Television: Desperately seeking a political edge to these saucy servants of the rich

There’s a Marxist message about class struggle deep in ‘Devious Maids’, but it’s been lost under the sex and silliness

Self-help: Roselyn Sánchez, Edy Ganem, Ana Ortiz, Dania Ramírez and Judy Reyes in Devious Maids (RTÉ Two, Tuesday)

Self-help: Roselyn Sánchez, Edy Ganem, Ana Ortiz, Dania Ramírez and Judy Reyes in Devious Maids (RTÉ Two, Tuesday)

 

‘Engels, I enjoyed your new essay,” says Marx. “It’s a very good analysis of the condition of the worker under capitalism. But . . .”

“But?” asks Engels.

“But I had a few ideas,” says Marx.

“Go on,” says Engels. “I’m listening.”

“I think the workers should roll their eyes more at how silly the uptight capitalists are,” says Marx. “Because the workers are ‘sassy’.”

“Okay.”

“And what if . . . what if one of the workers had a saucy, flirtatious relationship with the capitalist? She could like, hoover in a ‘sexy way’ or something. And she could say things that have double meanings.”

“This is gold,” says Engels, scribbling it all down. “I don’t know what ‘hoover’ means because I’m from the 19th century, but this is gold.”

Marx paces the room because he’s on a roll. “And what if we threw in a murder mystery?” he says. “Because everyone loves a good murder mystery.”

“And there could be a jaunty Spanish-guitar soundtrack at all times?” suggests Engels. “In case murder, economic inequality and forced migration make anyone feel bad.”

“And instead of The Condition of the Working Class in England,” says Marx, “We could call it Devious Maids, set it in LA, and Carla from Scrubs could be in it.”

Marx and Engels high-five one another. “YOLO!” says Marx.

Deep in the DNA of Devious Maids (RTÉ Two, Tuesday), the new US drama about Latina servants working for members of the 1 per cent, there is a political howl of rage. Okay, it might be very deep in the DNA, but trust me, it’s there. A high-camp, postmodern soap opera cut from the same cloth as Revenge and Desperate Housewives by the makers of the latter, Devious Maids is a show about glamorous überbitches, toothy, ab-baring hunks and ambitious, eye-brow-raising Cinderellas, and it features many long, lingering shots of opulent living (even one of the maids’ houses is nicer than mine). The rich employers of our devious maids might have money and power, the title suggests, but the maids have guile and guts. And that’s nearly as good, right? Well, no.

American television has always struggled with class. It doesn’t have the UK’s tradition of kitchen-sink soap operas or class-conscious auteurs like Jimmy McGovern, Mike Leigh or Paul Abbot. Indeed, classic depictions of the American working class are usually found in remakes of British shows – All in the Family, Sanford and Son, Shameless – though Roseanne and Friday Night Lights are noble exceptions.

More usually, ordinary working class lives are rendered in two contexts in American drama: crime stories or as opposites-attract foils for the wealthy. So in the woeful sitcom Two Broke Girls, one of the broke girls originally comes from riches. In the excellent Ugly Betty, the title character’s well-drawn working-class roots are just a base from which she is propelled into a world of plenty. In the so-so The OC, a poor kid is fostered not by a middle-class family, but by a super-rich one. Even in a programme as diversely populated as Orange is the New Black, they needed to use a blonde yuppie as their POV character.

The rich are the norm on American TV, while poverty is just a narrative device (it usually happens to rich people on their way to riches). So I’m not going to be too hard on Devious Maids’ silliness just yet. The characterisation is, at this early stage, a bit weak, but the show is pacy and often funny in its campy melodrama (“My maid was murdered!” wails a sociopathic panto dame, unsure how to clean blood from a carpet). And amid all the froth, some genuinely angry politics elbows its way in, most notably in a subplot about a rich, shallow “actress and mother” whose heartbroken nanny is separated, by economic necessity, from her own son.

Of course, there are also two whole subplots about maids trying to seduce their employers, and it may eventually devolve into yet another Horatio Alger story about class mobility. But if, as the series progresses, sensational storylines are actually used to reveal hard social realities, Devious Maids could be an interesting televisual mutation worth watching. As Karl Marx once said: “YOLO!” (I think he was referring to historical materialism.)

Glasgow Girls (BBC Three, Tuesday) is less afraid of realistically rendered working-class lives than Devious Maids, and it revels in its urban wastelands and lonely tower blocks. Based on the true story of a group of Glasgow schoolgirls who campaigned to stop the dawn raids and deportation of asylum-seeking classmates, it’s beautifully shot and passionately, naturalistically acted, but it suffers a little from its docudramatic good intentions. The cause is just, the characters are pure and the villains faceless from the very start, so it lacks dramatic roughage.

On the other hand, there are less morally nuanced dramas on television. The message of CSI (RTÉ Two, Wednesday) could not be clearer: capturing, torturing and chaining up young women in the basement is wrong. As the camera lingers on the lightly garbed, firmly-manacled, wet-eyed victims trembling, and Ted Danson looking sad and increasingly like one of the heads on Easter Island, it is very clear: abduction and murder might be well lit and a little bit sexy, but it’s wrong.

CSI continues to follow the same formula: unusual deaths, autopsies, jump cuts, flashbacks, makey-up-sounding science, tank tops and enough characterisation for one of the more complex Mr Men books. Indeed, most characters have at least one character trait and some even have two (if you count “being Ted Danson”).

In the first of this week’s two-episode double bill, the whole gang – Boss Guy, Young Guy, Tough Guy, Nerd Guy, Woman Guy, Other Nerd Guy and Ted Danson – use science to catch a serial killer who has kidnapped their friend (Girl Guy) and then . . . yawn. Yes, CSI has over its 14 series and two spin-offs managed to make crime boring. It survives, I suspect, as a sort of self-affirmation for those with a low bar for good behaviour. “I might have problems,” says such a viewer, “but I have never disembowelled a young lady with a scythe in a tableau based on Dante’s Inferno. Because that, as CSI has made abundantly clear, is wrong.”

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