Tuesday, 18 April 2017

A flickering beacon

The NY Times gathered writers of politics-themed television shows for "a cathartic group therapy session." On hand were writers Shonda Rhimes (“Scandal”), Frank Pugliese and Melissa James Gibson (“House of Cards”); Barbara Hall (“Madam Secretary”) and David Mandel, of “Veep.”

They each had interesting things to say about their work, and the public's perception of it.  David Mandel seems to hit the nail on the head for all of them when he says:  "The show has never been about current politics; it’s about politics in general. It’s about power...pulling back the curtain of what Washington is really like."  
Each of the series listed above peels back and reveals just how craven and awful our leaders can be. Their insider focus reminds me of Hollywood meta-films, like "The Player," or "Swimming with the Sharks," that profile the vanity and vapid wastefulness of the film business.  Part of their appeal is that they show us the imagined inner workings of government or the film industry, and we are let inside at the highest, craziest levels.  Those at the top will do anything to get or keep power.

But there is a qualitative difference between Hollywood and the Beltway, between business and government, commerce and politics; and the focus on the great and powerful gives us only one part of the picture.  In many ways the template for "The Player" has been superimposed on our political thrillers, where it sits uneasily.  True, each "world" is concerned with image and status and maintaining a firm grip, but the source of power is radically different.

Shonda Rhimes makes a further interesting, salient point when she notes that what audiences are looking for has changed since the election.  "Scandal," she says, is "basically a horror story."  For her, the occupant of the Oval Office is key:  in the past, storylines were "based on a world in which Obama was president...and our audience was optimistic. You can tell any horror story you want when the lights are on.  But now, the lights are off, and now people don't want to watch horror stories, they want you to light a candle somewhere."

Maybe I felt like the lights were already off, but I think I know where to find the light source.

It may be that in an era such as ours, when ordinary people feel powerless and ignored, we fixate on those at the top because we feel we don't have power.  And because our leaders are so preoccupied with image and symbolic gestures, it's easy to see government through the prism of Hollywood dealmakers.  But that's not how it's supposed to be.  Those at the top should be worried about us. They have great power, it's true, but that power issues from us. They work for us and serve at our pleasure.  It's kind of an important point to remember.

Faithless Elector, published in March of 2016, was not a prediction of what would happen in the November election. It was a cold look at a possible scenario in which corrupt power threatens to upend our democracy, seizing on the Electoral College as the weakest link.  The novel pulls back the curtain on a brutal, chillingly effective conspiracy; and in the story it's not a group of elite fighters or elite politicians who rise to stop the plot, but a group of regular people who risk everything.  The forthcoming Dark Network takes us further into the conspiracy.

Popular literature reflects the time in which it's written.  It can also reflect ways in which people wish things were different.  The writer and creative writing teacher, Charles Johnson (Middle Passage, Oxherding Tale) once related a story where he was talking with one of his mentors lamenting over stories he wished existed.  "YOU should write those stories," he was told.

 James McCrone is the author of Faithless Elector, a suspense-thriller, Publishers Weekly calls a “fast-moving topical thriller.”  Its “surprising twists add up to a highly suspenseful read.” The sequel, Dark Network, is coming soon.

Faithless Elector, by James McCrone is available through Amazon.
If you live in Philadelphia, pick up a copy at Head House Books -or- Penn Book Center

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