Column

Why I'm thankful for British political sitcoms — and why the U.S. versions always fall flat

The demise of the American version of “House of Cards” due to the scandal swirling around its star Kevin Spacey caused nary a ripple of lamentation in our house. As we wrote last year shortly after Britain’s “Brexit” vote, American political satires like “House of Cards” always seemed to be wan, denatured versions of their U.K. forebears.

“House of Cards” was a perfect example: Based on an amazing series from the BBC, which itself was based on a biting series of novels by a former aide to Margaret Thatcher, the American “House of Cards” was afflicted with implausibility, wretched writing, and worse acting. The British version grew organically out of Britain’s unique political structure; having the incomparable Ian Richardson as its lead character, the Parliament whip-turned-Prime Minister Francis Urquhart (“F.U.” to his aides), didn’t hurt. His signature line, “You might think so; I couldn’t possibly comment,” became a Britain-wide catchphrase during its run in the 1990s.

This seems an ideal moment to repost the column below from July 6, 2016, which analyzed why the Brits do political satire so well and the Americans so poorly. American satirists have things especially tough these days—how, after all, can they outdo the real life unfolding in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and on Capitol Hill.

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Events in Britain since the June 23 “Brexit” referendum has Americans marveling at the meltdown of a political system we’re accustomed to regarding as far more sober and effective than our own.

Yet no fan of Britain’s classic political comedies on TV and the printed page could have been surprised. British political satires are more biting, more penetrating — and vastly more hilarious — than anything of the sort produced on this side of the Atlantic. The windows they provide into the workings of Westminster and Whitehall prepared their viewers and readers well for the ineptitude and backstabbing that have erupted in the last two weeks.

The reasons for the difference between British and American political entertainments are many, but they have much to do with the difference in our politics and in the economics of television here and there. Political scientist Henry Farrell of George Washington University took a run at this topic last week in the Washington Post, but it deserves a deeper dive. 

Our examination, like Farrell’s, deals with four British series, the 1980s-vintage “Yes, Minister” and its sequel “Yes, Prime Minister”; the post-Margaret Thatcher trilogy “House of Cards,” which inspired the U.S. version produced for Netflix; and “The Thick of It,” which was created by comic genius Armando Iannucci, who also had a hand in HBO’s “Veep.”

These are among the finest works of political satire of our time. “Yes, Minister/Prime Minister” is a needle-sharp chronicle of the foibles of inept Minister of Administrative Affairs James Hacker (Paul Eddington) in his battle with the British civil service, embodied by his wily Permanent Secretary Sir Humphrey Appleby (a pitch perfect Nigel Hawthorne). Its observations about British politics and policy are acute and incredibly timeless. Witness Sir Humphrey’s explanation of why the British joined the European common market: “Minister, Britain has had the same foreign policy objective for at least the last 500 years: to create a disunited Europe .… Why should we change now, when it’s worked so well?” That was in 1980.

In fact, one of the weird experiences one comes across in reading books of recent British history — Charles Moore’s biography of Thatcher is a perfect example — is how much resonates between actual occurrences and episodes of “Yes, Minister”; it’s as though each is a gloss on the other, enriching both. 

“The Thick of It” is a corrosive satire built around the character of Malcolm Tucker, a remorseless political fixer and spin doctor for an unnamed prime minister. Malcolm is based largely on Alastair Campbell, who performed that work for Labor Prime Minister Tony Blair. The fictional version is said to be rather scarier and vastly more profane than the original — credit the amazing Peter Capaldi’s acting skills — but one of the surrealistic features of my sojourn in post-Brexit London in the last week has been seeing Campbell interviewed on the BBC, giving his very pointed views on the leadership fight in the Labor Party. (For a taste of prime Campbell, see the accompanying clip from 2013.)

Why are American political programs so pallid compared with their British counterparts? One answer can be found in their producers’ goals. American series aim to run for years and years, the better to accumulate the critical mass to be sold for syndication and therefore deliver revenue indefinitely. “The Big Bang Theory” is heading for Season 10 despite having long ago lost any originality or charm it ever had. At this rate it will survive in syndicated reruns until the next Big Bang.

To serve this end, American producers become obsessed with making their characters lovable. The idea is to give the audiences characters they’re comfortable welcoming into their homes week after week, year after year. So the rough edges of even the nastiest roles, not to mention the merely offbeat, get sanded down over time. They lose their distinctiveness and become a collection of tics and catchphrases. 

Jonathan Lynn, the co-creator and co-writer of “Yes, Minister” and “Yes, Prime Minister” (and director of “My Cousin Vinny”), understood this very well. 

“American TV comedy nowadays tends not to be ironic or satirical,” he related. “There is a wish to make it homey and cozy. When I was talking to a network about turning [“Yes, Minister”] into an American series, I was asked if I could put a kid into it — or failing that, a dog. I decided that life is too short.” (For Lynn’s personal view on Brexit, see his Facebook page.)

