American television was about to be revolutionised by the advent of video on demand in 2007, when Netflix, having delivered over one billion DVDs, introduced streaming. This book explores the role that fictional television has played in the world politics of the US in the twenty-first century. It focuses on the second golden age of television, which has coincided with the presidencies of George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald J. Trump. The book is structured in three parts. Part I considers what is at stake in rethinking the act of watching television as a political and academic enterprise. Part II considers fictional television shows dealing explicitly with the subject matter of formal politics. It explores discourses of realpolitik in House of Cards and Game of Thrones, arguing that the shows reinforce dominant assumptions that power and strategy inevitably trump ethical considerations. It also analyses constructions of counterterrorism in Homeland, The West Wing, and 24, exploring the ways in which dominant narratives have been contested and reinforced since the onset of the War on Terror. Part III considers television shows dealing only implicitly with political themes, exploring three shows that make profound interventions into the political underpinnings of American life: The Wire, The Walking Dead and Breaking Bad. Finally, the book explores the legacies of The Sopranos and Mad Men, as well as the theme of resistance in The Handmaid's Tale.
This introduction provides an outline of the book's background and structure, as well as the arguments placed in the subsequent chapters. The book considers the US's relationship with the screen, with a particular focus on the idea of America and the history of Hollywood, to contextualise and theorise television's second golden age. It discusses the political importance of America's relationship with television in the twenty-first century, assessing the screening of the US under three very different presidents. The book advances an understanding of American politics as a 'discursive battlefield', on which arguments are won and lost. It explores how it is that fictional television can amplify, complicate, or open up dominant political understandings. The book also considers television shows dealing only implicitly with political themes. It argues that fictional television shows have made important political interventions that create the conditions of possibility underpinning the reality of life in the US.
After discussing America's historical and relationship with the screen, this chapter considers the broad political role played by fictional shows as the US transitioned into a new television age at the start of the twenty-first century. The examples drawn upon to begin to unpick the interweaving of America's politics and television are Friends and House of Cards. Through the twentieth century, America's political narratives were (re-)told and contested on the screen. The chapter reflects on the happenstance of Hollywood. Hollywood, changing audiences, and the invention of VHS helped to kill off the theatrical model. Television production shifted from New York to Hollywood, as studios realised they could join rather than beat the new medium. In its second golden age, fictional television helps to shape values, identities, and worldviews.
To recount America's relationship with the screen under Bush, Obama, and Trump, this chapter is structured in three parts. It first recalls the televisual events of 9/11, which had such a dramatic impact on US society and politics as well as the film and television industries. The chapter revisits the theme of propaganda and assesses the prevalence of films and TV focused on conflict during the War on Terror. Second, it explores Obama's frequent use of popular culture and his relationship with shows such as Homeland. The chapter recalls Obama's popular-culture fluency, across a variety of roles. Third, turning towards Trump, it outlines how we might make sense of his relationship with the screen, which is at once apparently straightforward and infuriatingly obscure. The chapter provides information on the symbiotic relationship Trump has with popular culture and the impact of his presidency on the very notion of fictional television.
To make an overarching argument against the historical disassociation of popular culture and world politics, this chapter is structured in three parts. First, it considers how and why it is that popular culture has been excluded from the study of world politics. To do this, the chapter traces a critical historiography of the study of world politics, mindful of the insights of Michel Foucault, Robert Cox, and Thomas Kuhn. The chapter rebuilds the conceptual link between the two, focusing on the importance of culture and meaning. Last, it reflects on the insights of some of the work that has acknowledged and explored the continuum between popular culture and world politics. The study of popular culture and world politics in IR has, as in Film and American Studies, tended to focus on film over and above television.
The shape and viability of the policies of American presidents have hinged upon victory and defeat in the discursive battlefield of world politics, of which popular culture generally and fictional television specifically are a vital part. To establish a framework in which to explore the relationship between the world politics of the US and fictional television, this chapter first outlines a conceptualisation of the relationship between world politics and fictional television. It then suggests how and why world politics should be thought of as a discursive battleground, and where television fits into this imagining. The chapter also highlights how well placed television is to fight and to win within this discursive war. It outlines a methodology for the study of fictional television, which guides the subsequent analysis in this chapter of some of America's most important television shows.
This chapter explores the theme of realpolitik, as the prioritization of the practical in the pursuit of power, over the moral or ideological. First, it recaps what is at stake for fictional television and world politics in their interlocking: namely, the role that popular culture plays in enabling, shaping, and delimiting political possibility. The chapter reminds readers that fictional television can close down as well as open up space for thinking and acting otherwise in world politics; fictional television can amplify as well as contest dominant discourses. Then, the chapter explores House of Cards and Game of Thrones in turn, asking how it is that each of the shows constructs a particular world politics and to what effect. On this final point, it returns to the initial discussion to consider whether the shows are encoded and decoded as reinforcements of dominant discourses, or whether they are 'read' as cautionary tales.
This chapter traces the interventions and impact of Homeland, 24, and The West Wing on America's world politics, with a focus on how Americans think and feel about counter-terrorism after 9/11. First, it maps out the relationship between these three shows and their fans, whether powerful politicians or ordinary people. All of these shows are problematic when it comes to helping write the era of the War on Terror. The chapter explores these difficulties in the next section. It argues that Homeland's efforts at identity contestation led to sedimentation and reification of the binaries upon which American counter-terrorism efforts have been based since 9/11. The third section considers the implications of fictional television's portrayal of torture during the era of the War on Terror. Finally, the chapter considers a related and similarly contentious issue: the need for pre-emptive military action to counter emerging but as yet incomplete threats.
The presidency has long been a popular topic for American film and television, with a multitude of contemporary shows focusing on the dynamics of the White House. This chapter considers the positive, progressive, and enabling role that fictional television can and frequently does play in American politics. It argues that television's second golden age has embraced a longer history of positive issue framing that has been of sustained importance in imagining and reimagining the US president. To do so, the chapter assesses a range of related television shows that increase the political possibility of future outcomes that were previously difficult to imagine. In turn, it also considers how portrayals of the US president in fictional television shows have helped to pave the way for the election of liberal, minority-ethnic, and women leaders. The principal shows discussed are The West Wing, 24, and Veep.
This chapter argues that The Wire is more than an important cultural depiction of contemporary urban life; it presents and fosters a radical sociological imagination, which begs for action. It also argues that the show serves to highlight and draw attention to the social, economic, and racial inequality at the heart of America. By revealing the intricate and intimate interrelations between society's layers, races, and classes, the show forces viewers to confront the ethics of tolerating and benefiting from these inequalities. The chapter discusses inequality in the US and The Wire before turning to the show's normative political implications. The Wire demands an ethical response from viewers in two principal ways. First, The Wire is a story about social structure. Second, The Wire implicates its audience through the structural-relational account of individuals and institutions.