Original Airdate: May 2nd, 2013 on BBC Two
David Tennant has traded a helmet-esque ginger wig for cheesy blonde highlights as we go from talking about Gracepoint to The Politician’s Husband. It’s a three-episode miniseries and a spiritual successor to writer Paula Milne’s award-winning 1995 effort, The Politician’s Wife. Husband didn’t win as much acclaim, but it’s still well worth a watch. Why, you ask? Let me count the ways!
- Political sausage-making. This may just be an Oryx thing, but I’m an absolute sucker for anything that takes the lid off a seething hotbed of institutional backbiting. Big social organizations seem opaque and abstract to an outsider. What really goes on in schools, hospitals, churches and police stations? Entertainment that promises an authentic glimpse into the greasy guts of a social system tantalizes us with answers to these questions, and Husband is no slouch in this respect. When scandals, showdowns and speeches from the world of politics make the headlines in Husband, there’s layers of incident behind what comes out in the public eye, though most of it boils down to power struggles of one kind or another. Which leads me to…
- Scheming. Nothing raises the dramatic stakes like a group of people secretly conspiring to undermine and usurp one another. No one’s trying to kill each other here, but the stakes are entire careers and the leadership of the UK. Husband has the action play out at home and in the office. Aiden Hoynes (Tennant) is the former Secretary of State for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, and after a failed attempt at a power grab, he sees his wife Freya (Emily Watson, Corpse Bride) get promoted to the Secretary of Work and Pensions position. Later in the series, the cliche “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” is invoked in an unrelated situation, and it’s meant to underscore the plot. But for Aiden it’s in reverse–first he tries to make Freya an accomplice to his schemes to get back at rival Bruce Babbish (Ed Stoppard, The Pianist) and then when she proves less than pliable he sets out to destroy her as well.
- Aiden Hoynes. The series is strong on plot, but it’s truly a character study. It’s interesting to consider how Hoynes compares to Frank Underwood, Kevin Spacey’s monstrously amoral power-hungry politician in House of Cards. Both are willing to go to more or less any lengths to seize the reins of power, but Aiden seems much more human and real. Hoynes’ son Noah (Oscar Kennedy) has a serious case of Asperger’s and we get several glimpses of Hoynes’ sadness for his son’s travails and Hoynes’ compassionate management of Noah’s outbursts. He has a strong relationship with his father (Jack Shepherd, Wycliffe) and often turns to him for counsel and companionship. Despite his efforts to sabotage and undermine Freya, he genuinely loves her and when the Hoynes’ au pair Dita (Anamaria Marinca, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) makes a pass at Aiden he rejects her without batting an eye. He’s not a cartoon devil, unlike some other protagonists I could name.
- Beautiful direction. There’s so many great shots in this show, and this is only buttressed by the very dramatic looking interiors and exteriors of buildings like the Palace of Westminster. The shots are elegantly and lovingly framed, but the direction remains unobtrusive and accessible. It’s a pleasure to watch.
- No political substance. Look, I get that part of the point of political dramas like this, Cards and The Thick of It is that politicians spend the bulk of their time and energy on strategies and plots and very little on actually thinking about policy solutions or their constituents. At one point, the show lampshades this by having the House of Commons Whip Marcus Brock (Roger Allam, Endeavour) point out to Babbish that “If we devoted the same amount of time and energy to solving unemployment or child poverty as we do our Westminster power games, we might have solved them by now.” This may be well observed, for all I know, but it’s narratively unsatisfying. There’s no stakes for the viewer in a race between Hoynes and Babbish for control of the Prime Minister’s office if both of them are essentially apolitical assholes who just want power. Every time the characters take a political stand, there’s always an ulterior motive and there’s never any deeply felt principles or beliefs behind their positions. I get that this is part of the point, but it’s still alienating and unsatisfying. Fans of The West Wing will have twigged to the fact that Milne is paying tribute to that show by naming her characters Hoynes and Babbish. While I’m by no means a West Wing superfan, at least the characters on that show were engaged with actual political issues.
Motivation: Again, it’s not shocking, but this show about fiendish politicians is driven entirely by their lust for power.
Final Episode Judgment: 9/10. I recommend the entire series, but the first two episodes are particularly strong. The third one’s not so bad, but it does bring the overall rating for the show itself down to 8/10, mostly due to a ludicrous plot development in the third act.
NEXT TIME: I review Agent X in an attempt to find a show that is the complete opposite of Husband in every way while still being a political drama!