by Matthew Casper
I admit it. I have (more than one) “guilty pleasure” TV show that I regularly watch. Rather than sticking to socially and gender-acceptable viewing options, I have ditched the sports, fantasy drama, and action shows that society wants me to care about. Chandler Bing’s TiVo has nothing on mine; Bravo, PBS, OWN, and Cooking Channel are the bulk of my “Recently Viewed” and “For You” lists. My DVR wouldn’t dream of suggesting Game of Thrones, not when it would instead automatically choose Ladies of London, Vanderpump Rules, or even Real Housewives of Freaking Des Moines if such a thing existed. I don’t care about the Stephen vs. Jimmy (vs. Jimmy) debate, not unless Andy Cohen or Kelly Ripa is appearing as a guest. Anyway. You get the picture.
It hasn’t always been this way, either. But somewhere in 2010 when I realized that the Tea Party was taking over for real, and again in November of 2016 when the country decided that a legal-but-ill-advised private email server was more offensive than admissions of sexual assault, I retreated into the comforting reality where the only people with bad spray tans are wealthy middle-aged “brands” and their attendant hangers-on, but where those “brands” don’t have access to nuclear weapons. I ditched the reality-denying portrayal of Republicans by Chuck Todd and Meet the Press and embraced the reality-denying portrayal of Republicans on Southern Charm. I hit that point of my day where the horrors of our reality become too much to deal with, and I end up retreating to a world of reality and soaps instead of another round of Don Lemon giving credibility to the Kayleigh McEnanys of the world. (And in my defense, those “silly” shows were dealing with issues like same-sex marriage and trans rights in ways that undoubtedly pushed the center of public opinion, and in ways that “serious” shows never have or could.)
So imagine my surprise when turning on my television on Sunday night. CBS’s Madam Secretary, a normally breezily saccharine portrayal of power in Washington where arm-twisting and morality is enough to win the difficulty of the week, appeared on my list of suggested viewing, and I decided to view it. I had previously watched the program, and I always found it captive to the “both sides are equal” and “most Republicans are really sane below it all” narratives, even as an independent Secretary of State and her liberal family found a way to succeed and thrive in a GOP (turned Independent in the second election) administration. The show prided itself on “avoiding Democratic vs. Republican” storylines, though Keith Carradine’s President Conrad Dalton did ultimately become an independent candidate over his rejection of certain Republican orthodoxies like rejection of science.
But Sunday, something was very different.
I couldn’t help but notice a different tone than had been present in other scripts. It was almost as if the writers, director, cast and even the craft services people were taking the opportunity to loudly and obviously wink at the audience. It was, at first, subtle. But having watched at least a dozen previous episodes, it was obvious enough for me to start taking notes starting in the very first scene. This episode, about an oafish millionaire supermarket developer who was elected the new president of the Philippines — with a surface-level relation to the oafish lawyer elected as the new Filipino President, Rodrigo Duterte — seemed to be aimed squarely at our own oafish millionaire (?) developer-turned-President. Rather than describing the Filipino election, the dialogue seemed to be adding in details about our own election and Trump’s rise to power. From his first appearance on screen, the dialogue asks, “How did this carny barker actually win?” in a scene that documents an unusually extended conversation in the Oval Office by a number of principals.
Director of National Intelligence: “This is what happens when the qualified front-runner in an election gets caught in a […] scandal.”CIA Director: “It’s not just that, unfortunately. [The President had] a populist message, and the people are starting to listen.”[…]President: “Good point. If this is who we are dealing with, we need to understand how to approach him.”CIA Director: “Well the simplest way to put it is textbook clinical narcissist. Exaggerated feelings of self-importance, pathological need for admiration, and a complete lack of empathy.”
Sound like anyone you know?
One could certainly make the argument that in this hyper-political season that I am reading into things too much. I don’t know, maybe I am. So let’s keep watching.
We soon see Téa Leoni’s Secretary Elizabeth McCord meet the Filipino President. We learn that President Andrada has decided to dispense with historical treaties and relationships in favor of cozying up to a hostile foreign power, in this case R̶u̶s̶s̶i̶a̶ China. After a bit of normal Madam Secretary dialogue — even here, as he says she shouldn’t refer to him by his first name, I hear whispers of “Mr. Trump” — things get real again.
And by real, I mean President Datu Andrada walks right up to Elizabeth, and grabs her. As in he sexually assaults her. As in as close to “grabs her by the pussy” as family hour network television will allow.
Shortly afterwards, we are treated to another round of principals unnaturally (and unusually for the series) chatting in the Oval. They’re discussing the sexual assault and the Filipino-Chinese situation as it becomes apparent that in service of the Chinese, the Filipino President has scuttled an international trade/security agreement as well as allowed the R̶u̶s̶s̶i̶a̶n̶s̶ Chinese to annex C̶r̶i̶m̶e̶a̶ a disputed territory and flout the international sanctions that would otherwise be enacted.
Defense Secretary: The … people rolled the dice on an erratic, self-obsessed strongman. Now they’re paying the price.
McCord: The irony being that, just like any other so-called strongman, he isn’t strong at all. He’s just insecure and weak without any good policy ideas so he has to bully his way into power and force himself on women to feel powerful… […] Andrada can’t be liked by people who actually know him, not even his inner circle. We should reach out to his advisors. There have to be some who aren’t happy with this change.
They end up entertaining an offer for the Filipino deep state — an actual thing that doesn’t mean “holdovers and career bureaucrats” like the Alt Right uses it to mean — to eliminate him as a way to prevent him from destroying the balance of power between the U.S. and R̶u̶s̶s̶i̶a̶ China, or destroying democracy with unspoken autocratic abuses of power.
We learn of former employees who’ve accused him of sexual improprieties (or worse!) and why “plenty of religious, socially conservative countries still manage to turn a blind eye to the sexual indiscretions of powerful men.” We learn of his tendency to lie about things both small and large. We learn that he’s taken secret payments from the foreign power, accepting their help in his election in exchange for selling out his country’s interests in exchange for his personal enrichment. We even hear whispers of “fake news” as he protests that the good people of the Philippines will never believe the “lying” media or United States government if they expose his actions. He even ultimately brags how the media is touting his strategic deal-making genius in playing the U.S. and China against one another.
It’s. All. Trump.
I have a theory, and it’s that while the entertainment industry realizes that they are unable to make blatant statements of support or opposition, that even the most bipartisan and evenhanded producers and writers are at the point of feeling like they need to do something beyond donning a knitted pink hat or retweeting an #Indivisble message. But they’re also bound by the realities of corporate networks and the fact that just under half the country saw the tangerine-hued ringmaster and thought, “he will do.”
I guess that short of an outright admission, which I doubt will ever come, we will be left listening for dog whistles and reading between lines. In the reality of this day, where columns and news articles can kill fascism, maybe hour-long political dramas can at least force people to confront the ridiculousness of the behaviors that have become normal in real life. I can only hope that the type of people who watch Sunday evening CBS shows are thoughtful enough to let the subtext through.
Then again, maybe they’re just concerned about making the Philippines great again.