little ahead of the curve :)

Todd Mason said...

Iba, I suspect you're not at all too thick, but perhaps too impatient with the petty points to be made by the characters in their YES/MINISTER squabbles. IN THE LOOP was certainly no less subtle when it chose to be.

Or, watch BORGEN just for the sheer pleasure of it.

Todd Mason said...

I see belatedly that one can still see a few random episodes of STATE OF PLAY on BBC America on demand.