WASHINGTON POLITICS HAS DEVOLVED INTO A BLACK COMEDY, but it’s difficult to say which black comedy. The truth is, much of contemporary American political satire is ill-equipped to reckon with the Trump era. It’s too gentle, too warm, too self-satisfied. More often than not, it’s unwilling to pay more than lip service to the possibility of despair. It’s a source of comfort when there is little real comfort to be had.
Whatever the considerable merits ofSaturday Night Live’s vaudeville shtick or John Oliver’s righteous exasperation, neither is capable of reflecting the absurdity and horror of the past six months. Even HBO’sVeep,with its refreshingly jaundiced portrayal of Beltway culture, isbrighter and cozierthan the world it purports to skewer.
But that doesn’t mean satire has nothing to say about Donald Trump’s Washington. Comedians have, occasionally, produced works that are cold and bleak enough to resonate with the present moment—we just didn’t believe they could come true.The New Republic’s Jeet Heer hasnominatedBurn After Reading,the Coen Brothers’ underrated 2008 anti-thriller, as the defining movie of our age, and that’s a fine, appropriately misanthropic choice. But for the defining television show of the age, we need to look beyond New York and Hollywood.
The Thick of It,a BBC sitcom that ran four seasons and two specials between 2005 and 2012, is the only political sitcom biting enough to draw blood in 2017 America. As the older, more depressed step-sibling ofVeep—both were created by Scottish satirist Armando Iannucci—it shares a similar choppy aesthetic and taste for baroque insult comedy. But whereVeephas long ago ditched any pretense to verisimilitude,The Thick of Italways scrupulously mirrored—and sometimes anticipated—developments in U.K. government, from the waning days of the Tony Blair era to the height of theNews of the World hacking scandal.
It might seem odd that a show that began its life as a satire of Blairism could say much about the politics of the Trump years; after all, Tony Blair’s smooth, post-ideological technocracy, we are led to believe, could not be further from Donald Trump’s hormonal right-wing populism. ButThe Thick of Itremains relevant because it focused in on a social pathology that haunts us now more than ever: the capture of government by public relations. […]