Archives for posts with tag: politics

A while back I wrote about the first season of House of Cards. I was not impressed by it. I found the cynicism of the characters wearying and it was heaping yet more reasons for me to be concerned about the then forthcoming US election. Frank Underwood represented the worst of the career politicians that plague us both sides of the Atlantic. Success was for his ego, not the good of the country.

Since then, I have polished off the second season and got halfway through the third, and my view has altered somewhat. No doubt the drama of the real-life election being absent has helped, but I also feel I understand Frank and Claire more.

Take one of the smaller arcs from season 2 – the rise and fall of Freddie at the hands of Raymond Tusk. He is one of Frank’s few friends, and his destruction allows Frank to have a motivation that is more than about himself. From that point on, no matter how despicable he acts, we know Frank has an ability to be human. This buys him enough of your support to be more anti-hero than villain.

Likewise, season 3 has seen Claire’s character become more fleshed out. True, there were always more reasons to sympathise with her anyway – she seemed to use her ability to calculate against others more for good, and she is a rape survivor. But this season is the one where she truly stops just being a wife. She wants to make her mark on the world. Frank is driven by power, Claire by legacy. The most recent episode I viewed saw her hurt affected by the suicide of a gay activist. She throws politics overboard and shows an anger at injustice that is more than skin deep.

Of course there are other wheels turning. Heather Dunbar is on the rise as an opponent to Frank and we have Stamper aiding her cause. Then there’s the tracking down of Rachel through Gavin Orsay, although I am missing his scene-stealing guinea pig. One of the things I have come to like about Netflix’s shows is they aren’t afraid to ignore a major plotline for an episode, knowing their audience will patiently wait for it to return to the centre ground.

The one that is piquing me most at the moment though is Frank writing his autobiography. This, more than anything else, tells us who he is. He has come from nothing, and used ruthless ambition and eye for an opportunity, plus old-fashioned hard work, to get to the top. You still don’t like the man, you are never meant to, but you are forced to admire his journey. Maybe I can stick with this show after all.

Confession time – there has been little new for me to watch this week. No new series have taken my fancy and my week has fell into a humdrum pattern of viewing. The good news is that this week coming there are a couple of new things on the horizon. For now though, you will have to suffer me talking about something I’ve discussed before.

The Last Leg has built a loyal following over the last five years. It has moved beyond its original remit of just being a Paralympics companion show to becoming an incisive current affairs programme, gleefully mixing pop culture references with satire to cut through the news of the week.

By and large, it does an excellent job. Neither forced to be neutral like the BBC or owned by someone with an agenda like our newspapers, it can break down stories to make them understandable whilst offering social commentary. It is positive and uplifting and is capable of discussing both sides of the argument whilst still able to draw a line when one side is talking nonsense. They even have a special ‘bullshit’ button to know when that line is being crossed.

Of course, time restraints mean that they can never go into too much detail, but shows like this are only ever intended to be a jumping off point, especially ones like this that aim to give some light relief. Of course, it is seen by many as a home to ‘libtards’, although this seems harsh when you consider they have been as quick to criticise the shortcomings of Clinton and Corbyn as they have to May and Trump, it’s just the latter two have now got power and need to be more accountable for what they say and do.

My biggest critique is that actually, for all its talk of equality and diversity, it sometimes fails its own standards. The last three female guests on the show, Victoria Coren Mitchell, Sandi Toksvig and Sharon Horgan, have all been paired with male guests, with only Horgan’s understandable, as it was her writing partner Rob Delaney. Both Coren Mitchell and Toksvig could hold their own. There didn’t seem to be a need to book a female guess to counter balance Kevin Bridges, and, as Harry Hill pointed out when he appeared, it was ironic that the show broadcast on International Women’s Day had five men and no women.

Similar arguments could be made regarding race and LGBT figures (Stormzy the sole BME guest and Toksvig ticking the LGBT box for the series). Nobody wants this reduced to a box-ticking exercise but something as simple as allowing female guests to fly solo would be a start.

Am I being pedantic? Maybe. But it would be a shame for a show that covers equality and diversity so well in other areas to fall on something as basic as this. Otherwise it might be their hiring policy that is termed ‘bullshit’.

A big fashion here in the UK is TV shows about people on benefits. Some brand this ‘poverty porn’, and in many cases you can see why. It often becomes nothing more than a chance to ogle at those at the bottom of the social heap, a means to release our rage at the skivers who cost ‘hard-working families’ (an empty piece of rhetoric if there ever was one) money. I don’t know if there is a similar fascination in North America or the rest of Europe, perhaps Britain has a unique attitude to welfare that means this genre thrives here more.

So most of these shows basically show the long-term unemployed bemoaning their lot in life while working their way through a daily pack of fags. No sympathy allowed, bar in exceptional cases. The vast majority are undeserving of what they receive, with no interest in breaking the cycle.

