The Grotesqueness Of Pop Culture Politics

Considering Boss, and the electoral subplots on Parks and Recreation, Modern Family, and Glee in the Atlantic this week, I was struck by a question: why does pop culture swing between depicting politicians as grotesques or saints when the reality is so vastly more entertaining? Boss swings between really good subplots and moments that seem funny and scary precisely because they’re plausible, and things that seem more like unchecked impulses:

The show succeeds when those gods and monsters are mired in procedure, as Kane and Miller often are. The site of an incumbent governor lofting an iPad into a marsh in a fit of pique and then ordering an aide after it is both very funny and a nice reference to Primary Colors, the satire of the Clinton administration that increasingly looks like the gold standard for explorations of political darkness. Where Boss goes off the rails, though, is when it mistakes luridness with meaningfulness.

A twist on a political sex scandal that leaves an up-and-comer getting it on with his lover in increasingly public places is one of the more genuinely egregious use of cable’s license to depict sex I’ve seen in quite some time. Kane’s daughter, apparently a priest, a doctor, and an addict, checks so many urban-politics boxes at once that her personality disappears under the weight. While there’s no question that Aldermanic debates can be brutal, it feels showy and crude to have Kane tell the City Council, during a contentious debate, “Let the streets run with shit.”

It would be easy to say that our tendency to lionize or demonize politicians is a product of partisanship, but that doesn’t really explain why political pop culture invents wildly baroque scenarios for politicians on television and in movies who are forever knocking up interns and the teenaged daughters of their friends, or unleashing wild chains of vengeance. The emotions involved in politicians’ indiscretions may be difficult to fathom, especially for people in the public eye, unless they’re explained away as the product of self-destructive impulses. But the means of their downfalls are usually fairly prosaic, a Direct Message gone wrong, a hooker and a hotel room and an assumption of invincibility.

And I think, instead, our pop culture politicians vacillate between poisonous and saintly not necessarily because we hate people in the other party, but because we’re let down by our own side, betrayed by our own unrealistic expectations. We want Andrew Shepherd as he is in The American President and we get Jack Stanton from Primary Colors. In pop culture, if they’re saints or rat bastards, we know from the beginning or close enough to it, and any changes are of degree rather than of nature. There are no redemptions. But there are no shocking disappointments, either.