The British Satire That Explains Our Trumpian Age
Despite the violence of our initial split with the mother country, America has always been a nation defined by Anglophilia. Like a rebellious son who stormed out of his parents’ mansion at age 18 to pursue and achieve his own unorthodox brand of success, we’ve never been quite able to stop feeling nostalgic for the home we forsook. After all, a British accent is a surefire way to get yourself laid in America, if sitcoms are to be believed anyway.
This tendency to fetishize all things British, particularly their politics, has held especially true in recent years. The New Yorker recently published a think piece yearning for the Star Trek utopia we would be living in today had America gone the Canadian route of waiting patiently for partial independence while maintaining ties with the British crown. The 2011 wedding of Prince William to Kate Middleton drew almost as many viewers in America as in Britain. That same year, “The King’s Speech” won Best Picture over the clearly superior “The Social Network” and Meryl Streep won her 479th Oscar for her portrayal of Margaret Thatcher. And the trend shows no signs of slackening. “The Crown” is blowing up on Netflix and “The Darkest Hour” will probably nab Gary Oldman his first Academy Award for his turn as Winston Churchill.
When it comes to political TV shows, there are a few major approaches that crop up on both sides of the pond. First is the idealistic—or “Sorkinian”—in which politics can be a force for good, and political leaders are larger-than-life heroes who carry themselves and their larger-than-life flaws with gravitas. Into this category, I’d place “The West Wing” and “The Crown.” Next is the grotesque, in which instead of a dream of what politics could be, we see a nightmare of what we fear it has become. The most obvious examples are the British and American versions of “House of Cards.”
These two approaches rely on the idea that governments are run by masterminds, whether of the benevolent Jed Bartlet and Winston Churchill variety, or in the diabolical mold of Francis Underwood/Urquhart. Unfortunately, in a world where Donald Trump spends his days binge-watching cable news, chugging Diet Coke, and tweeting, while on the other side of the Atlantic Theresa May can’t even keep a sign from falling apart, the idea that the strings are being pulled by people who—for good or ill—know how to pull them might be beyond viewers’ capacity for suspended disbelief.
There is, however, a third way of portraying politics on television: the satirical.
Satire takes these great men who take grand oaths and lets us see them with their pants down, not to humanize them and so throw their greatness into sharper relief as in the LBJ biopic “All the Way,” but simply to make us laugh at them. Instead of good or evil, the leader is simply confused and incompetent.
The closest America has come to such a show is “Parks and Recreation,” originally conceived as a pint-sized spoof of “The West Wing,” a seemingly inspired allegiance that ultimately ends up hamstringing it. Leslie Knope certainly makes missteps, like bailing out an historic video store only to see it transformed into a publicly funded peddler of pornography, but she eventually turns into a Sorkinian hero who stands for the benevolence of government and ends the show as a beloved multi-term governor of Indiana.
Satire can easily succumb to this temptation to take itself too seriously, but it can also stray by becoming overtly partisan. For this subcategory, the only show I can think of is the two-season Amazon original “Alpha House,” which spent its entire 30-minute pilot ruthlessly mocking a group of Republican senators. I can’t speak to anything beyond the pilot because I couldn’t bear to watch anymore. The show was awful because overtly partisan satire isn’t really satire; it’s just propaganda for one side or the other. Real satire shouldn’t make me think that Republicans are absurd; it should make me think the whole system is absurd, and that’s exactly the kind of court-jestering at which the Brits excel.
That’s why the finest example of political satire that we have is the 80s BBC sitcom “Yes, Prime Minister.” The show, which ran for two seasons of eight episodes each between 1986 and 1988, was the sequel to the three-series-long “Yes, Minister,” which followed political hack James Hacker from his elevation to the cabinet through his appointment as prime minister.
The show is minimalistic and low-budget, taking place almost entirely on a few sets representing offices at 10 Downing Street. Most of the dialogue and screen time is monopolized by the two leads, Hacker and his cabinet secretary, Sir Humphrey Appleby.
The brand of satire in “Yes, Prime Minister” is purely non-partisan. Hacker’s party is never mentioned, and, according to Humphrey, both parties consist of “buffoons” who simply get in his way. Hacker is neither good nor evil, but swings from idealism to cynicism to outright stupidity. He’s indecisive, vain, and fairly gullible, while his counterpart Humphrey is shrewd, sneaky, and self-serving. Hacker measures the success of his policies in column inches; Humphrey always prefers doing nothing to changing anything. Each episode follows a similar pattern. Hacker, although he rarely comes up with good ideas on his own, tends to hear one from an advisor or expert and then set his mind on implementing it. Humphrey, devoted to the status quo, finds ways to sabotage him.
There are occasional deviations from the norm. Sometimes, Hacker manages to accomplish something or win some small victory over Humphrey. Generally, though, each episode ends with Hacker giving up his grand designs while Humphrey, having feathered his own nest, smiles at him and slyly intones, “Yes, Prime Minister.”
The main difference between the two is that Hacker is an elected official while Humphrey is a civil servant who cannot be voted out and doesn’t care who gets voted in. In the episode “Power to the People,” Hacker considers democratic electoral reforms that would strengthen local governments, leading Humphrey to present his manifesto to a fellow civil servant: “If the right people don’t have power, do you know what happens? The wrong people get it! Politicians, councilors, ordinary voters!” When his interlocutor protests that Britain is a democracy, Humphrey shoots back, “It’s a British democracy… [which] recognizes that you need a system to protect the important things of life and keep them out of the hands of the barbarians… And we are that system. We run a civilized, aristocratic government machine tempered by occasional general elections.”
It’s the sort of speech you could imagine Frank Underwood delivering into the camera, or Sean Hannity railing against as evidence of a Deep State conspiracy to sabotage Trump. The only thing that keeps it from being terrifying is the laugh track. As I watched that scene, I wondered how British audiences could sit down, week after week, and enjoy watching a crooked, elitist bureaucrat with nothing but disdain for them lead their bumbling elected leader around by the nose.
Nonetheless, the show was undeniably popular. It’s been mentioned as a contender for best BBC sitcom ever, and Margaret Thatcher loved it so much that she insisted on writing and starring in a brief, and painfully unfunny, sketch alongside Hacker and Humphrey. The show’s legacy lives on with “The Thick of It,” a more recent BBC comedy consciously modeled on “Yes, Prime Minister” by Scottish satirist Armando Iannucci, who also created an American version of the show, the HBO series “Veep.”
So far, the “satire” of the Trump era has consisted of Samantha Bee, John Oliver, and Trevor Noah ceaselessly spouting the Democratic Party line, and that’s a shame, because there has never been a riper target for satire than Trump. If a great satire of the Trump era is ever made, I imagine it will look a lot like “Yes, Prime Minister.” Instead of alienating Trump supporters while focusing liberal rage on the president like a latter-day Emmanuel Goldstein, it will unite us in our shared awareness of the absurdity of the entire system. It will teach us that instead of revering or despising government, we should recognize that both are equally dangerous if taken to extremes and both deserve to be laughed at.
Grayson Quay is a freelance writer and M.A. student at Georgetown University.