Travels in Trumpland with Ed Balls is enjoyable, if undeniably cheesy, stunt journalism

The BBC Two series doesn’t tell us anything new about the motives of Trump voters, but it does remind us that people – even Trump’s people – are not all the same.

One of my great fears about therapy, which I’ve never had, is that the person supposedly in the business of helping me will turn out to be even more of an idiot than I am – for which reason, Stephen Mangan’s very funny, pleasingly rude and cameo-strewn new comedy, Hang Ups (10pm, 8 August) might almost have been made with me in mind (Mangan co-writes with Robert Delamere; he also stars). Boy, is this shrink a klutz. Hand Richard Pitt your life on a plate, and he’ll return it mashed like so many potatoes.

Hang Ups skewers with delicious ruthlessness the pat, specious and frequently barmy things some therapists are wont to say; Pitt’s own shrink, Leonard (Richard E Grant), tells him to cup his genitals comfortingly whenever he speaks to his bully of a father, Jeremy (Charles Dance), on the telephone. But it goes after modern life in a dozen other ways, too. Pitt treats his patients on-line, which allows the series to poke fun both at our ever increasing narcissism – one woman is only having therapy because it may help her achieve her goal of one million followers on Instagram – and at the way our so-called connectedness has all but pushed real intimacy from our lives. “You’re not playing Yahtzee,” Pitt yelps to his wife, Karen (Katherine Parkinson), as she attends to a certain part of his anatomy in the snatched moments before she leaves for a business trip, and he returns to his webcam.

Naturally, his patients have problems that may seem a little over-the-top to some. But over-the-top or not, I’m sufficiently infantile – my mummy did not love me enough, obvs – that I laughed out loud at the woman who wondered if the full pelts of her husband’s Bengal cats weren’t his attempt to traumatise her by reminding her of the “baldy tuppence” she had as a teenager.

Speaking of trauma, while I was away in Corsica, eating cheese and generally minding my own business, Ed Balls decided to travel, complete with film crew, across Trump’s America (9pm, 5 August). This is not, it goes without saying, your average kind of road trip; think stunt journalism of the most obvious, cheesy kind, with a few remnants of Balls’s previous roles (effective politician, bad dancer, OK cook) thrown in for good measure. But it’s also more enjoyable than it sounds. Where once I might have taken a certain amount of pleasure in watching the former Member for Morley and Outwood get Tasered by some rookie policeman, or pick up litter on some godforsaken Louisiana highway while wearing a too-tight prison issue romper suit, now I’m struck, in the face of both Corbyn and May, by his mastery of any given set of facts, his (relative) normality and, above all, by his ability to talk to people quite different from himself in a voice that is still his own.

Yes, he’s needy; that vice, particular in its way to so many politicians, is still there (Dr Cooke says that he was like this even as a student, and that Uncle Gordon and the general public only made it worse by failing to praise him sufficiently for all his hard work). However, he’s also a good listener, one who is prepared, having been released from the need to maintain a slender parliamentary majority, to contradict those with whom he disagrees. When Michael, his shooting instructor somewhere in Texas, announced that using a hand gun had brought out “the alpha dog” in him, the feminist snort he gave by way of a response was almost convincing.

This series doesn’t tell us anything new about the motives of those who voted for Trump, most of whom were driven by painful economic realities and an urgent desire for novelty, given that so many other politicians had, in their eyes, already failed them. But it does remind us that people – even Trump’s people – are not all the same. Michael is black and gay, could not love guns more if he tried, and voted Republican in 2016 with a full heart. Personally, I took him for a kind man – or at any rate, for one who did a pretty good job of not looking even remotely embarrassed when he found himself watching Balls throw a few awful moves on the dance floor of a gay club somewhere in downtown Austin. 

Hang Ups (Channel 4)
Travels in Trumpland with Ed Balls (BBC Two)

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 08 August 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The rise and fall of Islamic State