Bureaucratic Comedy

Sunday, August 28th, 2016

The real divide in politics pits the people who think government looks like The West Wing against the people who think it looks like Yes, Minister:

The soaring principles of The West Wing did sometimes turn up in Yes, Minister (and its sequel, Yes, Prime Minister), but by the end of each half-hour they had usually been buried in a committee or snuffed out in a seedy bargain. The result may not have been an inspiring vision of good government, but it was one of the wittiest TV shows of the 1980s; this week, sadly, saw the death of Antony Jay, the British broadcaster who co-created and co-wrote it.

Jay was a man of the right; his writing partner, Jonathan Lynn, hailed from the left. They nonetheless worked well together, perhaps because the specific policies that popped up on their two shows barely mattered.


The setup was simple: A somewhat well-meaning but basically spineless politician takes command of the Department of Administrative Affairs, and the department does everything it can to keep him from changing anything. (Yes, Prime Minister kept the basic formula in place, but now he had the entire British government to deal with.) Early in the first show’s run, the viewer is primed to sympathize with the minister and to cheer his occasional reformist victories, but with time he comes to represent a different sort of social malady—a man willing to do virtually anything for votes and publicity, just as the bureaucrats he locks horns with are willing to do virtually anything to maintain the status quo. The two shows’ 38 episodes, which ran from 1980 to 1988, sometimes feel like a public-choice textbook in sitcom form, with characters happy to spell out the venal rationales for everything they do.


  1. Aretae says:

    Ya know, does anybody believe in West Wing any more? House of Cards vs. Yes, Minister?

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