From Bartlet to Knope: Politics and instructional television
by Rossend Sanchez-Baro — Universitat Pompeu Fabra
August 20, 2012 – 00:00
The West Wing seems to be a unique example in recent American television. Despite its long tradition in film history since Otto Preminger’s foundational Advise and Consent (1962), the combination of entertainment and politics from a didactic point of view has not suceeded on the small screen. The West Wing’s pseudo-spin-off, Mister Sterling (NBC, 2003) was cancelled after ten episodes and other examples influenced by Aaron Sorkin’s show, like Commander in Chief (ABC, 2005-06) or Jack & Bobby (The WB, 2004-05), softened the political content in favor of family melodrama. Recently, the miniseries Political Animals has followed this tradition.
Nevertheless, the conspirational paranoia thriller has become the main approach to political themes in American television since 9/11. Shows like 24, Battlestar Galactica or Homeland –one of Obama’s favourite series– have emerged as a manifestation of America’s recent political agenda basing its dramatic conflict on terrorism and homeland security. On the other hand, the discredit that some recent scandals have brought to politicians have given rise to a kind of series like The Good Wife, Scandal, Boss –or even Boardwalk Empire– which address the dark instruments of power. More than political shows, in fact, they stand for stately stories about ambition and dominance.
However, these days it is in the comedy genre where traces of The West Wing instructional spirit can be found. In recent years, political satire has produced more or less elaborate examples on American television –from That’s my Bush! to Veep– but Parks & Recreation is the series that has transcended the genre with a revolutionary main character, Leslie Knope. Amid the usual cynicism characteristic of such stories, Knope is probably the only honest, committed and public service-minded politician of all the U.S. television schedule. For some viewers, the character has become an inspirational hero, in the same way that Jed Bartlet was a few years ago, and the show uses her to bring local authority service closer to the audience. Knope transforms the demands of the people of Pawnee into reality while we take part in the whole process as exceptional onlookers. Furthermore, episode after episode Leslie Knope shows us that above individual ambition, pressure groups and political parties, democracy can work properly in the hands of strong willed politicians.
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