Via the Washington Post, I just discovered Heads of Space, an animated political satire series produced by a Venezuelan comedy team, but with creative contributors from all over the globe, that mocks the 2016 U.S. presidential election by sending the candidates on a mission to outer space. The series includes contributors from the Upright Citizens Brigade and others who worked on the series Archer. And from what I’ve seen in the debut episode, it’s a pretty clever send-up of the major political candidates and their major quirks.
The series is distributed via Univision and seems targeted for a young, international audience, which says a little bit about how the U.S. election is “translating” to other countries, where audiences are likely watching with a mix of humor and horror as events unfold. As the Post article notes, it’s entertaining to see political impersonations operating in a different format.
John Oliver’s brilliant HBO show, Last Week Tonight, is back, and in his first episode, Oliver is going after Voter ID laws like those in my current home state of North Carolina that require voters to obtain a state-issued ID. Oliver points out many of the standard arguments about these laws: they disproportionately affect the poor, African Americans, and Latinos, and they have been engineered by Republicans who admit they are trying to suppress the vote from these groups. He also illustrates that many states have made it nearly impossible for people to obtain this ID.
He then shows that voter impersonation during elections is incredibly rare, showing that in South Carolina, there were only five cases that could potentially be considered possible voter impersonation cases out of millions of legitimate votes. This observation sets up his brilliant conclusion, which I won’t spoil here, but it brilliantly illustrates the hypocrisy of many of these voter ID proponents.
Oliver is one of my favorite political comedians, in part because he often “covers” issues that are not in the daily headlines and in part because his position on HBO allows him to create monologues that can run 10-15 minutes long, much longer than any segments on commercial television. This allows him much greater flexibility in building an argument that can make a political point. There are plenty of examples where Oliver has used this power for positive effect, as when he did a powerful segment on net neutrality that led to the FCC website crashing because so many of his fans (and other activists) went to leave comments. At any rate,John Oliver is back, and that alone is worth celebrating.
I’m still trying to wrap my head around the new advertisement from Ted Cruz that parodies one of the most iconic scenes from Mike Judge’s Office Space as an attempt to mock Hillary Clinton’s email scandal. Of course, my initial observation is to feel defensive of one of my favorite film comedies: How can Ted Cruz appropriate something–much less like something–so incredibly fun and subversive? But given the timing of the ad–released days before the Republican and Democratic primaries in South Carolina–and the fact that the ad was approved by the Cruz campaign itself (and not one of the SuperPACs supporting him), it seems like a deliberate strategic move on his part.
First, it’s pretty clearly playing well with some members of the Republican base and Cruz’s base. Bashing Clinton, even during a primary election, continues to be a winning strategy for Republicans, and Cruz seems to imply here that he will be better equipped to do that than other members of his party. The advertisement does an effective job of linking the “fax machine” scene to Clinton seemingly destroying an email server that contains potentially top-secret emails. And although there are concerns about how this will play with older voters in South Carolina, it’s easy to forget that Office Space is nearly twenty years old (it came out in 1999), and fans of the film when it first came out may be in their late 40s or 50s. And while the ad features Cruz’s approval, he does not appear directly in the advertisement itself, so he is not directly, visually linked to something that might alienate older voters. Even so, political tribalism–as seen through Facebook and Twitter shares and retweets–frequently trumps questions of taste, and the message of a video or image macro, if it resonates politically, is often more important than potentially offensive meanings of the original text.
Still, Cruz has built his campaign around a subversive, anti-establishment discourse, one that frequently evokes popular culture, often in ways that defy the original or privileged meanings of those texts (note his performance of a key scene from The Princess Bride). I’m no fan of Cruz, but his campaign has carved out a clever advertising strategy that has embraced some of the lessons of how “pop politics” can help to define the perceptions of candidates in the public imagination.
Update: MSNBC mentioned that the ad was specifically scheduled to run during SNL, a time when viewers skew a little younger and are more likely to be familiar with the original film that is being parodies.
One of the observations I made in my book is that election debates have played a central role in defining our political culture and–perhaps as a consequence–have frequently been central to our definitions of political candidates, especially at the national level. Political TV shows as diverse as The Good Wife and The West Wing have featured debate episodes as crucial showcase episodes. Notably, for both of these shows, traditional political debates (such as the ones we are currently experiencing on a weekly basis during the extended primary season) are faulted as being inauthentic and as failing to provide rational criteria for viewers to evaluate the candidates and their positions on key issues. The Good Wife goes further to suggest that debates foster false political divisions between candidates that may share a number of values politically, as when Alicia and Frank have a “real” debate in the kitchen. Similarly, The West Wing evokes nostalgia for the Lincoln-Douglas debates as compared to our current situation, in which debates are overwhelmed by the needs of the broader political spectacle.
That being said, debates can provide some of the most memorable pieces of political imagery, shaping our views not only of specific candidates but also the role of government itself, of competing political visions. They can, like elections themselves, have consequences. The most recent example of this is the exchange between New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Florida Senator Marco Rubio, in which Christie successfully lands the critique of Rubio that he is a Washington politician who simply repeats the same “25-second soundbite” rather than actually accomplishing anything.
Rubio’s stumble here is magnified by the fact that he repeats the soundbite twice after Christie has called him on his reliance on soundbites. Of course, we now know that Christie did not himself reap any benefits from this exchange. His poll numbers in New Hampshire remained stagnant, and he has since dropped out of the race. But he has clearly put the Rubio campaign on the defensive, at least for the next few weeks, and Christie’s comments have provided substance for an existing perception of Rubio’s candidacy, one that will find itself expressed repeatedly through Facebook memes, Twitter hashtags, and other forms of political entertainment.
The exchange also illustrates one of the powerful appeals of debates. Their liveness assures us that “anything” can happen, that the potential for a consequential moment is always on the horizon.
The candidate cameo on Saturday Night Live has become increasingly common, especially as SNL works to create timely sketches that will generate anticipation among viewers who might be more likely to watch the show live and among pundits who are more likely to replay the cameo, thereby drawing further attention to it. Most cameos end up being relatively friendly to the guest candidate (with the significant exception of Sarah Palin’s appearance during the 2008 election), and Senator Bernie Sanders’ appearance is no exception. In his sketch, he plays the crew member of a sinking ship railing against various sorts of inequality. The sketch allows Sanders to perform alongside of Larry David, who has been impersonating him on the show, and to play off his campaign persona in a comedic way. But I was also taken by another SNL sketch, “Bern your Enthusiasm,” in which David riffs off of his comic persona from his long-running HBO show.
The sketch parodies Curb’s obsession with manners–and Larry David’s habit of violating social norms–to mock some of the conventions of campaign narratives in a clever and fun way, especially for fans of the original show.
I’m excited to point out that my new book, Political TV, from Routledge is now available for purchase on Amazon. The book should be released sometime around March 3, right after Super Tuesday, so you can have some counter-programming once you’re sick of listening to pundits talking about the election results and what they mean for Donald Trump.