Poe’s Law is one of those little adages that swirl around the internet, which warns that it’s impossible to create a parody so outrageous it can’t be mistaken for the genuine article. Originally he was talking about Creationism, and the idea usually gets whipped out in response to conservative ideas, though it’s not as if liberals are immune to getting carried away by their own nuttier ideas. But as all the noise about fake news swirls in the wake of our recent election, it’s hard to escape the fact that false or “satirical” content has been resonating much more strongly with Trump voters than even other conservatives.
This blurring of the lines between truth and satire cuts two ways in Swing State, which had the bad luck to land just as 2016 reached its climax. If things had turned out differently, the story of a struggling Seattle DJ stumbling into fame as a right-wing talk show host might have become a just-pleasant-enough political lampoon stocked with faces familiar from liberal favorites like Orange is the New Black and The Office. But the joke that was right-wing news has curdled, and this silly little movie just got a lot more complicated.
So when the actual conservative host in the studio next door has a massive stroke, voiceover artist and lefty DJ Ethan Smith (Alex Beh) fills in to help pay down his sizable debts. At least the Tom Fleischman Show doesn’t pay in free passes to “arctic yoga”. And besides, he can slip in plugs for the ill-advised doughnut hole business that he sank all his money into.
Around the same time, his aspiring journalist/documentarian ex — not to mention creditor — Adrienne (Taryn Manning) gets him some voice work on ad campaigns for the Democratic challenger Susan Davis (Angela Kinsey) in the upcoming gubernatorial race to unseat Republican incumbent — yes, in Washington state, just go with it — Richard Sollow (Billy Zane), where he meets Davis’ daughter, Julia (Lydia Hearst), and they start dating. Which is a little clunky, but ups the stakes for when, in the persona of “Charles Fern”, Ethan spews vitriol all over the Davis campaign.
I don’t mean to fault the movie for not offering an incisive critique of right-wing news, like the David Foster Wallace’s Host, from back in 2005. As necessary as it feels now, that’s not what it’s trying to be. It seems silly that by just donning a hideous sportcoat, a bow tie, and tortoiseshell glasses, and spouting some outlandish rhetoric, Ethan could not only pass for a conservative radio talk show host, but start burning up the charts and go national in record time. Then again, we’re living in a world where Alex Jones and Breitbart.com are considered infallible among the dominant voices on the right; if anything Ethan doesn’t go far enough. It’s almost cute what writer/director Jonathan Sheldon considered ridiculously outlandish when he wrote the script. Or it would be if the truth weren’t so horrifying.
But while Poe’s Law says it’s impossible to go far enough in scripting the Charles Fern show, it also makes it easy to overestimate the stupidity of the conservative establishment. I would love to believe that Ann Coulter is as silly and ridiculous as her stand-in, Ann Alcott (Elaine Hendrix), but I have to face up to the fact that she is frighteningly good at what she does. And writing a book like A Brief History of Liars: From Hitler to Hillary sounds less funny and more realistic these days. I would love to believe that the decision-making executives at Clear Channel — sorry, that’s now iHeartMedia — are the same empty suits running stand-in All Channel (Nick Loeb, Parry Shen). I would love to believe that the right wing is shot through with paranoid, ex-military conspiracy nutters and survivalists like Rouge Holmes (Ted Levine). It’s easy to laugh at these people. We spent most of this year snickering. I’m certainly not laughing now.
Still, there are a few things that Swing State has to say now, even if they don’t seem to have been on Sheldon’s mind. Chief among them is a reminder of how precarious the progressive position is, and how vulnerable the process is to “alternative” right-wing media. Ethan clearly doesn’t think he has much to lose or that he can do much damage as Charles Fern, but he moves the needle pretty far to the right when the governor’s race hangs in the balance. Of course, as a straight white guy in Seattle he’s probably pretty set either way. But then we have to remember all the Bernie Bros and Stein lefties hammering on Clinton through the general election. They also either thought they wouldn’t really make a difference in the outcome, or that there was no difference to be made between the two major candidates. And look how that turned out.
Maybe more serious is the way Ethan really seems to embrace his Charles Fern character. It’s one thing if it’s clearly a lampoon, and to us in the real movie audience it is. But within the movie’s world, he really gets into it, and takes an almost inordinate glee in humiliating his left-leaning callers. There is something dark in Ethan that lets him go there, and the movie doesn’t seem to engage with that at all. His progressive values are skin-deep; as soon as he puts on the mask he’s eager to act the bully, freed from the social opprobrium that otherwise keeps him in check.
We’ve seen these guys this year too, and yes, most of them are guys. In one anonymous internet forum after another they fester and egg each other on. If they seem progressive in the light, it’s only because that’s the easiest way to get what they want. They’ll sell out if they see the opportunity, and more of them did than is entirely comfortable to admit.
I admit, Sheldon doesn’t deserve all this criticism. He just wanted to make a fun little comedy sending up right-wing news back when it felt like that was a safe thing to do. But now we know that safety was itself a pleasant story that covered a real, deep ugliness. It was Sheldon’s bad luck for his movie to land when it did, but it’s the least of the casualties.
Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: close, but fail.