19 Mar 2010

The US healthcare debate creeps into TV fiction

The healthcare debate in America is slipping into popular TV dramas such as The Good Wife and House, blogs Sarah Smith.

In America right now it feels as though there is no escape from the debate over healthcare reform.

News of the latest tally of democratic representatives prepared to vote for the bill dominates every morning radio programme.

Analysis of the arcane parliamentary procedures being used to try and get this legislation passed fills the newspapers. The major TV news bulletins lead on healthcare stories every night and the 24-hour news channels speculate endlessly about what will happen to Obama’s presidency if he doesn’t win this vote on Sunday.
And then there are the millions of dollars that have been spent to buy hundreds of hours of TV advertising demanding both yes and no votes. Recently it’s felt there is no escape anywhere. Not even in your favourite – fictional – TV shows.
It’s not unusual for US TV dramas to reflect current events. Shows like the police and legal drama Law & Order often depict crimes that sound eerily familiar – very close in detail to high-profile real-life news events.

The third season of Damages with Glenn Close is on air in the States right now and this story is based very closely on the financial scandal that was Bernie Madoff’s multimillion dollar Ponzi scheme.

So it’s not a great surprise when the same issues I spend my days reporting on sneak into my evening entertainment on the TV.
But the number of mentions health insurance problems are getting on TV dramas right now is almost enough to make you believe all those Republicans who believe the entire entertainment industry is one big left-wing conspiracy.

Just take the CBS drama series The Good Wife – starring Julianna Margulies as the wronged wife of a corrupt politician – which is now showing in the UK on Channel 4.

(SPOILER ALERT:) We are several weeks ahead of you, so you won’t yet have the seen the episode based entirely around the attempts of an evil health insurance company to get out of paying for heart surgery on an unborn baby that aired this week.

It was compelling drama but there was no mistaking the fact that you were watching many of the big themes in the healthcare debate – companies who try to deny coverage to clients who need expensive medical procedures – being played out in prime time in the same week as the crucial vote. And the insurers did not come out of this one looking very good.

The White House must have been delighted – especially now that President Obama has started using the deliberate tactic of making the insurance companies the bad guys in this argument.
So they must have been equally delighted by the recent episode of the medical drama House which was based entirely on a day in the life of the hospital administrator Lisa Cuddy as she battled over a new contract with a big insurance company.

I won’t spoil the story for you as it hasn’t been on in the UK yet either – but I am sure you can guess who plays the good guy and who the baddies are in this one. What’s interesting about this episode is not just its topicality but the fact that it’s on Rupert Murdoch’s Fox entertainment channel.

Yes, the same Fox whose news channel, Fox News, is so resolutely opposed to the president’s healthcare reforms. 
Of course the show that used to most closely reflect the political debates in Washington was the excellent West Wing.

That was where any viewer could turn for brilliantly well observed American politics and very well informed depictions of how business really gets done in DC. And we have never needed it more.

Now that the most obscure parliamentary tactics are being wheeled out to try to get this bill passed through Congress we all need a West Wing-style tutorial on “deem and pass” voting rules and “reconciliation” procedures.

I did take a look at my old university textbook on American politics last night but it has never heard of these Congressional rules either. Yet I feel sure that the West Wing’s Toby would have understood them perfectly, and so would I once I’d heard him explain to Josh how they were going to use them to get President Bartlet’s agenda through the Congress.

Whoever said you’ll never learn anything from watching TV?