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The Political Drama is Back — Like It Never Went Away
Netflix’s ‘The Diplomat’ looks a lot like pre-Trump political dramas. The normalcy it depicts does, too.
Every now and then a new work of art pops up that seems to practically be begging for a Cansler Culture feature. The Diplomat is that kind of work — a series about international politics that also speaks to our pop culture moment? That is quite literally the Cansler Culture ethos.
In fact, there’s more to talk about than can fit in one newsletter, so for the first time, I’m doing a two-parter. Today, I’m going to delve into how this show relates to American politics and culture, and then in an article for World Politics Review (shoutout my employer), I’ll be writing about how it relates to international politics. Stay tuned for that in the next few weeks.
Now, though, let’s go back a few years.
In 2021, when I was interning at Washington Monthly, I came up with an absolutely genius idea for an article. The subject: How Trump Killed the Political Drama.
Unfortunately, I did not end up writing that article. I actually never even pitched it, because in my preliminary research I discovered that my predecessor (shoutout Gabby Birenbaum) had already written the exact article I was envisioning.
In that story, she meticulously breaks down how the golden age of political TV, beginning with The West Wing and running into the 2010s, simply didn’t know how to compete with a 24/7 news cycle made up of political storylines more compelling than fiction:
“While political drama was a hallmark of Bush and Obama-era television, it would essentially fade during Trump’s tenure. Scandal, like its counterparts House of Cards and Veep, began during the Obama years and ended early into Trump’s tenure. One might have thought that a scandalous administration with unprecedented levels of absurdity would be fodder for fictional political television. The opposite, however, turned out to be true. Political dramas sputtered because they couldn’t keep up.”
Indeed, political dramas thrive when they can, to state the obvious, dramatize politics. To do so, though, there needs to be a baseline level of normalcy that writers can use as a starting point. From there, creating compelling TV is all about exaggerating, intensifying, or even satirizing that normalcy.
“[House of Cards’] greater disconnect — shared with legacy political shows like Scandal, Designated Survivor and Madam Secretary — is that it assumes there are still norms governing politics, which it generates drama by pushing against. Characters behave badly in secret, the quaint notion being that discovery would bring shame and consequences.”
The stakes are so high in political dramas because the characters all accept that everything they do has significant personal and societal consequences. From 2017 to 2021, I think it’s fair to say, it was hard to look at the news and feel like that was true about American politics.
Now, though, we’re more than two years removed from Trump’s presidency. Does that mean it’s safe for political dramas to come back?
Netflix seems to think so. The Diplomat, a new political drama very much in the mold of the old ones, premiered just over two weeks ago and immediately took the top spot on the streamer’s US chart. The fast-paced, eight-episode first season centers around the reluctant new US ambassador to the UK, who has to defuse an international crisis after a British aircraft carrier is attacked.
The critical merits of the series — highly-bingeable even if not high-quality — aren’t nearly as important as what the show represents. After all, this is a show very much built in the mold of the pre-Trump years. The creator, Deborah Cahn, got her start as a TV writer working on The West Wing, and The Diplomat carries over many of the same qualities, from the characters to the themes to the famous “walk-and-talk” dialogue.
Most importantly, The Diplomat’s characters, and by extension its plot, all assume the same level or normalcy that pre-Trump series did. They all have great respect for the rules and norms of politics, as well as democracy more broadly. In fact, there isn’t even the slightest hint that American democracy has ever been under threat, let alone that the Capitol was attacked just two years ago.
There is also a healthy dose of liberal idealism. In 2020, NPR’s Stephen Thompson said that the characters in The West Wing had a “vision of American government that is rooted in a basic, fundamental ideal of operating in good faith.” That vision carries over to The Diplomat, where selflessness is a recurring theme and characters often remark on the good that could be done in the world if people in power were simply good at their jobs.
If a series like this — one which rests of an idealistic worldview and that assumes respect for democratic norms — had been released just a few years ago, it likely would have suffered from the same disconnect that other political dramas did at the time. The Diplomat’s success, then, surely suggests that American politics has returned to normalcy, too, right?
Sort of. It’s certainly fair to say that political news in the US is calmer, and more focused on policy, than it was a few years ago. But there is still, clearly, a lot of noise. It’s telling that The Diplomat specifically focuses on international politics, a realm fewer Americans are familiar with and where specific policies don’t fit neatly on a left-right spectrum. Rather than cut through the noise of American politics, The Diplomat simply ignores it.
Still, The Diplomat has a high entertainment value largely because the things that happen in it feel “preposterous” compared to real life. When it comes to normalcy, that seems like a good sign for American politics.
As for international politics — well, more on that later.
(That’s right, Cansler Culture does cliffhangers now.)
That’s all for this edition. If you’re not subscribed to Substack’s only(?) newsletter about the intersection of politics and pop culture, make sure to do so, especially so you won’t miss the second part of this series.