No Political Parties On Teevee


It’s a bit early to tell about how good a series Boss will be, though we can confidently say that Kelsey Grammer is an excellent actor and that the creator has done a good job of giving him opportunities to show this. Also that Erik Satie is a go-to guy when a film or TV series needs a wistful piano piece. We can also see that the show has consciously chosen the “No Party Given” concept, where a show about politics does not identify the political party the characters belong to. Gus Van Sant, the director of the pilot, addressed this a few months ago by saying that “The show isn’t about political platforms and ideas as much as (the characters) grabbing as much power as they can. You can look at the machine without having to take sides.”

Now, there are several forms that No Party Given (or NPG) takes. One is where the party is simply left very vague. The other, and this is the category of Boss, is where the identity of the political party is obvious and yet is left unstated. Boss is about the mayor of Chicago, and therefore the character is a Democrat. He has to be, because Chicago is a Democratic town; there hasn’t been a Republican mayor in the lifetime of anyone under 80. When the character takes sides in a statewide primary, it has to be a Democratic primary; the political machine is a Democratic machine. Only they don’t say it.

There’s nothing new about this; concealing the party, even when it is supposed to be obvious, is a long-standing tradition. It just seemed to be changing a bit in recent years, not always and not everywhere (The Thick of It followed the Yes, Minister tradition of not naming the parties… Update: as noted in comments, Yes, Minister really used a “non-existent third party”), but enough that there seemed to have been a bit of a shift: The West Wing, of course, was specific about the party ID, and more recently The Good Wife has been willing to call a Democrat a Democrat.

The reasons for not mentioning a party, even when all the signs point to one, are well known; they can be divided into reasons of timidity, reasons of convenience, and reasons of theme. The timid reason is that if you don’t talk of Republicans or Democrats or Tories or Liberals or Labour, nobody can be offended that you made their party look bad (or made the other guys look too good). The convenient part of not mentioning the party is that even if we all know what the party is, the writers still have more freedom than if they spoke the actual word; they can fictionalize things more than they could with real parties. It’s the same reason Boardwalk Empire decided it was better off changing some of the names; Nucky Johnson is dead, he can’t sue, but a thinly disguised version of the real thing still creates more freedom than the real thing. The Chicago Sun-Times assigned a commentator to judge Boss‘s accuracy in its portrayal of Chicago politics, which of course is not high. But because they aren’t mentioning parties, the accuracy doesn’t matter so much; it keeps the larger-than-life element you arguably need for this kind of story.

The thematic reason is what Van Sant mentioned, that the show wants to focus on the machinery of the political system rather than any particular party: the points being made in Boss (or Yes, Minister) are about city political skullduggery, and would presumably be the same no matter what party ran the town. A party name, in this theory, would allow halft the audience to have an “out” by nodding and saying “That’s what Democrats are like” (or “That’s what Republicans are like” if someone did a show about a solidly Republican area). The idea is to make points about political power plays, not ideology. The Chicago of the show has been described by participants as a sort of “kingdom,” and the concept is to look beyond party and spin a melodramatic tale about the choices powerful people make.

At times, this idea can turn into the bane of so many show biz treatments of politics: the idea that ideology and party labels don’t really matter, that no matter who you vote for, you get the same machinations. This idea is especially appealing to show business people because they are often a complicated ideological mix; you’re more likely to find a truly “socially liberal and fiscally conservative” person working in show business than you are in a modern government. This can lead to a woolly portrayal of government that, by getting beyond ideology, ducks the issues that shape government, even what is functionally a one-party government (anyway, once you bring wider races into the mix, you’re no longer talking about one-party rule). Eliding party identification is the style of political ads – if you’re running in a district or riding that is uncongenial to your party, your ads skip the party labeling and emphasize the general goal of getting things done. Or you accuse your opponent of doing terrible things.

Again, it’s too early to tell if Boss will go that route; it might dig deeper than that. But when you look at earlier works that tried to show the workings of government without mentioning parties, that is a problem they often encountered. Something like the movie Advise and Consent, which is clipped at the beginning of this post, is an example of that: a very entertaining movie, but it doesn’t really go deep into the political system, and one of the reasons it doesn’t is that the parties have no names or traditions or style. Avoiding party names creates freedom for screenwriters, but it can also impose some constraints of its own. We’ll see where Boss winds up.

(Additional note: Grammer’s ability to escape being typed as Frasier Crane shouldn’t be too surprising. The problem with his last two shows, as far as he was concerned – they obviously had other problems – was that although they were theoretically trying to present him as a different type of character from Frasier, their setups had a lot of similarities to Frasier; in all these shows, he played a pompous guy moving back to a town and adjusting himself to some kind of new arrangement. Apart from being a drama, Boss doesn’t have the Frasier problem because it gives us a Kelsey Grammer character who is an established member of the show’s community.)

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.