Ally McBeal and the melodrama of public service

Have you noticed this – or is it just me?

Think of the TV soap-operas and the like that you have watched. Many which I easily recall deal with public sector workers – police and hospital dramas, school experience – The Bill, Casualty, Morse, Grange Hill, Broadchurch, Within These Walls, Silent Witness – oh – too many! Then there are private sector soap operas and sitcoms, but we could usefully add to that list reality shows like The Apprentice and Dragon’s Den and Evan Davis’s The Bottom Line [see my blog: The Bottom Line: Evan Davis and the Adoration of the Business Magi]. There have been soap operas – The Glass with John Thaw, Poldark, The Office (?) and others which, perhaps tellingly, I can’t remember.

I don’t include all the prominent community-based soaps like Eastenders, Coronation Street, Crossroads, Brookside and so on. We’ll see why.

Now, here’s the thing.

First, most are, as you see, based on public sector work. The private sector – the world of commerce and business – seems to have less of an appeal. Why? Well, I would say it is patly because the producers are drawn to the complexity of the human drama which is easily evoked in public sector experience – both in the work public sector workers do, and in their personal commitments and moral purposes. Scions of the private sector world like to boast that all can be reduced to ‘the bottom line’ with people, themselves, reduced to ‘human resources’. Fair enough – but bottom lines carry too little moral ballast to satisfy soap opera producers and viewers alike.

The second observation is more intriguing. Police, hospital and other public sector dramas are much (if not mostly) to do with relationships, which so frequently intrude on the professional action. Surgeons peer at each other meaningfully over their face masks; the concept and the moral bond evoked by ‘partner’ is central to almost all police dramas; a sexual tension is sustained by having a male and a female protagonist who are drawn together by the undertone of existential nausea in their work (Silent Witness); prison dramas seem naturally to evoke homosexual themes and tensions – suppressed or overt. The fabric of private sector representations, on the other hand, is made up of individual competition, scheming, striving for material advantage as a marker of success. Relationships are subservient to individualistic motives; caring, where it appears, is trumped by schadenfreude. This is a bleaker world of the narrowed eye and the retreat into shadow.

Well, you get the point.

Of course, this is an unwarranted (and under-researched, by me) generalisation, though I feel it to be true. So let us persist with it for a while with an exception – legal dramas.

One of the reasons public sector works so well in soap opera format, as I said, is its inherent melodrama. But more than that, the human condition saturates all interactions in such a way that the professional work (medicine, policing) can be counter-balanced with the private relationships. What we typically see is regular edits between police drama on the street and relationship drama in the office or at home. Neither is allowed to become tedious, tension is sustained on both sides of the drama by frequent cutting there and back. Of course, this could be managed in private sector representations, but, first, we have less of a stake in the work itself and so identify with it less; and second, the working drama at the level of actor we are accustomed to knowing (the police officer, the nurse, the teacher) is thin at best when it comes to the clerk, the office manager, the salesperson, the production engineer.

In summary, people offer endless possibilities for melodrama, speculation, surprise – ‘widgets’?…less than somewhat…

So – my exceptional case is the legal soap opera – notably Harry’s Law, and, for those who remember this far back, Ally McBeal. These hover somewhere between public and private – but evoke all the complexities and the human issues and relationships we truly care about. The edit between the professional practice and the real-life relationships is naturally and magnificently managed. In fact, what often happens in Ally McBeal is that a courtroom drama is played out in the public sphere with its echo back at the office in the private sphere – each feeds into, complements, bounces off the other. Ally McBeal tortures her mind over the disputed meaning of a kiss with an acquaintance, while in the courtroom edit one person is suing another for breach of contract arising from the misunderstood status of a kiss.

Trivial stuff.