The Great British Benefits Handout is a little different though. The premise of the show is that six families on benefits receive £26,000, no strings attached bar one – they must come off all benefits they receive entirely. The money is to be invested in getting them back into work, either to fund qualifications or start businesses. This is a grant, not a loan, as the government will make money back on the tax they receive when the participants are earning enough.

Naturally, many of the participants start by making silly decisions. One grandmother, who had spent her entire life on benefits, got botox and collagen lip implants. Another went on a mad clothes shopping spree. This, of course, causes spasms of rage in the viewer. But then if you have spent your entire life counting out every last penny, you are hardly going to be monk-like when you get some real cash.

Also, many of the participants prove to actually be real grafters when they knuckle down. The aforementioned grandmother set up a market stall selling children’s clothes and, after a little guidance, proved to be quite adept at making her money back. Likewise, another couple who had been stuck on benefits whilst one of them recovered from cancer and the other cared for their disabled son, smartly take their self-tanning business to a gym, whilst the dad also used the money to get a new HGV licence to help boost their income whilst their business slowly was being built.

The grandmother also offered a genuine bit of insight into how she ended up where she was. Trapped in the care system, she often was happier on the streets than in a home. For all the talk of everyone getting a fair shot, she never stood a chance. Now, she does, and it’s working.

This show reveals the biggest flaw behind our welfare system – it is only designed to get people from one bill to the next. It never allows people to invest, to get the qualification or unpaid work experience to get the job that will get them off benefits entirely. Perhaps we need to be more radical and trusting. Maybe there are more people who could surprise us and repay our faith in them. Perhaps this could be more than a TV stunt, but an actual ideology of breaking the benefits cycle forever.

A week of work has allowed me to plough through some shows that had been stacked up on my ‘to watch’ list. The chief one has been The Crown, Netflix’s royal drama epic that seems to be the most chatted about show of the moment. Determined not to be my usual three years behind the zeitgeist, I dived straight in.

Now I am three-quarters of the way through, my overall impression is this is a show where the priority is to give an atmosphere. There is a little drama in the bombastic sense. Instead, events slowly unfurl and characters slowly deepen, moving from being line drawings to full 3-d models. This isn’t a surprise for anyone who has watched creator Peter Morgan’s The Queen, where you were slowly enveloped in the unfolding events.

The risk is that it borders on the slow moving at times, and you do wonder if the subplots are really that consequential. Except they are. Take episode 7, where Elizabeth faced the duel challenge of Churchill and Eden concealing their declining health with her frustration at not being able to pick her own secretary. There was a background theme of her wanting a real education, but that was just to lay the foundations of her using the constitution as an excuse to give her a backbone. It was about trusting those around her, and, in one of the beautiful arguments where someone quietly but severely admonishes you, she got one over on the politicians and stepped out of the shadows.

Claire Foy plays the Queen well, balancing someone who respects institutions with a knowledge of things must change, quiet and reserved dignity balanced by a growing security in her authority. The plan to cover her whole reign over the years will mean she is replaced eventually, but she has set a high bar.

Matt Smith is also strong as Prince Philip, playing him as a frustrated young man who wants to speed up social change whilst abhorring the idea he is to play second fiddle to his wife, professionally and personally. There is no disguising the cruel edge to his nature, and the show is all the better for it.

The scope the show is aiming for makes it impossible to imagine what future series will be like. The thrust right now is on a young woman finding her way in the world, but obviously that cannot continue forever. Some episodes are dominated by the domestic, others political, but mostly where the two clash. Yet the ebb and flow of the tide of life means that some series will be more political than others perhaps.

Maybe this will prove to be the show’s enduring strength – the fact that you can bring a different facet of life to each series whilst still maintaining a core. I just hope the casting remains strong – one chink in this and the whole show called fall in a televisual wave of republicanism.

Finding a pause in my Netflix viewing schedule (seriously, Netflix, when are you putting season 7 of The Good Wife up?), I decided to tackle one of those shows everyone has been telling me to watch. Yes, after four years of ‘how are you not watching this?’, I have finally capitulated and started House of Cards.

In many ways, this should be a great fit for me. There isn’t a huge gap in terms of legal and political dramas, I love a bit of plotting and scandal and I’m not averse to a streak of dark humour. When you consider how loved it is by so many, it is hard to imagine how I could not fall in love with yet.

And yet, two episodes in, I find myself feeling underwhelmed. Part of the problem is that I actually don’t have a huge love for breaking the fourth wall. If the golden rule of writing is ‘show, don’t tell’, having the character speak directly to the audience breaks that. In some ways it helps fill in the background, but even so, it seems actually to be a distraction.

My other beef with it is that, when all said and done, I find it slightly dull. I confess to here being part of the problem. Often when I watch things on Netflix, I am doing something else at the same time. Therefore, subtleties are often lost, so any slight-of-hand by characters doesn’t register as well. The Good Wife and Orange Is the New Black don’t suffer from this as much, so I feel less lost.

