Last Wednesday, as the scandal of Downing Street’s mysterious Christmas party entered its grimly farcical second week, The Thick of It predictably trended on Twitter. Armando Iannucci’s Westminster sitcom, in which politicians and advisers stumble through an endless minefield in a perpetual flop sweat, certainly felt apt. But it’s worth asking why a show that debuted during the dog days of New Labour and bowed out midway through the coalition years remains the default reference point nine years later.
Political satire has been in a confused state these past five years, since Donald Trump short-circuited it so dramatically that it is yet to recover. It became a cliché to say that the things Trump said and did on a daily basis would have had you laughed out of any writers’ room if you’d invented them. How could you parody a man who, vaccinated against embarrassment by his total absence of humour, parodied himself? Boris Johnson is a very different character — a sense of shambolic comedy is his sword and shield — but similarly hard to spoof because he caricatures himself.
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After The Thick of It, Iannucci went to the US and launched Veep, bringing a dissonant note of panic and incompetence to a country where fictional presidents are usually very good (Jed Bartlett from The West Wing) or very bad (Frank Underwood from House of Cards), but generally on top of things either way. He left the show after three seasons in 2015 so that he could direct movies, just in time to avoid having to grapple with the conundrum of a president who made Veep’s Selina Meyer look relatively decent and proficient. David Mandel, his replacement as showrunner, didn’t so much solve the problem as ignore it. Veep remained very funny but it lost much of its relevance by unplugging itself from the wild new reality of Washington DC. It ended in 2019, a few months after House of Cards.
Nothing has come along to replace those shows. The old warhorses of satire roll on — Have I Got News for You and the revived Spitting Image in the UK; Saturday Night Live and The Daily Show in the US (a British version of SNL is in the pipeline). But where are the dramas and scripted comedies? Politics is not where the action is.
When I interviewed Iannucci recently, he chose Succession and The White Lotus as the most biting satires around. Both shows coolly dissect the callousness of the very rich, and show the casualties they leave behind. Inevitably, some of that wealth comes from tech. Nicole Mossbacher (Connie Britton) in The White Lotus is the CFO of a popular search engine. In this series of Succession, Waystar-Royco’s old-media empire is seeking a life-saving deal with Lukas Mattson (Alexander Skarsgaard), the bored and ruthless CEO of the streaming company GoJo. The most powerful character in Iannucci’s own Avenue 5, a sci-fi sitcom about a society under pressure, is tech billionaire Herman Judd, played by Josh Gad as a vain man-baby. And it’s telling that Adam McKay, whose 2018 movie Vice was a black comedy about Dick Cheney, is making his next picture about Elizabeth Holmes and the Theranos scandal.
There’s a novelty factor here. Next to most politicians, the likes of Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are fascinatingly weird characters with literally cosmic ambitions. Mark Zuckerberg, in his public appearances, comes off as less a human being than a beta-version AI — a flesh-and-blood demonstration of the uncanny valley. This is good material. Take Christopher Evan Welch in Silicon Valley, whose character Peter Gregory always looked as if he were on the verge of teleporting back to his home planet, Oscar Isaac’s malfunctioning hipster hermit in Ex Machina, or Nick Offerman’s glumly deranged schlub-genius in Devs. Succession’s Lukas Mattson combines a killer instinct with airport-bookstore self-help mantras and the distinct impression that he could tank GoJo’s share price with a single ill-judged tweet composed while tripping at Burning Man.
But tech gurus aren’t just a fun new toy for writers to play with. Satire follows power, and power is not where it was. In Western democracies there is a general sense that politicians are hamstrung and hopeless while tech companies are busy changing the way we communicate, think and act. After a mob stormed the Capitol on January 6, for example, social media companies did far more to dampen Trump’s efforts to overturn the election than Congress did.
Iannucci told me that his final episode of Veep, which ended with a deadlocked electoral college, “seemed to me to sum up where American politics is”, which is to say paralysed. While Joe Biden’s ambitious legislative agenda depends on the vanity of Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, Jeff Bezos is flying into space and earning $143,000 a minute. Which man is the more fertile source of both comedy and outrage? In Succession, Logan Roy has the power to bring down one president and handpick another, yet even he is at the mercy of Lukas Mattson’s whims.
Charlie Brooker, who rivals Iannucci as the UK’s most celebrated satirist, was ahead of the curve with Black Mirror, where politics is a sideshow if it features at all. In its very first episode, The National Anthem, broadcast ten years ago this month, the Prime Minister is a sympathetic character who accedes to a horrific televised humiliation for honourable reasons. The real villains of the episode are the people who watch it. Nosedive, the first episode after Black Mirror’s move to Netflix, is a dystopia without a dictator, where lives rise or fall according to an app. In Smithereens, Brooker finally introduced a modern-day tech bro: a pseudo-hippie with a man-bun, evidently modelled on Twitter’s Jack Dorsey, who has lost control of his own creation.
Brooker is sometimes stereotyped as a grumpy technophobe (“what if phones, but too much,” as one brilliant parody put it), but the world is coming around to his point of view. Who would have thought that a social-media platform that started out by rating the attractiveness of Harvard students would end up, 15 years later, facilitating genocide in Myanmar? There aren’t many takers these days for the old Silicon Valley utopianism. Perhaps the only heroic tech billionaire in popular culture, before his death, was Marvel’s Tony Stark, but his enemies were usually also tech billionaires, so that balanced out nicely.
This antipathy to Big Tech isn’t confined to the screen. In the realm of fiction, its most dogged opponent is probably the American novelist Dave Eggers, who has just published The Every, the hefty sequel to his 2013 bestseller The Circle. Eggers has called smartphones “technological crack” and compared our relationship with technology to “being in a relationship with a very controlling, needy, obsessive person. You’re never free; you’re always paranoid. You’re simultaneously on a leash and under a microscope”.
Several years on, the social media giant The Circle has acquired an online retail platform nicknamed “the jungle” from its spacefaring founder (the thinness of the disguise is a running joke) and rebranded itself as The Every. (The novel was finished, by the way, before Zuckerberg renamed Facebook’s parent company Meta.) True to its name, The Every seeks to permeate and control every nook and cranny of human existence — all for the greater good, of course.
Refuseniks who choose to live outside The Every are labelled “trogs”. Eggers is a proud trog and The Every is an unashamedly old-fashioned novel of ideas. It goes on for too long, as angry people often do, because Eggers has so much to get off his chest. Though ostensibly about the efforts of one employee to infiltrate and destroy the company, it is less a story than a series of conversations about increasingly berserk innovations.
In a neat satirical twist, the company cloaks its unrelenting assault on personal privacy and freedom in the language of political correctness. It is obsessed with veganism and reducing carbon emissions to the point of demonising pets and bananas. Once something is deemed “problematic”, it is not long for this brave new world where totalitarianism wears a tight smile and shame is a weapon of mass destruction. As for politics, The Every runs the world’s dominant voting software (no account, no vote) and kills the presidential campaign of its leading opponent in just minutes. To The Every, democracy is a bug to be ironed out.
Likewise in the real world, if you really want to look at how the world works, you’re better off writing about a CEO than a president. As Boris Johnson’s hapless behaviour this week showed, a politician as smoothly machiavellian as Frank Underwood or his British predecessor Francis Urquhart would be no more plausible than one with X-ray vision. Perhaps, looking back, the panicky impotence of the characters in The Thick of It and Veep was a sign that political satire was running out of road. The day somebody writes a successful new satire on politics, politicians should welcome it with open arms. It will mean they matter again.
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