How Philippine politics is like a comedy of terrors

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Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Selina Meyer in "Veep." Photo by LACEY TERRELL/HBO

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — We have finally done it.

As news of “Sampalan ng Passbook sa BPI” broke out — a grotesque combination of the “Suntukan sa Ace Hardware” meme and the actual, absurd confrontation between the two camps of the presidential frontrunner Mayor Rodrigo Duterte and the vice-presidential hopeful Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV at a BPI branch in Ortigas due to rumors of the former’s ill-gotten wealth — we have, as a friend has put it, finally transcended “Veep.”

Currently on its fifth season, HBO’s political comedy show “Veep” follows Julia Louis-Dreyfus's scrappy and irreverent Selina Meyer, who at the start of the series is in her second year as the vice president of the United States, and her general unease and irritation at being cast aside and mostly ignored by the president of the United States — a “spare tire,” to use a term bandied about during the local vice-presidential debate. Throughout the series, she attempts to assert herself, with an iron grip on what little power she has, her grossly inflated self-importance mingling with what tragically seems to be the overwhelming uselessness of the vice presidency.

 

Louis-Dreyfus’s portrayal of a strong woman elected into high office is terrifying, in part because, behind the political pleasantries and manicured appearances, Meyer — with her nuclear temper, questionable morals, and quick tongue dishing out the sharpest, most awful insults — is caught in many, many moments of weakness. Her team, all of which are also miserably flawed in their own ways, scrambles to make her look good whenever she makes mistakes, which is constantly, though their solutions often involve throwing someone else less important under the bus. “Veep” reinforces the idea that, perhaps, politics is mostly meaningless, and the (usually hapless) people involved in it aren’t always the best and the brightest. They certainly don’t always have interests beyond their own personal gains and respective images.

Loose-lipped Meyer, whom Emily Nussbaum of the New Yorker describes as “forever at risk of public embarrassment,” constantly threatens her own public image with careless remarks that could be easily misconstrued in a hundred different ways. Despite this, she is placed in charge of foreign relations, only to be faced with a hostage crisis in Uzbekistan two episodes later. Despite the truly terrifying implications of political failure and the primal fear of placing important global issues in the hands of bumbling, self-absorbed politicians, “Veep” homes in on micro-level breakdowns and personal failings, seemingly putting the important issues in the background — a sight that looks more and more familiar as we approach our own election date.

... as our own presidential and vice-presidential elections loom nearer and larger, one can’t help but feel like the country is stuck in some sick version of “Veep” and “Parks and Recreation,” where the small, sad punchline is ourselves.

 

Another television show, “Parks and Recreation,” which aired on NBC from 2009 to 2015, operates on a much smaller political scale. Leslie Knope, played by Amy Poehler, begins as the deputy director of the Parks and Recreation Department of Pawnee, a fictional town in Indiana. Contrary to what her last name suggests, Leslie is a wide-eyed optimist, scrappy in a different way from how Selina is, a true believer in the transformative power of government work. Her mission to work her way up to national office, where she can eventually exist with her idols, Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton, begins in the construction of parks. Leslie wants to make a difference in the lives of the residents of Pawnee, the town she grew up in and loves with all her heart. She can’t and won’t give up, no matter what stands in her way, be it incompetent government employees, miles and miles of red tape, reluctant interns, and people who just don’t care as much as she does. Leslie will find a way to get it done. A stark contrast to Selina’s self-involved search for power, Leslie is the embodiment of a public servant that wants to serve the people.

In “Parks and Recreation,” the problem isn’t Leslie. It’s the people. Despite Leslie’s best intentions, the electorate seems to constantly be against her, buying into personality politics and siding with “cooler” candidates who propose meaningless counteroffers. In Pawnee, approval is cheap, but even then Leslie won’t foot the bill. Her eagerness and earnestness may be off-putting; she’s like the parent who will pick the less fun thing that’s better for you in the long run. But while “Veep” capitalizes on satirical commentary and creative insults, a lot of “Parks and Recreation’s” comedy comes from Leslie’s constant failings and how she somehow never lets these truly unfair and absurd things faze her.

Parks and Recreation Amy Poehler (left) as Leslie Knope in "Parks and Recreation." Photo by CHRIS HASTON/NBC  

Just in the second season of “Parks and Recreation,” Leslie offends (and is offended by) Pawnee’s Venezuelan sister city because of her own personal prejudices among other things, is embroiled in a fictitious tabloid-perpetuated sex scandal involving a councilman that is crushed only by her mooning the host of a daytime talk show, fights against corporate sponsorship and the propaganda-driven manipulation of public opinion by a local sugar conglomerate, gets overlooked for the Woman of the Year award in favor of her male superior for an idea Leslie came up with, and faces the pitfalls of a budget deficit and her town’s crippling system, she herself being vulnerable to getting fired as a result of two state auditors making budget cuts. The funny thing is that it only gets worse from there.

Many of the episodes from both shows involve blunders that seem too absurd to be real. But as our own presidential and vice-presidential elections loom nearer and larger, one can’t help but feel like the country is stuck in some sick version of “Veep” and “Parks and Recreation,” where the small, sad punchline is ourselves.

 

Our own national elections have gone through numerous twists and turns that have had people in the country — and the rest of the world — scratching their heads, perhaps with thoughts recalling the question in a certain dated viral video: “Is this real life?” Certainly, much of the discourse has been on actual things that matter, but alongside that there has been a heaping serving of mudslinging, so-called hugot lines that mean nothing, claims of media bias, a Jenga tower of insults that has left diplomatic ties in a precarious state, and too-late-the-hero revelations of other candidates’ involvement in electoral fraud, extrajudicial killings, or undeclared ill-gotten wealth — basically evidence of them being more scummy than the accuser.

Upon accepting her Emmy in 2015 for her role as the veep, Louis-Dreyfus said, “It's getting trickier and trickier to satirize this stuff.” It's almost as if she were talking about the future of the Philippines.

Although they’re both comedies, “Veep” and “Parks and Recreation” feel ominous in many ways, both cracking jokes that hit too close to home. These comedies are almost a reality for some of us, and while it’s a joy to see on TV, it’s not so entertaining and is, frankly, alarming to witness it unfold on the news. That said, our fate, no matter what it turns out to be, is inescapable, and for better or worse, we're all in it together. And that’s no laughing matter.