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May 22, 2008

Only human

Janehorrocks The next time someone hands you that cliché about how wonderful things would be if only women ran the world, hand her (it's usually a her, for obvious reasons) a copy of The Amazing Mrs. Pritchard.

My friend Mike, a font of all things eclectic, recently loaned me his copy of this six-episode BBC series, about a supermarket manager who impulsively decides to become a candidate for prime minister -- and wins the election. At first glance, Mrs. Pritchard looks like classic wish fulfillment for both feminists and anyone who's ever wanted to stick it to the politicians -- in other words, nearly all of us.

However, as the action shifts from the excitement of the independent outsider's campaign to the gritty day-to-day reality of running the government, the tone gradually turns more realistic, and thus much, much darker.

While Mrs. Pritchard is not someone I would vote for -- I usually found myself agreeing with her opposition in Parliament -- her love for her country and desire to help people make her an engaging and sympathetic figure to watch. Unfortunately, for those who watch carefully, her sunny optimism is a red flag almost from the beginning. She and her largely female coalition go to work with the highest hopes and ideals, convinced that the new PM has her finger on the pulse of the "great British public" and knows all about how to gauge their opinions, improve their lives, and get them more involved in politics. Then she discovers how easy it is, when you have power, just to tell people what to do and make them do it, whether it's truly in their best interests or not. Such is the nature of the political process that the lovable middle-class mother of two begins to turn into a bully.

By the last episode, Mrs. Pritchard's family is falling apart and almost every one of her advisers has been morally compromised. And one of the few who's managed to keep her nose relatively clean is being corrupted by none other than the idealistic Mrs. Pritchard.

Though the "skeleton in the cupboard" that threatens to bring her down is actually her husband's, not her own, Mrs. Pritchard's desperate attempts to cover it up and hang on to power -- for the sake, of course, of "the greater good" -- make her earlier sneers at other politicians (including President Bush) look bitterly ironic. With one last chance to rescind her actions and make the ethical choice, it's no longer easy to predict what she'll do.

At least a few viewers have complained that the show gives strong roles only to women, and the only men to be seen are weak or immoral or both, but it seems to me that's part of the point. Mrs. Pritchard almost fully carries out the old cliché about turning everything over to the women (there's one eye-rolling moment when she announces a plan to sell Whitehall, and brushes off an adviser's reminder of all the historic moments that took place there with the remark that all those moments involved men). But while the show explores some of the particular dilemmas and struggles that women face, it also shows us the sobering truth that, whatever new group you bring in to run things, there's no getting away from human nature. It is, in fact, one of the most devastating indictments of human nature, male or female, that I've ever seen.

Perhaps Mrs. Pritchard would have done well to read her Dorothy L. Sayers:

Indeed, it is my experience that both men and women are fundamentally human, and that there is very little mystery about either sex, except the exasperating mysteriousness of human beings in general. . . . It used to be said that women had no esprit de corps; we have proved that we have -- do not let us run into the opposite error of insisting that there is an aggressively feminist "point of view" about everything. To oppose one class perpetually to another -- young against old, manual labour against brain-worker, rich against poor, woman against man -- is to split the foundations of the State; and if the cleavage runs too deep, there remains no remedy but force and dictatorship.

The Amazing Mrs. Pritchard is available at Amazon, but you can also find it at Netflix or Blockbuster Online if you prefer to rent rather than buy. (Note: There's strong language and one quick, blurry, hard-to-see side shot of the Pritchards' elder daughter posing nude for a men's magazine.)

(Image © BBC)

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