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The death of TV satire

The new series of Spitting Image was released last month to mixed reactions. Reviews seem to reveal a clear generational divide, older reviewers loved it, younger ones did not. Whilst I have no doubt it would have been ground-breaking for its time; it seems almost as if the show’s cult-status has encroached on its subversiveness. A puppet portrayal has become more of an honour than an embarrassment for political figures. Spitting Image seemingly joins the growing list of contemporary satires which do little more than mock the surface image of power rather than penetrating its structures and methods. To put it simply, satire has joined the game rather than question its rules. 

It certainly feels as though we are bereft of genuinely agitational and innovative satire on the TV both sides of the Atlantic. There is a scant difference between modern political satires like Mash Report and The Daily Show. Both seem to operate on the same old tiresome format and really add nothing new. Legendary British satirist Chris Morris described most satire as something which essentially, ‘’placates the court,’’ implying that satirists far too often mock elite figures in a gentle and harmless way. As Morris correctly points out, in these particularly testing times satire ought to bring a bit more clout and be more challenging. 

I like to think of the role of satire through looking at a popular theory of media objectivity known as Hallin’s spheres. This was a theory created by Daniel C. Hallin in his book The Uncensored War (1986) to explain the coverage of the Vietnam war. According to Hallin, political and cultural discourse falls into three spheres: consensus, legitimate controversy, and deviance. Under the sphere of defiance, order is maintained by keeping the deviant out the mainstream or branding it as radical, dangerous, or just unacceptable. A good example of this sphere would be the censorship of punk bands like the Sex Pistols in the 1970s after mounting pressure from the Christian conservative right. I believe if satire is to achieve anything it should operate within the same sphere. Satire like punk is inherently counter-hegemonic : it fights against the dominant culture and actively works to undermine it. 

Comedies like Brass Eye are remembered precisely because it confronted the taboo subjects of the time and was unhinged in its ridicule of politicians and celebrities alike. Politicians got no honour from being embarrassingly pressured into endorsing campaigns against the use of a made-up drug from the Czech Republic. In fact, for many, appearances on Brass Eye could be potentially career-ending. 

Do not get me wrong, there are still popular satires out there which have an heir of subversiveness to them. Sacha Baron Cohen’s series Who is America from a couple years back, and his recent Borat sequel offer a clear example of what most satires today are missing. Where most modern satirists would make comments on the observable features of politicians, Cohen exposes their hidden prejudices and devious desires. His exposure of Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani’s inappropriate behaviour not only forced Giuliani to attack Cohen on Twitter but has no doubt done interpretable damage to his career. The problem with satire is one which lies exclusively with TV satire. Social media sites like Twitter and Tik Tok have become the new breeding grounds for satirical hot takes on the state of politics. Satire that is actually controversial and cutting-edge. If you prefer your political commentary watered down and unoffending to the ruling forces, keep watching TV’s failing formats but anyone with a political conscience can realise TV satire is dying. 

Image: Mattbuck via Wikimedia Commons