Political Thrillers vs Political Dramas: What Are the KEY Differences?

While shows such as The Crown and House of Cards have been recent hits, political thrillers and political dramas have been around since the dawn of storytelling. After all, Shakespeare set many of his greatest plays amongst the halls of the politically powerful.

Audiences have always been fascinated with gaining an insight into the world of politics. From stories set inside the White House, a Royal Court or the CIA. These stories get to the heart of conflict and to great drama.

But how do political thrillers and political dramas compare? What are the key elements of each genre and how are they different? We investigate…

What is a Political Thriller?

Most simply, a political thriller can be defined as…

A thriller set against the backdrop of a political power struggle.

Political thrillers deal with conflicts of a political nature. As soon as the world of politics hits the screen, audiences can expect suspenseful plot-driven stories. The stakes can’t get any higher than the fate of the whole world, right?

Political thrillers can include, but are not limited to, the following…

  • Political corruption, terrorism and warfare.
  • National or international political scenarios.
  • Real stories and true themes, often relating to significant historic events.
  • Individuals that do everything they can to protect their country. Or individuals that defy a power that threatens the safety of a population.
  • Most notably, they explore local, national or worldwide affairs that an audience can relate to.
  • The stakes within these stories are immense. Often the fate of a nation is in the hands of one individual.
  • Audiences understand the importance of politics – it’s often a case of life or death.
  • Those that explore historical events provide a ‘behind the scenes’ perspective that audiences are intrigued by.
  • They often force an audience to consider what would happen if this was their world. Although the themes and scenarios explored can be extreme, an audience can relate to them because there is always a potential for politics to take a turn for the worse.
  • Politics relates to everyone.

What is important to note is that political thrillers usually don’t attempt to change an audiences’ political view, or inflict a writer’s personal opinion on an audience. Instead, they explore the possibilities of politics in certain historical and contemporary climates.

What is a Political Drama?

A political drama can best be described as…

A political drama is a drama with a political component, whether reflecting a writer’s political opinion or describing a specific political event or series of political events.

Where there’s politics, there’s drama. We only have to look at the state of the news currently to understand that. So it’s no surprise that political dramas have always been popular and continue to mark their place within the industry.

It’s a genre that certainly a lot of people can relate to. Everyone in the audience can imagine the impact national or international political decisions can have on the entire world.

Political dramas frequently refer to history, international politics and events of great political significance. More often than not, these are events that an audience can recall within their own lifetime. The audience can also understand what is at stake here as these events would impact them if it were a real scenario. Hence, they may emphasise with the pressures leaders face with when dealing with such wide-scale conflict.

Political dramas can explore the following…

  • A main character facing political corruption.
  • Conspiracy theories.
  • A personal journey, where a character battles not only a political conflict, but an emotional one. This may involve a debate about what is best for the greater good.
  • A commentary on political events, either in theory or reflecting real-life events.
  • The fate of the world being in the hands of one person or a small group of people.

The higher the stakes, the more drama that ensues. All political events and scenarios have heightened stakes, so lots of drama can be expected. Political dramas focus on a select few characters to explore how this drama personally affects them and their lives.

Regardless of how this impacts the world, an audience will almost always be more invested in a character’s personal journey (character arc). While an audience can relate to the impact of worldwide political events, they can arguably relate more to the emotions of an individual character.

How Do Political Dramas and Political Thrillers Compare?

To consider where the lines cross and divide between political thrillers and political dramas, it’s best to go back to the basics. How do thrillers and dramas compare?

The Definition of a Thriller…

Thrillers are characterized and defined by the moods they elicit, giving viewers heightened feelings of suspense, excitement, surprise, anticipation and anxiety.

In regards to political thrillers, these feelings arrive as a result of political events. More often than not these are worldwide or national events that would affect millions of people.

An audience can expect to feel the full extent of a thriller when the stakes involve global catastrophe. The anxieties explored in political thrillers play on the real-life anxieties that the general population may feel about politics and how heavily it can influence the world.

House of Cards Political Thriller

The Definition of a Drama…

Drama is a genre that relies on the emotional and relational development of realistic characters. 

The genre of drama is broad and encompasses a range of sub-genres. More often than not, the essence of the story explores a character facing issues stemming from themselves, others or forces of nature. In the case of political drama specifically, the conflicts arise out of political tension, corruption or change.

Drama arguably centres more on the personal and emotional responses of a character than suspenseful action sequences (as seen more in thrillers). However, don’t all good stories explore their protagonists in this depth? Shouldn’t all good characters be emotional and realistic to a certain extent?

