HBO has built its success by making audiences sympathize with, among other classes of people, New Jersey gangsters of two different eras, sad-sack male prostitutes, failed professional baseball players, home-repair moguls who also happened to be polygamists, and entrepreneurial vampires. With three major projects in the works, it appears that the network has settled on a new category of antiheroes to sell to viewers: politicians.
HBO just bought the rights to ex-Washington Post reporter and two-time Pulitzer winner Barton Gellman’s Dick Cheney biography, Angler, and will produce a miniseries based on the look at Cheney’s two terms as Vice President. Julianne Moore is signed to play Sarah Palin in an HBO movie adaptation of Game Change, the chronicle of the 2008 presidential campaign by Time’s Mark Halperin and New York’s John Heilemann (no word on casting for Elizabeth and John Edwards, arguably the most cinematic characters in that narrative). And the network has begun work on Veep, a comedy about a female Vice President, written by acid British political satirist Armando Iannucci and executive-produced by columnist Frank Rich (who recently left the New York Times for New York magazine).
It’s telling that HBO picked projects that show politics and politicians in a less-than-noble light. The network solidified its position as the critical and commercial leader in pay cable with shows that encouraged viewers to identify with a morally neutral, or even evil, character. When we feel like we understand Tony Soprano, it’s because we tell ourselves we can see the rot at the heart of the suburbs, even those that aren’t populated by sociopathic gangsters. When we watch The Wire, identifying with a gunman such as Omar means we understand, as he does, the ways crime, business, and politics feed off one another in Baltimore. As Omar tells a lawyer who represents drug dealers, “I got the shotgun. You got the briefcase. It’s all in the game, though, right?” Preferring antiheroes is supposed to be evidence of our moral sophistication.
But there’s not a lot that’s cool about sympathizing with politicians. Tony Soprano, Omar, or Eric, the powerful vampire from True Blood, don’t really want your approval, so there’s something rebellious about bestowing it. But obsessing over politicians is giving them exactly the attention they want. And conversely, there’s nothing particularly taxing about watching a miniseries that reaffirms that Dick Cheney may have been overly fond of secrecy or a movie that tells us again that Sarah Palin may not have been wildly prepared for the 2008 campaign.
The risk for HBO is not just in trying to make its political projects fit its brand but in showing whether the network has anything new to say about politics at all. HBO hasn’t had a program about Washington since its short-lived improvisational show K Street folded in 2003. Importing Iannucci’s venomous take on politicians will certainly be a new tone, but it’ll be a gamble as to whether there’s anything to be added by translating Angler and Game Change from the page to the screen.