For this week’s What We’re Watching, Matthew Hayhow gives us his top picks of television past and present…

The West Wing

In our post-Sopranos era of shows about hatred, revenge and moral ambiguity, it’s refreshing  to find a TV show where everyone likes each other and just gets on. The West Wing seems to take place in an eerie parallel universe in which politicians care about working together to make a difference for the better, and aren’t completely jaded with the harsh nature of politics. It’s an idealistic view of the White House, sure, but though the series ended in 2006, perhaps we all need to revisit The West Wing to combat political cynicism and show the positive side of public service. And as Aaron Sorkin writes the vast majority of the scripts, pretty much every line is beautifully crafted.

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House of Cards (UK)

Before Frank Underwood there was Francis Urquhart. The American version is a slick, fun entertainment, but the story fits the context of British politics better and says much more about its respective government. House of Cards is a product of the desolate post-Thatcher years, when the country was run entirely by ugly old white dudes, in contrast to the beautiful and more diverse cast of the American show. It’s also much more cynical in its depiction of government – the American version is still has a kind of rollicking playfulness to it, with Kevin Spacey suspiciously sneaking in and out of the White House like a cartoon burglar to straight up murder someone without ever getting caught – but the British version is truly bleak. We’re just better at cruelty. It’s why an American Fawlty Towers has never worked, and a British version of, say, The West Wing could never happen.

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South Park

After South Park found its boundary by Comedy Central refusing to depict a certain prophet,  the show seemed to have blown its wad. But Season 19 is a return to form for the four boys from Colorado, by virtue of a change in format. Unlike the episodic nature of previous seasons, in which the following episode could be about literally anything, this season takes aim at one aspect of modern life in particular; political correctness and social justice. Like previous seasons, each episode satirises something different, but all of the targets pertain to the new wave of PC brigading. The strength of the attacks are reinforced by the story arc about the immensely quotable PC Principal (‘you PC, bro?’) taking over from Principal Victoria as principal of South Park Elementary, and the whole season functions as a well-structured argument against political correctness. The best episodes are the ones which feel like classic South Park, where the kids are just kids and the story is like a dirty episode of Peanuts, so the stand-out episode for me was ‘Tweek x Craig’, a funny story about two straight characters coaxed into pretending to be gay for the sake of political correctness, and a sly acknowledgement of the weirder side of South Park fan art.

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Mr Robot

Finally, a drama about hacking that feels authentic. No one ‘attacks the mainframe’ by tapping wildly on a keyboard for five seconds (looking at you, Hackers) but treats its audience with respect by depicting the world of coding and the internet honestly, and it pays off. Mr Robot feels like the world we inhabit, and cuts at the heart of the problems we face now. It’s a satire on our vulnerable society of digital security and corporate culture, and the ethical problems that come with both, with obvious nods to Facebook, Apple, Anonymous and the Occupy movement. But it’s also a character study of a new breed of hero; our protagonist Elliot has echoes of superhero in the necessity of hiding his powers, but instead of a brave, physically powerful character like Batman or Superman, the superheroes of today are nerdy, socially anxious beta-males fluent in Python and JavaScript. It borrows its nihilism, unreliable narrator and some of its tone from Fight Club, but Mr Robot is an original, exciting and incredibly relevant piece of long form drama that has the potential to be remembered like Fight Club or Taxi Driver as a fierce document of our time.

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By Matthew Hayhow

Writer and journalist. Watches movies. Shouts at pidgeons. Twitter - @Machooo Email mhayhow.enquires@hotmail.com