All forms of television and film are essentially forms of drama. This suggests there is a clear crossover between political thrillers and political dramas. But where do the lines actually blur? Let’s take a look at the main similarities and differences…

So, What Actually Are the Differences Between Political Dramas and Political Thrillers?

Differences:

  • While political thrillers often create suspenseful plot-driven stories, political dramas offer more of a focus on the more personal conflicts experienced in political situations.
  • Dramas often seek to bring out emotions that audiences can relate to or emphasise with. They bring the everyday to an audience. This, in a political case, may make an audience consider not only the power struggles at hand, but also the emotional struggle political figures experience too.
  • The stakes within political thrillers are arguably more suspenseful and would provoke more of a physical reaction from an audience. While political dramas appreciate the emotional stakes of individual characters.

Similarities:

  • Both explore situations that affect the whole world, in scenarios where the stakes couldn’t be higher.
  • Whether intentional or not, both explore the emotional and personal side of political events. Political thrillers almost always include a main character with a personal conflict as well as a political one.
  • It’s important to remember neither are documentaries. Instead, they both reflect situations that have or could affect the whole world. Even those based on true stories have an element of imagination and personal bias.

Examples…

So we’ve established how these two sub-genres compare. But how does this work in practice? Can we easily define what’s on our screen? Or do these shows incorporate elements from both political thrillers and political dramas?

Let’s take a look at a few examples…

1. The Designated Survivor

Following an attack on the State of the Union, Thomas Kirkman, named as the designated survivor, is catapulted into the Presidential Seat. Originally the Housing and Urban Development Secretary, Kirkman is tasked with leading the country amongst chaos.

  • The Designated Survivor is a perfect example when considering how the worlds of political thrillers and political dramas can collide. This show arguably has strong elements of both.
  • Most notably, Kirkman deals with a least one form of political corruption, terrorism or warfare in each episode. This creates incredibly high stakes and suspenseful action sequences. Time is always of the essence with these scenarios, which creates even more anticipation and tension for an audience.
  • FBI agent, Hannah Wells, also provides a thriller element as the audience follows her through her investigation. With shoot-outs, undercover operations and conspiracies, the audience is certainly left on the edge of their seat as she attempts to discover who actually attacked the capital.
  • However, this series isn’t just suspenseful action sequences. The series follows Kirkman’s emotional journey as he comes to terms with his new role. The audience sees this emotional turmoil, as Kirkman questions his ability when faced with animosity from US governors.
  • This insight into his personal conflict is engaging. An audience can empathize with Kirman because he is a normal citizen. He doesn’t enter the White House with big plans or after a long presidential campaign. Instead, he believes he must serve his country and lead them out of the chaos the attack has created.
  • This is a key element of drama and demonstrates how well a show can do both. We see the emotional side of a man doubting his own abilities and insanely high stake threats against the US.

2. The Crown

Centred around the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, The Crown offers an insight into the British Royal Family from the mid-1940’s.

  • While The Crown is gripping in terms of what it explores, it’s perhaps best described as a drama (in particular a historical or period drama).
  • When referring back to the main element of drama being a focus on the emotional and relational development of realistic characters, The Crown executes this perfectly. The Crown provides an emotional insight into the Royal Family. The success of the show suggests viewers can easily engage with the portrayals seen on screen.
  • While we cannot know for sure just how realistic these representations of the Royal Family are, the characters do feel realistic and believable in their rationale and the relationships that are established.
  • Not only this, the history of the Royal Family is well known by the public. So, while it can produce some suspenseful scenes, viewers are not necessarily watching in anticipation for what will happen and more for how everything will be portrayed.
  • This doesn’t mean that the show is without suspense though. Certain relationships between characters create a great deal of tension. For example, Season Four explores the rift between the Queen and Margaret Thatcher.

3. Bodyguard

In one of the most exciting political thrillers of recent times, war veteran, David Budd, is tasked with protecting the Home Secretary, Julia Montague. With controversial ideas, many of which Budd himself despises, Julia becomes the target of a terror threat.

