89. "Big Brother," Yes, Minister (1980)
Welcome to the “100 Best Sitcom Episodes of All Time,” a countdown for winter 2012. Each episode will get a separate blog post, counting backward toward No. 1. A list of the programs revealed so far is here and an introduction to the project is here.
Yes, Minister is one reason I was never wild about the far more idealistic American drama The West Wing. The British satire, which pits well-meaning but rather cowardly cabinet minister Jim Hacker against red tape and bureaucracy, can be enjoyed by those on opposite sides of the political spectrum. Parks and Recreation's Ron Swanson would see it as proof that the government is a bloated, slow-moving creature whose only purpose is to suck up more and more money. But to Leslie Knope, the lesson of the sitcom would be that government needs energetic reformers (like herself) to shake the old boys' network out of its torpor.
In an echo of the previous episode on this list ("Daphne's Room"), "Big Brother" deals, at least tangentally, with privacy issues. Hacker, new to the cabinet, is saddled with the implementation of a "national database" with details on every citizen — much like Facebook without the cat avatars. He's flummoxed when a TV interviewer inquires about safeguards against the leaking of personal information (quotes from TV.com):
Jim: I'm glad you asked me that question, because... It's a question a lot of people are asking. And why? Because a lot of people want to know the answer to it... and let's be quite clear about this, without beating about the bush, the plain fact of the matter is... that it's a very important question indeed and people have a right to know.
Interviewer: Minister, we haven't yet had the answer.
Jim: I'm sorry, what was the question?
Sir Humphrey: If there had been investigations, which there haven't, or not necessarily, or I'm not at liberty to say whether there have, there would have been a project team which, had it existed, on which I cannot comment, which would now have disbanded, if it had existed, and the members returned to their original departments, if indeed there had been any such members.
There are two kinds of Yes, Minister episodes. In the first, Sir Humphrey gets his way by outsmarting or humiliating Hacker. In the second, Hacker attains some kind of victory, even if he never really threatens the supremacy of the civil service. The former may be better as political satire, but the latter is more satisfying in terms of narrative. Who wants to see the character with all the advantages at the beginning of the episode remain on top at the end?
"Big Brother" is a Hacker-wins-something episode, and he gets his privacy guidelines with a clever gambit that occurs to him when another character makes a random comment about a completely unrelated topic (a trope most often seen on murder mysteries like Columbo and Monk).
• I wonder if the Parks and Recreation producers ever studied Yes, Minister. It seems that both shows learned that the protagonist can't be completely ineffective or naive, even that seems like the more brutally satiric way to go. Hacker's victory in "BIg Brother," the fourth episode of the series, is akin to Leslie Knope finally getting that pit turned into a park.
Americans with their democratic roots generally do not trust elite bureaucrats to the extent that the French, Germans, British, or Japanese have in years past. This distrust leads to micromanagement by Congress through proliferating rules and complex, self-contradictory legislative mandates which make poor quality governance a self-fulfilling prophecy. The US is thus caught in a low-level equilibrium trap, in which a hobbled bureaucracy validates everyone’s view that the government can’t do anything competently.
So it makes sense that Leslie Knope's headaches come more from grandstanding elected officials and endless town meetings than from bureaucrats. I still want to see a thesis paper comparing Hacker with Knope.