Nevertheless, I intend to carry on for a while yet before I give this up as a lost cause. It seems very much the kind of show that needs to unfurl and slowly envelop you in its energy. Stakes will slowly be raised, relationships will complicate and there will be a reward for those who devote time to it.

On a side note, I do wonder if part of my discomfort is that I have started watching this during one of the most divisive American elections in decades. Even though I am separated from events by the Atlantic, the palpable anger is still being felt. I’m not going to say what side I’m taking so as not to make my blog a home for both sides to sling mud. Perhaps in a more stable time, House of Cards would just be an entertaining distraction. In the current climate though, it feels all too horribly real.

Anybody who has read some of my previous posts will know about my love for Jo Brand. She has a fantastic dry humour and strong streak of self-depreciation, without sinking into self-pity or cruelty. For all her frustration at the world, she is never hurtful and offers a glimmer of hope. Getting On and Going Forward were great examples of this. As nurse/carer Kim Wilder, Brand depicted someone weighed down by bureaucracy and other modern evils, but who still cared about those around her, be they patients or family.

There is a similar tone in her new sitcom Damned, set in a social services office. As with her previous work, where she drew on her time as a mental health nurse, she uses her insight into this world to create a real picture for the viewers, this time through her mum’s career. There is also the searing political streak of an industry cut to the bone financially.

As with her other work, there is a dark humour at play. Some of the funniest moments come in the opening establishing shots, where snapshots of phone calls from people are played, from the ridiculous query of how much alcohol is safe for a 12-year-old to drink, to the actually quite horrific of repeated abuse from a gang. It is slightly uncomfortable at times, but it needs to be. There’s no point making a comedy about social services if you paint with the stereotype of a bunch of earth mother’s or dragons with clipboards swooping on families. Instead, we are shown a system that is being stretched both my penny pinching and the fecklessness of the people that try to use it.

Another highlight of the show is the meetings. The most recent episode had a debate over whether it was safe to give a baby ice cream, which led to the bizarre exchange with the temp: ‘What flavour ice cream was it?’ she asks. When Alan Davies’ character (who is brilliant, by the way) asks, ‘Why does that matter?” she replies with, “Well, if it’s tutti frutti it might class as one of their five-a-day’ with a straight face that only people who are unaware of their own dimness can achieve.

And the glimmer of hope? The fact that some of the people the social workers interact with genuinely want the help and want to learn enough so they no longer need it. In the most recent episode, a couple with learning difficulties prove themselves to be good parents when they take it upon themselves to actually find out what they should feed their baby, with Alan Davies desperately trying to ensure that his more draconian superiors don’t swoop in and take the child away before they have the chance to learn. It’s a bit of warmth in a challenging environment.

This show won’t be for everyone. It is that little bit too real for those who like their comedies to be about happy families doing ridiculous things. But for those of us that can stomach the sharpness, it is fantastic. Brand’s golden touch continues, it seems.

Contrary to some arguments, satire appears to be in robust health. The sketch show has perhaps continued it’s slow death, although Tracey Ullman has giving it a bit of a boost, but panel shows have sprung up to take its place. Having said that, there does seem to be an increasingly blunted edge to their swords, particularly on the BBC, who are having to kiss the arse of a government that overtly hates them.

So it is little surprise then that the brightest future for a satire is a) American and b) animated. The Simpsons arguably started this charge, with South Park and Seth McFarlane’s Family Guy and American Dad following suit. Joining the charge of the laughs brigade is Bordertown, a cousin of the aforementioned of American Dad. It has a similar tone and target, focusing on the ludicrous actions and bewildering popularity of right-wing political movements and their supporters. What AD did to the Republican movement, Bordertown is doing to the hot potato of immigration.

At the centre of the show are two families living in a small town on the US/Mexico border. The Buckwald’s are borderline red-necks. You can imagine them supporting Trump and not batting an eye at the violent mob that swirls around him. The Gonzalez family are Mexican immigrants who have achieved a modest level of success. Most of the humour revolves around the patriarch of the former, Bud, being jealous of the latter’s head of house, Ernesto.

A lot of the jokes hit home in a fairly blunt manner. It’s quite clear that the reason for the Gonzalez’s success is having a better work ethic, entrepreneurial vision and a sincere gratitude for life. Meanwhile, the Buckwald’s are comparatively uneducated, lazy and consumed by material greed. This is, of course, more black and white than reality, but some points still stand. Those who look frustratingly at immigrants climbing past them don’t realise the work the immigrants put in to doing so. Certainly in Britain, the tools are there for everyone to achieve, it’s just that some choose not to and prefer to complain about those that do.

Of course, it’s all well and good making some wise satire, but if it’s not funny it is not going to hit its mark. Thankfully, to me at least, it is. I have laughed several times at each episode so far, which is an achievement in itself. Yes, some of the humour is a little basic, and I am still not a fan of toilet humour. But, overall, I am charmed by it. Reviews suggest I am in a minority, but I’m used to that. Sadly, those of us that look beyond the spin around immigration often are.