  • Within the first ten minutes of Bodyguard, the thriller elements of this show are incredibly clear. While on a train with his two children, Budd is faced with a young woman trapped in a suicide vest. With a train full of civilians, the stakes are incredibly high from the get-go.
  • However, the addition of Budd’s children provides an emotional hook for an audience. While it’s terrifying for a train full of commuters to be in such danger, the sight of a child always heightens the stakes. It also allows an audience to root for Budd from the very beginning of the season.
  • This emotional investment develops throughout as Budd struggles to maintain a stable relationship with his children whilst working for the Home Secretary. We also see Budd dealing with PTSD, which provides an insight into his personal journey and emotional struggles. These reflect key drama elements.
  • The series is full of suspenseful action sequences. With the inclusion of multiple terror attacks, the audience certainly can be expected to feel anxiety, anticipation and terror while watching.
  • This is a clear example of a show with a clear thriller element that also comments effectively on a character’s personal journey. The drama element of this show ties in really well. It allows an audience to see the wider political threats against the personal struggles that Budd experiences.

4. 24

One of the most famous and original TV political thrillers, 24 is structured around twenty-four episodes in real-time. Each series of 24 follows Jack Bauer over the course of one day as a counterterrorism agent.

  • Set against the backdrop of a counter-terrorism unit, audiences can expect some seriously intense action sequences. The show certainly lives up to expectations here. Each episode leaves the audience desperate to watch the next.
  • However, we do see Bauer’s personal struggles throughout the seasons. Battling the loss of his wife and strained relationship with his daughter, audiences gain an insight into Bauer’s personal life.
  • This realistic depiction of a character in the centre of an action-packed lifestyle is engaging for an audience. It also provides an appropriate break from the action sequences and provides a strong emotional pull for Bauer. An audience can see why he does what he does- above all he cares.
  • The thriller aspect of this series not only comes from clear action sequences, but also the idea of betrayal. Over the course of multiple seasons, audiences are left questioning the loyalty of character Tony Almeida. It’s unclear as to whether he has gone to the ‘dark side’ or not.
  • This uncertainty provides feelings of anticipation and tension for an audience. It proves an audience doesn’t necessarily need the lives of hundreds of people to be in danger to feel this way.
  • Instead, an audience empathises with the betrayal Bauer may feel at one of his closest confides dishonouring him. Perhaps personal betrayal, as seen in many dramas, can create the feelings thrillers often ignite and is potentially even more engaging.

5. Homeland

Following a tip-off regarding an American prisoner working for Al-Qaeda, CIA officer, Carrie Mathison, follows her suspicions that Nicholas Brody, a prisoner of war, has been turned by the terrorist group.

  • Despite the inclusion of some suspenseful action sequences, from terror interrogations to public executions, this series arguably includes more drama elements than thriller ones.
  • It has been described as a slow burner, with the first few episodes in the season setting the scene for the explosive and tense episodes that conclude the series.
  • Audiences also see a focus on Carrie and her ongoing struggles with bipolar disorder. This ‘flaw’ presents Carrie as an engaging, well- rounded character. An audience would be far more likely to invest in a character that has flaws. Audiences want to see a journey, and they certainly get one with Carrie.
  • One key example here is a scene in which Saul is captured and offered back in exchange for the release of some prisoners. Saul attempts to stop the exchange by kneeling to the floor, knowing full well the terror group could execute him at any point. Carrie approaches him and begs him to go through with the exchange.
  • While this scene had key thriller elements, the emotional exchange between Carrie and Saul was considerably more engaging than the guns and explosions that came before. Not only did it add to the stakes, but it solidified just how much the two characters care about each other.

Conclusion

Audiences love tension. It’s what keeps them coming back. But at the same time, they need to be able to invest in a character. They do this best by relating to a character.

This doesn’t mean to say that audience members know how it feels to work in a counterterrorism unit. Instead, audiences can best connect with characters that experience an emotional journey. As seen with the likes of Jack Bauer. Most audience members can relate to his ongoing feelings of grief, betrayal and struggling relationships, even if his job is something they can’t imagine doing.

More often than not, the lines between political thrillers and political dramas blur. So, perhaps it’s fair to say that the best political stories use an appropriate mix of both genres. Some of the best shows in television combine two genres. The debate between political thrillers and political dramas certainly reflects that.

In Summary

What is a Political Drama?

A political drama is a drama set within a political context. Whilst political machinations serve as the main story context, it’s the human drama of the characters that sustains the narrative.

What is a Political Thriller?

A political thriller is a thriller set within the context of political conflict. High stakes and suspense will be the beating heart of a political thriller and the narrative will be driven by the attempted resolution of this high stakes conflict.

How Do Political Thrillers and Political Dramas Compare?

Whilst political thrillers often create suspenseful plot-driven stories, political dramas focus more on personal conflicts experienced in political situations. Political dramas might be more likely to provoke an emotional reaction from an audience, whilst political thrillers might be more likely to provoke a physical response (as in tension).


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This article was written by Georgia Bishop and edited by IS Staff.

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