But wait – not so! What this show did was nothing less than to represent modern sociology in an accessible, attractive way. In the contemporary (then) way relationships are being reforged, their behavioural paraphernalia recalibrated. The postmodern sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has recently talked of “liquid modernity”, the new fluidity, the liquefaction of what was once solid and known. Relationships were once rule-bound, pre-marital engagements calculated in months, different levels of sex categorised according to levels of familiarity – and the rules were known and more or less universal. Following the 1960s and 1970s came the iconoclasm of punk, the public derision of authority in Monty Python and Spitting Image, the laying bare of society’s suppressed pathologies in Cathy Come Home and Boys From the Black Stuff . The 1960s itself had been introduced by iconoclastic, austerity-smashing dramas and films – Room at the Top, This Sporting Life, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Death of a Salesman…anything and everything by Genet, Pinter, Ken Loach, Orson Welles and Beckett. Certainties melted as the moral authority underpinning them was stripped naked and dismissed.

A kiss introduced a new confusion of possibilities as new kinds of relationships and identities emerged – changed moral obligations, new risks. We needed to examine them, deliberate, work them out. Ally McBeal was forensic, accessible, identifiable in doing this. It took on the legal and emotional implications of internet relationships, large age differences between lovers, modern loneliness, the guilt of childlessness, sexism/racism/dwarfism and much more. In one episode a woman sues a man with whom she has fallen in love and agreed to marry, all on the internet. When they finally meet she discovers he suffers from a dwarfism he has not revealed. She sues for breach of contract. Not just this iconic soap opera, but many others are generating the new sociology, and we underestimate this at our peril. Some, like EastEnders and Grey’s Anatomy portray a conservative sociology, but others, such as the early series of Brookside, take a radical approach. All are political – especially (as Susan Sarandon once observed in an interview) the ones that are not!

All of the above leads up to my point.

The media and the political classes bemoan the collapse of interest in politics. We live in an age of dangerous apathy and cynicism towards politicians. I disagree not. Democracy demands engagement, argument. However, we can in extremis do without politicians – Belgium, unable to forge a coalition administration, managed without a government for no less than 589 days until December 2011. The sky did not fall in, and nor did GDP – in fact, GDP increased by about 10%! Often, we have to admit that society’s wellbeing would be served by a disabled government promoting no significant change, allowing for long periods of stability and taking stock.

But what of the collapse of public trust and value in public sectors and public services? This extended period of austerity has fostered just that, motivated by the coalition of government and media, each pushing a single narrative of ‘public-worst/private-best’. It is a long and convoluted story, but important to understand. David Marquand introduces it in an accessible way (Marquand, D. (2004) Decline of the Public, Cambridge: Polity Press). His argument is that government (with the media as its outriders) erodes trust in the public sector, introduces market competition and private sector practices in its place, and then privatises where it can. Secrecy (manipulation of information), the centralisation of decision making and the supremacy of market thinking are the important elments of the strategy. So serious is the threat this poses to public trust that Baroness Onora O’Neill dedicated her 2002 BBC Reith to the topic: (O’Neill, O. (2002) A Question of Trust, BBC Reith Lectures, Cambridge: CUP). “If we want a culture of public service, professionals and public servants must in the end be free to serve the public rather than their paymasters.”

It turns out that we cannot do without a public ethos and public service as readily as we can do without a government administration. What soap opera producers know, and what we should know, is that public service is intimately bound up with how we live our lives, with issues that matter to us deeply – they recognise the complexity of our lives, legitimise them, explore and rehearse them. All of us are sociologists in that we all think about what society means, we all do social work with friends and family, a mother is a nurse and doctor to her child, an elder brother a community police officer to his younger sister. If we were not, at root, altruistic and empathic, caring and tolerant we would not have invented and sustained society. This is why I did not include the community-based soaps – Coronation Street and its like. These portray precisley and obviously the point – that public sectors are of intrinsic interest to us because they are an extension of us. We are fascinated by Dragon’s Den and The Apprentice because they appeal to the atavistic – pre-social – condition in which we are ruthless and competitive advocates of our own self-interest. But that fascination is morbid.

A US university president, when asked by a Congressional Committee why not divert money from the Education budget to the Military, answered, ‘the military defends this country – the university makes the country worth defending’. It’s not hard to adapt the sentiment to the relationship between public and private sectors.

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