© HBO / Courtesy Everett Collection

Political sitcoms settle for below-the-belt laughs

‘Veep’ and ‘The Brink’ aren’t nearly as cynical as they sound

July 12, 2015 2:00AM ET

The central plot in the new HBO show “The Brink” makes it sound like a geopolitical stoner comedy. Alex Talbot (Jack Black) is a low-level U.S. foreign service officer stationed in Pakistan. One night while he is on a weed run to the local market with his driver, Rafiq Massoud (Aasif Mandvi), there’s a coup d’état, and they’re locked outside the embassy. From then on, they’re embroiled in a nuclear standoff.

Co-creator Roberto Benabib knows his stoner shows: He wrote for the pot-themed Showtime series “Weeds.” But “Brink” has a lot more in common with “Veep,” an HBO show about a bumbling politician and her minions. Both are political workplace comedies based on the idea that powerful people are terrible human beings, just like you and me.

“Veep” creator Armando Iannucci is the master of the form. On the show as well as in his British series “The Thick of It” and its Iraq War satire film spinoff, “In the Loop,” he humanizes politicians and the people around them — in the worst way. Every character is a mix of stupid, insincere, unreliable, venal, vulgar and just plain mean. In a recent “Veep” episode, President Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) describes her flu by saying she feels as if “a raccoon took a shit in my head.” Secretary of State Walter Larson (Tim Robbins) on “The Brink” is so addled with sexually transmitted infections that urinating, he tells his assistant, feels like “trying to shit out of my cock.”

It’s similar to “The Office” but without all the earnest moments — and instead of making paper, they’re running the free world.

Camelot this is not. But as we all learned from Ari Gold (Jeremy Piven) on “Entourage,” premium-cable viewers love deranged bosses spouting imaginative compound profanity. Piven’s foul-mouthed superagent seems to have spawned on these shows a world-dominating race of asshole-fixated assholes. On “The Brink” and “Veep,” the fate of humanity hinges on the mistakes and petty whims of people who can’t get through a sentence without threatening the nearest coworker’s genitals.

It sounds like a cynical view of how the world works, but it isn’t. It’s naive. Because if, through unfortunate happenstance, awful people are running the world and doing it badly, then it is at least theoretically possible for good people to take power and govern well instead. If personal vice matters in government, then personal virtue matters too. Unfortunately, the idea that policy follows from personality isn’t just wrong. In fact, it’s how the American public gets duped into voting for anyone every four years.

By now, we should know better than to think policy is a function of powerful individuals’ desires – genital or otherwise.

In “The Brink,” the writers have turned Pakistani popular anger about the U.S. drone war into a dick joke. The leader of the coup, Gen. Umair Zaman (Iqbal Theba), is a diagnosed schizophrenic who wants U.S. drones to stop spreading electromagnetism that’s rendering Pakistani men impotent.

That the Pakistani government really is collaborating with the U.S. in real life on an undeclared war within its borders doesn’t corrode the frat humor about an insane penis-obsessed general. In the second episode, drunk and sex-crazed Larson nearly starts an international incident when the foreign minister of India misinterprets the term “half-cocked.” It’s like the boy version of the classic misogynist joke that a woman president would nuke the world when she’s PMSing.

These shows are gross and dumb. And worse than that, they point to a larger political delusion about the importance of personality in politics. By now, we should know better than to think policy is a function of powerful individuals’ desires — genital or otherwise.

During George W. Bush’ presidency, it seemed plausible that it was clueless machismo that was running the country off the rails. (Who needs diplomacy when you have Dick and Donald in charge?) The Iraq War was a case study in idiocy, and the leadership was so obviously corrupt that for a second, Americans could convince themselves it wasn’t a structural problem but human error: We put the bad apples in charge of the barrel. Iannucci’s “In the Loop,” in which contemporary war making is a comedy of no manners, didn’t look far off the mark. But now, nearing the end of Barack Obama’s presidency, led by perhaps the most progressive executive any of us is likely to see for some time, it should be clear that personal opinions, no matter how highly placed, don’t translate into world events.

A large part of Obama’s hope and change appeal to liberal voters has been his personality. Liberals saw in Obama one of their own — a community organizer, a constitutional law scholar, someone who was against war, relaxed on drugs, compassionate, fair, nerdy, hip and so on. If he took an ambiguous line on gay marriage for a while, it was political necessity, and its legalization nationwide is still a personal triumph.

It is on some level still inconceivable that such a man would imprison whistleblowers or deport undocumented immigrants or any number of other things that his administration has done. The combination of Barry Obama’s genuine smile and an illegal drone war in Pakistan doesn’t compute. For people to use so much power in a way that’s so cruel, petty and small, they would have to be mean or ignorant or self-interested. On “The Brink” and “Veep,” the audience gets a cast that fits the real plot.

The U.S. invaded Iraq because Bush is stupid no more than it has kept Guantánamo Bay open because Obama is evil. But believing that politics boil down to personal failings, not structural ones, is comforting. If we’re fighting wars and bailing out banks for no reason, then we could stop whenever the electorate is smart enough to pick someone who feels like it. It means we’re always one straight-talking, pure-hearted hero away from a whole new way of life. Last month it was Elizabeth Warren; this month it’s Bernie Sanders; maybe Martin O’Malley will get his turn next.

The subset of liberal suckers who fall for a new savior every four years must overlap heavily with HBO’s subscriber list. It’s a popular idea of how politics works, on television and off, but no amount of profanity and pretend cynicism can hide its squishy hopeful core.  

Malcolm Harris is an editor at The New Inquiry and a writer based in Brooklyn.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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