On Friday, Todd VanDerWerff tweeted that one of the producers of Starz’s new political show, Boss, told reporters that “At no point during the show do we refer to parties.”
It’s entirely possible to make shows about politicians without referring to their party affiliations, especially if you show them mostly in isolation, brooding over power and tactics, and even easier if you don’t engage with policy, just with the exercise of brute force. But especially if you’re making a television program about tough-as-nails Chicago politicians, eschewing party politics means you’re giving up most of the means by which that brute force is exercised, and by which the objects of that force are defined. If you’re going to have enemies in political stories, you have to figure out who they are, and parties are useful identifiers, whether your foe is an ideological rival, a procedural one, or your rival for position within the hierarchy of the party itself.
I’m sympathetic to the idea that the folks who make smart television don’t want to risk their audience before a show even starts airing, especially if, like Starz, you’re trying to establish yourself as destination channel for smart original content that doesn’t involve people getting naked and killing each other in arenas. But Democratic and Republican politics don’t play out the same way on the local level — even in big cities — as they do nationally. Parks and Recreation’s been an incredibly effective demonstration of that. It would be entirely possible to have Kelsey Grammar, who is playing a Rahm-like politician on the show Boss, have Rahm’s personally aggressive style without attaching Rahm’s voting record and stances in the Obama administration to him, using a series of local issues and relationships with local stakeholders to define him as a Democrat or a Republican.
Or even if that’s too touchy, why not invent a couple of fictional political parties? That kind of work happens most often in science fiction, scabrous satirical humor, or in Dave Barry books, but there’s no reason it couldn’t be done in more realistic dramas, in ways that are usefully thought-provoking. I’d be curious to see a long-running exploration of what it would be like to have one party that’s fairly interventionist on both moral and social safety net issues, opposing abortion, equal rights for gay couples, and the death penalty while supporting universal health care and heavy taxes on the wealthiest citizens positioned against a much more staunchly libertarian party that’s pro-choice, low-tax, low social services, etc. One of the best things about Kings was that it didn’t spend a lot of time explaining the new framework that it was operating in: the show just sort of plunged in and let you figure out the importance of the powerfully active military-industrial complex. While I like Kings, it’s also reasonably obvious why it didn’t find a network following — the lead actor simply isn’t very good, and the religious stuff is incredible, but probably would have found a more natural audience on a network like HBO, which also would have found alternative ways to support its heavy production costs.
But I don’t think that fate would necessarily attach to a show that was more of our world, with smaller but significant tweaks to the positions that, bundled together, define political parties. We can make a nigh-infinite number of television shows about the nature of power as a raw, elemental thing (especially if they star Ian McShane). But they’re not the only kind of fiction we need to help us consider our political system and the future that our politics will define. Our parties are held together by duct tape, temperamental similarities, entrenched hatred, tears, and determination, but not necessarily by consensus or logic. We’re settled into them for now, but at some point, someone more effective than the Reform Party, or No Labels, or Unity ’08 might come along and present a viable alternative. Our pop culture’s daintiness about parties is in odd contrast to the brutality of our political contests.