Monday, September 21, 2009

Monday Movies Post

What's the best ever TV show about the politics of governing in a democracy?

Well, I'm not sure I can give a conclusive answer...I haven't watched The Wire (I know, I know) yet. There's some bits of BSG that are awfully good. At it's best, The West Wing had good stuff about governing, although it was overwhelmed by Mr. Smithism, by annoyingly knee-jerk politics, and just too much soap opera junk (even if then it was saved by a terrific cast).

But the best sitcom about governing? No question at all about that: it's Yes, Minister.

Again, I have no idea how well-watched this show is (here in the US; I pretty much assume that all the Brits watched it back when it was on). After its run on PBS, it comes and goes according to the whims of PBS and A&E programmers, whose ways cannot be fathomed by mere mortals. It is available on DVD.

So: first, it's just a terrific comedy. The players -- mainly Paul Eddington as the insecure but ambitious James Hacker, Derek Fowlds as the punning "young" bureaucrat Bernard, and the wonderful Nigel Hawthorne as the consummate bureaucrat, Sir Humphrey -- are superb. The comic writing is first-rate. I think that it took them a few episodes to get it down right, and I think they pretty much ran out of steam for the final sixteen (Yes, Prime Minister) episodes, but the bulk of the original 22 are outstanding. As a sitcom alone, it's a clear Hall of Famer -- not quite, I don't think, in the very elite of workplace sitcoms (Dick Van Dyke Show, Mary Tyler Moore Show, News Radio), but certainly in the next tier.

And, miraculously, they get the politics right. They understand (and show) how politicians and bureaucrats fight -- with leaks, with public statements, by commissioning rigged reports and through misdirection. What's best about it is that neither Hacker nor Humphrey is the bad guy. They both are, in their own way, well-intentioned. Hacker means well, and can't help it that he's incredibly craven and not nearly as knowledgeable about how things actually work as the bureaucrats are, but he actually does mean well. And Humphrey, although at least for me it took several episodes to see it, really does mean well too; he's totally convinced that if government was left to the bumbling politicians then the empire would have fallen long ago. It works because Hacker really is bumbling; of course, at the same time, he's never quite able to square the circle of how the empire fell despite the bureaucrats running everything. Here, the deadening influence of Mr. Smith is nowhere to be found; neither of the lead characters is pure hero or pure bad guy, and if you get that part right then your chances of getting politics right go up quite a lot.

So: Yes, Minister, highest recommend. If you want to skip around, the one not to miss is the opener for the second series, "The Compassionate Society," featuring the hospital open fifteen months with no patients but 500 hard-working administrators. But really, they're all excellent.

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