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Reality as mad as TV

'24' and 'Homeland' predicted a female President and more or less Obama, but not Trump whose world seems to feature in Designated Survivor

After a couple of stuttering seasons, Season 6 of ‘Homeland’, which ended in April, pulled off a decently gripping story this time round. The writers make life difficult for themselves, as with its predecessor ‘24’, by making daring near-future predictions about the political reality that will be in place by the time the show airs.

‘24’, with its never-ending terrorist emergency, struck a lucky chord when it came to screens in the first week of November 2001, at the height of post-9/11 hysteria. That show ran for eight seasons, and in fact still produces the odd additional couple of hours of material, though the quality, always dodgy, really is inexcusable at this point. Many things appealed in ‘24’ – Kiefer Sutherland’s depressive charisma, Chloe O’Brian’s Aspergersy fixity of purpose, the sneering and maniacal baddies, and, a consistent ingredient, the palace intrigue surrounding the US President.

Even before Barack Obama became the junior senator for Illinois, and while Hillary Clinton was the senator for New York, ‘24’ had two black Presidents and one female President, all establishment-liberals in exactly the Obama-cum-Clinton mode. These seem daringly prescient at this remove, though at the time they felt rather poorly paced. The black Presidents pre-dated Obama by too long and so seemed too far-fetched, and Clinton never even got her party’s nomination in 2008.

‘Homeland’ picked up where ‘24’ left off in several other respects. Although it has always positioned itself as a rather more intelligent version of things, it has continued the steady stream of terrorism-induced paranoid fear and sustained our fascination with the alternately high-functioning/highly dysfunctional US security apparatus. Its slower pace has always given it a more measured air, and its relatively considered depiction of mental illness (bipolar disorder) leaves ‘24’’s depiction of its array of gibbering misfits, Jack Bauer chief among them, look like the parts cut out for being too incoherent from the fantasy world of a Tom-Clancy-inspired 4channer who cannot make eye contact with anyone but his dog and his mother.

‘Homeland’ even has a tang of John le Carré-lite with its nostalgic sequences of good old-fashioned spycraft and face-to-face encounters between old rivals and enemies. In ‘24’, most of the time the connection between the good guys and the bad guys was mediated by a surfeit of fantasy surveillance technology, and when enemies met face to face they were usually in a homicidal mood, or at least they would be trying to cut each other’s fingers off or somesuch. In ‘Homeland’, we’re in a more interesting milieu of Russian agents who we feel are really idiosyncratic failed novelists, Iranians who are ruthless and entirely secular Realpolitikers, and Israelis who are weird self-deceiving liars, with the tanned unblinking vacuousness of hothoused transnational professional tennis players.

With the first episode of season 6 coming out in the days running up to the inauguration of Donald Trump, ‘Homeland’’s bad luck was to forecast a Democrat-style woman as the brand new President-elect. It would have been great to see this drama unfold parallel to the first months of Hillary Clinton’s term in office, but instead it just felt like they’d backed the wrong horse, like most of the rest of the media. It would be interesting to know how much time and leeway the makers had in skewing the narrative to bring it into line with the phantasmagoria of Trumpism. Because one thing they get spot-on is the alt-right racists and America Firsters, whose tactics are borrowed straight from the Russian hacker playbook and whose vitriolic rhetoric (brilliantly ventilated by Jake Weber) blends elements of Rush Limbaugh, Stephen Miller, Bill O’Reilly, and Richard Spencer.

In this story, these guys are on the losing side, and they do all they can to destroy the President and the Presidency from within. What the show did not dare to predict was victory for Trump. They can hardly be blamed – if they did have a Trump-style victor but with no corresponding real-world Trump victory, the show would come across as a rather dystopian paranoia-fest. Whatever the case, what their choices provide proof of, if it were needed, is that these shows are the dream of American Hollywood liberalism. This is not immediately apparent, especially to us politically anaemic Europeans, but these TV shows of political nightmares, permanent wars, state-sanctioned torture, the State on the brink of attack and its values under constant attack from its own security services, are ultimately stabilising for the American self-image and even for the American State itself.

Clinton was more of the same dressed up as a change (the first female President!), Trump was something different (the first unpredictable President!). Despite their seemingly nightmare visions, these shows did not predict Trump. He has proved literally unpredictable. This is part of his uncanniness, narratively speaking. In the normal run of things, our fears, racisms and intolerances can be effectively masked by narratives about terrorism and intelligence and prediction, prevention and risk and probability, and that is part of the magic formula of ‘Homeland’. In the early seasons, we could hate the Islamic terrorist villain and fervently support the extraordinary reach of the security apparatus to catch him, all the while not feeling like racists because he was a red-haired, white-skinned American, played by an Englishman (Damian Lewis).

What job is left for these narratives to do now? The Trumpian disruption could well provide yet another threatening obstacle that will provide the opportunity for shows like these to depict the ever-evolving deep-State establishment triumphant once more. This desperately needs to happen in order for things to carry on roughly in the same mode, both in the world of screen fantasies and in the real world of politics, which are not two separate realms. But the other danger is that the Trumpian disruption will, when it ebbs, leave behind the full normalisation of the extraordinary measures undertaken by surveillance (private and public) and by neoliberal economic reform (private and public), which got its great initial momentum with the election of George W. Bush, and its anabolic steroid boost from the 9/11 defeat.

An attempt to take up the torch of permanent-emergency US TV drama has meanwhile been made by Designated Survivor, which features Kiefer Sutherland as a nothing-burger technocrat who is thrust into the Presidency when the entire US cabinet, Congress and Supreme Court are blown to pieces. Sutherland, always a struggling actor, struggles to convince without a gun in his hand, a live satellite feed in his earpiece and dead guys all around him. But this may turn out to be very clever casting, as the whole point of his character is that he does not know how to play the part of the President. This reviewer has not yet caught up with the latest episode at the time of going to press, so those readers who watch this execrable tosh may well have a more precise verdict on Sutherland’s performance.

A nice twist ended season 6 of ‘Homeland’. The very liberal President is unswayed by the dastardly attempts to push her towards a hawkish foreign policy. Dark forces within the CIA, puppeted by the Israelis, grow desperate and go for a plain old putsch. Our heroes intervene, kill the bad guys, save the President’s life (just about), and save the Presidency. That’s normal enough. But the twist comes late in the final episode, when we see that the shock of the attack has finally swayed the President, and the new normal is a repressive, Stalinesque police state of group arrests and constant paranoia. This builds enormous political pressure into the as-yet-unwritten next season, endowing it with a good mix of predictability and unpredictability, and it gives us a good reason to tune in next time.  

Cormac Deane lectures in film and media in the
Institute of Art, Design and Technology.