Why it’s time to cancel TV dramas about cancel culture

Hugh Bonneville stars as a news anchor who may or may not have told a sexist joke in ‘Douglas is Cancelled’  (ITV)
Hugh Bonneville stars as a news anchor who may or may not have told a sexist joke in ‘Douglas is Cancelled’ (ITV)

There are so many pressing issues that an acclaimed screenwriter might want to turn their hand to right now. The climate crisis. Seemingly widespread institutional corruption. Jack Grealish not being picked for the Euros squad. To focus instead on online moralising about celebrity faux pas feels like a waste of energy.

But that’s exactly what ITV’s new drama Douglas is Cancelled does. It’s a show that is meant to decry the apparently alarming threat of cancel culture. But it only proves that this phenomenon simply doesn’t make engaging television. What was intended to be uncomfortable viewing turns out to be… just bad.

You can probably predict the general contours of the plot. Douglas (Hugh Bonneville) is a veteran anchor on fictional news programme Live at 6.  When he comes off air one day, his producer (Ben Miles) tells him about a Twitter post that is gaining traction, claiming that a very drunk Douglas cracked “an extremely sexist joke” at a family wedding. Soon the public has decided en masse that the broadcaster must be a terrible misogynist. No one actually knows what the joke was, but its potential existence, writer Steven Moffat implies, is enough to throw Douglas’s career into a tailspin.

The critical reaction has been mixed. The Daily Mail has called it “a chilling tale of our woke times”, while one Guardian review described it as “skin-crawling” and The Independent’s critic Nick Hilton concluded that Moffat’s show “offers only sermons, moral binaries and easy answers”. Viewers on Twitter have, perhaps unsurprisingly, been similarly split. Programmes like this one aren’t just dreadful to watch: they double down on division in a way that can only be damaging.

Moffat has previously helmed Doctor Who and Sherlock, two hugely successful TV shows with very vocal, very online fanbases. He started working on an initial incarnation of this series back in 2017, before the term “cancel culture” had gained traction, and frankly, you can tell. Since then, we have seen very similar scenarios play out in real life. The show feels stale, and rooted in debates about the so-called culture wars that we’ve all lived through, thousands of times, over nearly a decade. It’s the kind of drama that has clearly been written to be discussed on Twitter (“or do we call it X now?” to quote one shoehorned piece of dialogue from the first episode) rather than to be actually enjoyed.

The premise, for one, feels flimsy and implausible: the circumstances of Douglas’s cancellation are made so ridiculous that they inevitably lower the stakes of the show drastically. Even Douglas himself seems mildly baffled by the whole palaver, rather than genuinely fearful for his future. When the show does eventually move into more urgent territory, it is hard to take seriously.

This is just one of the glaring problems with this cancel culture drama: it seems to wildly exaggerate cancellation as a threat, but also fails to really provide us with a reason to worry about it. What will actually happen if online vitriol spills over into real life for Douglas? Will he lose his job? Or will he just sorrowfully address the incident on air, then wait for the whole thing to blow over, as per the usual playbook?

Moffat’s show feels stale (ITV)
Moffat’s show feels stale (ITV)

Moffat forgets that for many semi-disgraced figures who do actually get chucked out of high-profile positions, cancellation has a very short shelf life. We’ve all seen multimillionaires claim that they’ve been exiled from public life while speaking on TV or radio programmes with vast audiences, or in interviews with national newspapers. It would probably be more realistic if Douglas’s utterly hapless agent, played by Simon Russell Beale, responded to news of his client’s impending cancellation by courting executives at a niche right-wing broadcaster in the vein of GB News. In reality, those outlets would surely be clamouring to sign him up. A fall from grace can be very lucrative, if it is played well.

We’ve all seen multimillionaires claim that they’ve been exiled from public life while speaking on TV or radio programmes with vast audiences

The fact that this particular story is also set in the world of television just seems to give the whole endeavour even more of a self-regarding feel. Apple TV’s The Morning Show fell into similar territory with its cursory attempts to explore what happens after an anchor is ousted for misconduct (before throwing in a whole checklist of vaguely topical issues into the jumbled mix). The 2023 movie Tár, about the cancellation of a celebrated conductor, had more nuance but was still criticised by some as being self-important.

These are stories made for creatives wringing their hands about their industries or worrying about their jobs, something that won’t be particularly appealing to the average viewer. Perhaps the only “cancel culture” drama to be vaguely watchable was The Chair, the short-lived 2020 Netflix comedy. It starred Sandra Oh as an English Lit professor whose colleague-slash-love interest gets cancelled by his students after a problematic video goes viral, and managed to pull off similar-ish subject matter by poking fun at the world of academia. And because it was actually pretty funny.

A show that attempts to interrogate cancellation also needs to look hard at the people who might be doing the cancelling, too, asking why they feel compelled and empowered to mete out their version of justice. And here we hit upon a big narrative problem. The “perpetrators” of cancel culture tend to be part of a faceless online mass clamouring to condemn, as opposed to one specific villain figure. A bunch of people hunched over their phone screens doesn’t make a particularly engaging baddie.

To fill this void, Douglas is Cancelled resorts to lazy tropes about woke Gen-Zers ripped from soundbites and headlines. Douglas’s undergraduate daughter is presented as a self-righteous know-it-all who ends conversations with her elders by shouting “OK, Boomer!” She’s a tweet come to life rather than a believable human being, a cardboard cutout designed to pander to certain people’s preconceptions about “snowflakes”. Compelling drama exists in grey areas: again, it’s impossible to care about a narrative populated with characters as manufactured and two-dimensional as these.

But this is more important than a sub-par TV show. A general election is just around the corner, and our political discourse has reached an all-time low. Over-egging the scale and impact of cancel culture just plays into the hands of political figures who weaponise topics like this for their own gain and use cries about freedom of speech to spew bile. And fundamentally, it vastly overestimates the average person’s investment in the culture wars. To any writers wanting to dramatise similar subject matter: may I suggest you step away from the internet for a moment and actually engage with real life?