Is TV Getting More Conservative?

Will Rahn Senior Editor
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Over at the Free Beacon, Sonny Bunch has a nifty little piece arguing that FX’s little watched yet highly praised “The Americans” is the most reactionary show on television. And while he makes a good case, I’d contend there’s an odd, unnoticed glut of conservative-friendly TV these days, particularly on premium cable.

First, let’s take “The Americans,” an excellent show about Soviet spies raising a family in the Virginia suburbs during the Reagan era. “Phillip” and “Elizabeth” are both Russian-born deep-cover KGB saboteurs who have been trained to speak and act like everyday Americans. Together they run a travel agency, raise their teenaged American children, and spy for Moscow. Here’s Bunch:

  • As a general thematic matter, the Soviet Union is taken as a serious threat. There has been some revisionism in recent years that late-stage USSR activities weren’t that big of a deal because America was obviously destined to win the Cold War. This series dismisses that silliness entirely, showing the ways in which the Soviet Union was undermining America, stealing intel, and waging war on multiple fronts in a committed and vicious way.
  • There’s a running plot from the first season involving a black militant named Gregory, whom Elizabeth turned into a Russian spy when they worked together in the civil rights movement. He has been feeding the Russians intel for years, selling out his country for the international ideal of communism. This plays into a key part of reactionary criticism of the civil rights movement, namely that it was riddled with communists who actually hated America.
  • The “cowboy” Ronald Reagan’s efforts to spend the USSR into the ground with SDI/Star Wars and other military efforts are implicitly acknowledged to be correct through much of the first season, and then explicitly acknowledged in the season finale as the right call when a traitor tries to warn the Soviets off of trying to replicate the program due to its huge cost.
  • The second season has revolved around a subplot involving the fight against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. The show portrays it as a serious effort by the Soviets to undermine capitalism in the Western hemisphere—Elizabeth at one point refers to it as a “beachhead” in the communist movement, if I remember correctly—and a young Sandinista in America serving the Soviets is portrayed as a sociopathic murderer. In the universe of The Americans, the Sandinistas are bad dudes worth taking down.
  • Finally, there’s an ongoing plotline this year about Philip and Elizabeth’s daughter, Paige, and her attendance at church. Paige’s parents, obviously, are godless communists, so they’re pretty upset that she’s swallowed the opiate of the masses. In one particularly harrowing episode, however—after Philip has killed several people and is wrestling with the demons his job has left him with—we can see the redemptory power of faith and religion when he is told that he can still be forgiven for what he has done. In one of the show’s most powerful performances, a look that is simultaneously longing and relief and despair crosses Philip’s face when a pastor he has physically threatened with harm tells him his sins can be washed away like so much dirt. As Alyssa Rosenberg noted when the episode aired, this was Matthew Rhys’ Emmy reel episode.

All of this is on the money, and can even be expanded on. In one recent scene, for example, KGB agent Elizabeth goes off on a standard 80s liberal spiel about the Nicaragua war, complete with hypocritical sympathy for Catholic nuns and dissident journalists. Oliver North, of all people, was even given a writing credit on an episode this season.

But let’s also appreciate the subtle conservatism of a number of other high-profile shows on TV right now. I’ve already argued that Netflix’s otherwise mediocre “House of Cards” appeals to a conservative impulse by making the Washington elite — and Democrats in particular — look so thoroughly criminal. Likewise, HBO’s delightful “Veep” focuses on a morally bankrupt Democratic vice president and her hapless, unethical aides. The lefty writer Jonathan Chait has argued that the latter’s skewering of too-powerful oil lobbyists makes it an example of small-screen liberal propaganda. This ignores how today’s conservatives truly despise the K street crowd, and have their own critiques of Washington influence peddling that fit nicely with Veep’s.

Beyond overtly political shows, there’s also the send-up of limousine liberal tech billionaires on HBO’s “Silicon Valley.” The heavy on that show is an obnoxious, Eric Schmidt-esque progressive who keeps new-age gurus on retainer. One of the sometime heroes is an eccentric genius who’s clearly based on libertarian billionaire Peter Thiel. And the show’s creator is Mike Judge, a social satirist who has never done much to hide his libertarian leanings. (In Judge’s most recent film, the protagonist is a factory owner who must contend with his employees’ attempts to unionize and bankrupt the company with personal injury suits.)

And Judge isn’t the only celebrated righty filmmaker who recently signed a TV deal, either. Whit Stillman, a one-time writer for the American Spectator whose films have defended upper bourgeois values and mocked the violent ignorance of European leftists, has been tapped to make a pilot for Amazon.

There’s also the measured celebration of pre-socialist Britain on “Downton Abbey”, which has earned knocks from progressive pundits who see the show as too conservative. My colleague Matt Lewis argues that the fantasy show “Game Of Thrones,” despite all its hyperviolence and casual nudity, has a somewhat conservative message as well. Ross Douthat, meanwhile, has made the case that HBO’s “Girls” works as a social conservative commentary on liberal sexual mores.

Now, are any of these shows intentionally conservative? With the possible exception of Judge’s “Silicon Valley” and whatever Whit Stillman is cooking up, I’d say no. Much like Tina Fey’s “30 Rock,” “Veep” and “House Of Cards” feel conservative, in large part, because they’re so relentlessly cynical about what conservatives would consider the liberal ruling class. But conservatives would do well to see how some of their ideas still have traction in the culture at large, if only because it’s making for some fine TV.

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Will Rahn