Among the very few American political satires that packed real bite was “Bob Roberts,” the 1992 film about an unprincipled right-winger that was written and directed by Tim Robbins, who also starred. Perhaps Robbins’ solo control of a one-off production allowed it to say what he wished, but that’s a luxury denied to most Hollywood productions.

British TV offers a multitude of sappy sitcoms that run forever, like American programs, but the great British sitcoms aren’t structured that way. “Yes, Minister” encompassed 21 episodes over three years, “Yes, Prime Minister” another 16 over two years. The timeless “Fawlty Towers” clocks in at 12 half-hours. The British “House of Cards” unfurled as a trilogy of four hour-long episodes each; its U.S. offspring will soon be staggering into its fifth season, with more than 50 episodes already shown.

The finite lifespan of British programming gives producers the luxury of retaining and enriching the qualities that make their characters so distinctive without turning them insipid. John Cleese’s Basil Fawlty may occasionally inspire our sympathy, but never do we lose the feeling that it’s Basil’s actions that make things go from bad to worse. When Viacom tried to turn the show into an American sitcom named “Amanda’s” with Beatrice Arthur in the title role, they allowed her to be acerbic like her Maude, but softened her into a California hotel owner more sinned against than sinning. Cleese was aghast. Viacom told him, “We have changed one thing, we've written Basil out,” he recalled years later. The show lasted four months in 1983. 

Cleese recalled that an earlier attempt to remake “Fawlty Towers” with Harvey Korman and Betty White misfired because the actors “were embarrassed by the edgy dialogue.” That points to another reason why American political sitcoms are so wan next to their British forebears: cowardice.

It’s not merely the language that producers feel might give offense, but the very depiction of the political structure. The fear of a congressional investigation seems to hang over every political show, so American producers respond by making their characters ineffectual rather than incompetent, unwitting dupes rather than cynical and malicious manipulators. 

That’s the biggest flaw of “Veep.” Despite its pedigree from the Iannucci shop, the show lacks the dominating personality of Malcolm Tucker, the evil genius of a spin doctor played by the brilliant Peter Capaldi in “The Thick of It” (and in its movie spinoff, “In the Loop”). Instead, Iannucci combined the jinxed government ministers played by Chris Langham and Rebecca Front in “Thick” into the central character of Vice President and later President Selina Meyer, played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus in “Veep.” But a hapless figure portrayed as out of her depth can’t carry the show; it has no center. The closest thing “Veep” offers to a Malcolm Tucker personality is Dan Bakkedahl’s Rep. Roger Furlong, a truly vicious specimen but only a bit player. When he’s onscreen he gives the show a jolt of energy, but then he leaves and the show goes limp.

The other dodge employed by American producers is a retreat into unreality. I made it to Episode 8 of the American “House of Cards’” first season, then gave it up on the principle that life is too short to have my intelligence insulted so relentlessly. I haven’t watched it since, but my advisors inform me that it has only gotten stupider with time. “The West Wing” has been praised for its verisimilitude about the staff workings of the presidential offices, but also damned as implausibly idealistic and sanctimonious; a critic for Britain’s Guardian found it “insufferably high-minded,” and "a parallel universe for liberals” in the Bush era.

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A similar tone undermines one of the better American political satires of recent years, Amazon Prime’s “Alpha House.” Created by Doonesbury’s Garry Trudeau, who also gave us (with Robert Altman) the political miniseries “Tanner ‘88,” the show centers on four Republican senators sharing a house in Washington. Trudeau’s method of making Republicans lovable is to turn his main characters into proto-Democrats dressed in Republican clothing. The realism here is not what Trudeau probably intended: It reflects the conviction of Democrats and liberals that Republican politicians couldn’t possibly believe what they’re saying — they must merely be playing to the base. 

The makers of American political satires always claim to have devoted close personal study to the workings of Congress and the White House before they set pen to paper, but it’s the Brits who really base their work on real life. “Yes, Minister” and “Yes, Prime Minister” drew heavily from the diaries of former Cabinet minister Richard Crossman. There he wrote of his battles with his own private secretary, the fearsome Dame Evelyn Sharp, who became the prototype for Sir Humphrey Appleby. 

The British “House of Cards” has an even finer pedigree: It’s based on a trilogy of novels by Michael Dobbs, who spent 10 years serving Margaret Thatcher as advisor, speechwriter, and “hit man” and used his fiction in part to settle old scores. “The Thick of It,” again, draws its realism by starting with real-life characters, and augmenting them into dramatic types with the skill of expert caricaturists. 

But the defining difference is spine. British TV producers actually have more to fear from their political masters than Americans do — the BBC, which broadcast all three of the series we’ve discussed, is after all a government agency. (Government efforts to manipulate the news, by no means unsuccessfully, are a thread running through all three programs.) But as Lynn perceived, the guiding ethos of American producers of political shows seems to be harmlessness. They don’t want to offend the broadest possible audience or those who might make trouble for them in Washington. It’s always safer to be frankly implausible. 

British shows have a simpler goal. They want to be funny, and in the process they end up being real.

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