Brain of Thrones: is political intelligence rising in primetime television audiences?

intelligent TV
Illustration: Flo McQuibban

Picture this: you’re Netflix and chilling with your boyfriend. Or if you’re me, you’re Sky Go and chilling by yourself because you’re broke, alone, and rely on your parents (unbeknownst to them) for a significant amount of your student needs. Whilst you are *blank* and chilling, you inevitably scroll through an abundance of visual delights – Stranger Things, Pretty Little Liars, what have you – but what genre has become undeniably popular across all these television platforms? It is of course the complex, politically driven dramas that are taking the world by storm.

intelligent TV
Illustration: Flo McQuibban

Northern accent: The Emmys were this weekend. Though many of us will be more familiar with our cosy BAFTAs, I’m afraid they really cannot compete with the sheer volume of output from our pals across the pond, whatever quality content we create. Pre-2000, the majority of Emmy winners were plucked from either the legal or medical categories, such as the self explanatory L. A. Law and the gorgeous ER (gorgeous being a transferred epithet for George Clooney).

Enter The West Wing: the first political drama of its kind. It swept away the competition for four consecutive years and revolutionised television – much like the original BBC House of Cards did for British TV in the 90s. But alas, House of Cards, however dark and different, was more of a mini-series than anything else, and as the BBC’s political comedy The Thick of It took a break, The West Wing eventually ended its long stint in 2006. I think its idealist, Mount Olympus-esque sentimentality proved too sweet next to the rising public cynicism against Bush’s government. You’ll find the public opinion polling graph for Bush’s time in office looks rather like a pair of scissors, with blue being ‘approve’, red ‘disapprove’ and green ‘unsure’.

And snip snip – politics had disappeared from our screens. Usher in the what I call ‘polled-en’ age of television in 2009. Semi-political series gain attention at first; The Good Wife and Game of Thrones attract viewership. Oh, Homeland, with your foreign affairs, you. Howdy, House of Cards, revamped for American audiences on Netflix to huge success; Amazon Video hits it back with The Man in the High Castle. Scandal and Madam Secretary become the norm. Hell, even political comedies become critically acclaimed with Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ hilarious performance in Veep, as well as the return of The Thick of It. And voila – TV is changed forever.

Did this trans-Atlantic change occur just because Obama was elected? I doubt it. There’s got to be more to it, and if you read the title of this article I may have spoiled you already. Hallelujah for us nerds, because being clever is becoming fashionable! It doesn’t necessarily mean more people are clever, but more are definitely trying to be. Being intellectual is cool now. Knowing about politics is happenin’. Despite the possibility that as a ‘fashion’ some may pretend to know what they don’t, it’s still one of the only positive concepts that our modern society seems to enforce on us, considering all the racism, sexism and body shaming that’s going on at the moment.

You may ask, ‘but most people watch TV, so aren’t you just saying that people in general want to know about politics? What makes this specific to primetime TV audiences?’ I think the only way to answer this question is to have a look at television’s rival media format – film.

Ok, here’s a challenge for you: name more blockbuster movies about modern politics in the last decade than TV shows mentioned in this article. It’s hard isn’t it? Not that Google is the source of all knowledge (no but actually it is), type in ‘political movies’ and pretty much all the ones that come up predate my existence (B. M. – before me). This is strange considering how much more content Hollywood creates compared with television. Granted, there have been recent, successful, feature-length endeavours into the realm of politics, such as The Ides of March (gorgeous George returns), and others like The Iron Lady, Frost/Nixon, or Suffragette. But really, most of these are biopics telling the stories of great and legendary historical characters, rather than their politics. In many of these titles the plot line actually skips over them.

So yes, primetime television audiences are becoming more politically intelligent, or at least want to look like they are. Unfortunately, it didn’t work quite well enough to hold off Brexit, but we have yet to see how the US will fare with Clinton and Trump.

The world is changing y’all. All I can hope for is a further rise in this kind of TV, and maybe for it to transgress Hollywood’s borders. This only really shows that though we may think we control our perception of the media – that we use it mainly for trivial purposes and to keep us entertained – it actually forms a terrifyingly large part of our education. Any normal person would be able to tell you Bart Simpson’s catchphrase, but maybe not when Queen Victoria died. Maybe they could name all the Kardashians, but not the their county’s MP.

Television is being kind to us for now; it is teaching us some valuable information. But who knows when its influence will turn to a cloud of poison? The next reality TV boom may be waiting to pounce, with only a cast of superficial characters who look like gorgeous George to grace our screens (not that I’d complain).


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