With the election finally over, political discussion will return over the coming weeks to its usual, more manageable fervor. Though a welcome respite to most, that certainly isn’t to say that it’s time to tune out of current events completely; for anyone who consumes television, doing so would be more or less impossible. Politics and entertainment are inextricably intertwined.
Though there are certainly those who want their entertainment to do nothing more than provide a diversion from current events and complicated issues — and rest assured, plenty of reality shows, and some high-quality programming as well, cater to this particular audience — others have no problem with their entertainment tackling meatier societal and governmental issues.
Through its characters, every story is going to make some comment on people and the way they interact, and, in so doing so, incorporates the writers’ thoughts on the world around them. This is inevitable. What varies is how obvious each story is about its encoded political messages.
On one end of the spectrum, there are the preachy pieces of media: Though existing predominantly as entertainment, television shows also have a very clear lesson that they wish to impress upon their audience. Glee often has multiple examples of this per episode with well-intentioned, but grating and heavy-handed, messages about bullying and sexuality — social issues that have, no doubt, become political in recent years.
Then there’s Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom, which many critics lambasted as nothing more than a soapbox for its creator’s criticisms of the media. Though he got away with depicting his ideal presidency on The West Wing, it seems that he overstepped his bounds with the revisionist news show — or perhaps his trademarks were simply starting to wear a bit thin.
On this season of Boardwalk Empire, too, every storyline contains some form of social commentary — the show discusses race relations, military veterans and prohibition in the 1920s. And its female lead, Margaret Thompson, (Kelly MacDonald) is in the middle of a personal crusade to provide women with prenatal education through a Catholic hospital.
The last is a subplot that doesn’t ring quite true, as it’s obviously inspired more by women’s issues in America today — political issues — as opposed to a realistic depiction of what was going on in the ’20s. Historical fiction is meant to use the past to reflect on the way things are now and to look at how far we have or haven’t progressed. Yet this example feels more like the writers are shoehorning modern politics into their show in a way that doesn’t necessarily fit as naturally as it could. It’s certainly not bad, by any means — like everything else on the show, it’s handled in an effective manner both in terms of writing and acting. The only issue is that it’s hard to watch without thinking of it as an overtly political exercise, an unrealistic exploration of social issues in the context of Boardwalk’s timeline.
The issue with politics in entertainment, then, is not avoiding or hiding from it, but making sure it occurs as a logical extension of the show’s world. For the best example currently on television, look no further than Showtime’s Homeland.
After its first season swept this year’s Emmys, expectations were high for a sophomore effort that could maintain the series’ quality and momentum. So far, Homeland is more than succeeding. With a team of writers who’ve all had experience running their own television shows (most tellingly, the post-9/11, real-time catharsis that was 24), this character piece about a prisoner of war who might or might not have been turned into a terrorist and the woman trying to discover the truth about him is a bit of a miracle, at least in terms of its narrative: In this second season, the show plays no games in the breakneck pace with which it propels events forward.
The last few episodes have seen the series redefine itself at least twice by way of triggering major revelations and story culminations long before viewers accustomed to serialized television have been conditioned to expect, and in doing so, it has become one of the most exciting programs to follow from week to week.
But Homeland is rooted in deeply political origins, with the War on Terror serving as the backdrop and high-ranking government figures as primary characters. The destructive nature of drone strikes, Israel’s response to the nuclear threat posed by Iran and extralegal CIA actions are all major components of the show’s dramatic underpinnings. Preaching to its audience would be all too easy. Yet, everything feels entirely natural, with multiple points of view represented and characters believably navigating the world around them, trying to do what they believe is right. In response, fans find it riveting — no matter what their own political leanings happen to be. Stark, honest, challenging but never obvious or condescending, Homeland is politically charged entertainment done right, an example from which other shows with politicizied agendas could learn.
Michael Chasin is a sophomore majoring in narrative studies. His column “Fandomination” runs Fridays.