The Office meets global politics: New sitcom on life inside the United Nations

I caught up with the creators of The Mission Marie-Marguerite Sabongui and Benedict Moran via Zoom in Istanbul to learn more about their UN sitcom project.
We discussed how to communicate development and international politics issues differently in an age of new TV platforms, satirical commentary as edutainment and what could be the beginning of a global movement of creative talent taking on the absurdities of the aid industry.

There is a lot of crazy, absurd stuff happening in the UN

Aidnography: I am always intrigued about new and different forms of how development issues are communicated-so naturally your UN sitcom caught my attention. What triggered your project?

Marie: Ben and I broadly work in the field of international development. I studied international development and environmental issues and Ben and I were both working at the UN in New York. I was a climate advisor for small islands at the UN and Ben the producer for Al-Jazeera’s UN coverage. We kept crossing in the hallways and thought “this should be made into a satire”. We attended the Rio+20 summit together and decided over drinks that we should go for this project!

Ben: I was covering full time for three years on the UN Security Council and various UN conferences and there is a lot of material that never made it into the reports, including gossip that we would share with our diplomat friends who are still at the UN. There is a lot of crazy, absurd stuff happening so we quickly realized that if we wanted to make a story out of it, it would be a comedy. That was four years ago.

Finally someone is turning UN work into a sitcom!

Aidnography: I don’t have an exact empirical figure, but my guess is that 75% of people working in the aid industry at some point discuss over beers of how they should turn their professional absurdities into a book or movie. But in the end, very few do. So how did you actually get started with your project?

Marie: It is pretty remarkable that we are the people who are actually making this. When we put out the trailer to the first episode we noticed a lot of comments and people sharing the video adding comments like “finally someone is turning this into a sitcom”. It’s a question of timing and the right factors coming together. I have a background in acting for film and TV before becoming a policy wonk and then worked in social and behaviour communication so I have always thought about how to craft narratives to engage people on social issues.

A lot of people take the UN and international diplomacy quite seriously. Were you afraid that you may be stepping on some toes with your show?

Ben: I want the show to raise eyebrows, but also to be an accurate reflection on the UN system, the world of aid and international diplomacy. At the same time it needs to be entertaining and it needs to be watched by people. We can’t totally mock the UN to the point where it turns everybody in the industry off.

Marie: I was a bit nervous at first, but the feedback from friends and colleagues was very positive-especially when they started sharing the trailer in their personal networks.

Ben: There is a bit of an issue as Canada is running to become a member of the Security Council so their branding and presence at the UN is carefully cultivated so I get the feeling that this is definitely a bit of a wildcard for them. We are both proudly Canadian and this show is not meant to sabotage Canada.

Marie: It’s done lovingly.

Aidnography: A project like this would not have been possible a few years ago.

Ben: What has enabled this project are massive changes in the TV industry, but also the growth of the online industry. There are now outlets like Hulu, Netflix or Amazon and they are interested in new and different content with an international appeal.

If I am thinking of journalists like Colum Lynch or UN Dispatch it is noteworthy that nuanced journalistic coverage of the UN in New York has been improved-within a small niche market of those who are interested in such detailed coverage of international politics. The “Onion-fication” of this field almost seems like a logical next step.

Marie: We take international politics seriously in our day-jobs; we don’t laugh about civil wars. We try to make these issues accessible to a general audience and that has been hard from a storytelling perspective, because we are so immersed in it. We brought the pilot episode we wrote to the inaugural Sundance Institute Screenwriters lab in 2016 and many people didn’t understand the story even though we thought we wrote something very accessible about World Toilet Day. And people where like “What’s the G8?”, “how does the Security Council work?”-and we just lost our audience.

There are archetypes that you find at the UN – but also in many other office settings. Everybody recognises the old, white man who likes to grandstand.

Aidnography: I remember when I got feedback from a journalist about using the word “discourse in an op-ed…
When I watched the trailer for the first time, it immediately evoked an The Office feel to it-and also reminded me a bit of Corporate I show I have been enjoying recently. There are certain elements of The Office that are present in most development settings as well. A lot of development work happens in an office-not during swanky field trips in white Landcruisers…

Ben: I agree. The UN is in some ways not that much of a special place-but at the same time it also less accountable than other organizations; sometimes there is blatant nepotism or sexism in negotiations that may seem like a joke in a workplace comedy but is in fact very realistic in the UN.

Marie: We thought a lot about the cast of core characters. And there are archetypes that you find at the UN – but also in many other office settings. Everybody recognises the old, white man who likes to grandstand.

Ben: We have stories that we can’t write into the show because they are too racist and it’s not funny.

Marie: How do you include some of this diversity into the show? We don’t want to portray Western saviours. The intercultural clashes feature characters that are ridiculous in their own way, including the Canadians. The Myanamese general in the pilot episode also likes karaoke.

Aidnography: I am always looking for interesting representations of the aid industry beyond what is written in books and journal articles to enhance my teaching and I think your show could be an excellent starting point for conversations about the UN system as a place to work.

I always stress that there are multiple UNs, so to speak. The Security Council, General Assembly or specialized agencies, let alone the field or peacekeeping work are all very different spaces in which UN work takes place. And our characters need to navigate these spaces in an accurate way.

Aidnography: I have been to UN offices where most people don’t see daylight and work on PCs from 1997-so I am glad that some of those absurdities about the UN as a professional workplace are captured in format for a broader audience.

Marie: The UN can be an incredibly boring place despite popular perceptions or some of the buzz around the General Assembly. Sometimes you end up sitting in meetings for hours to literally change nuanced wording in a paragraph of a very long policy document.

So what are your next steps?

Marie: We are fundraising right now and the plan is to be in production this fall.

We had to center the story on Canada but we would love to amplify local voices from other countries and co-produce spin-off shows!

Aidnography: This sounds really exciting! I could totally see a ripple-effect of your show in the sense that it encourages similar shows in other context, for example featuring an African UN mission. I would be curious see how a large country like Kenya or Nigeria reflects on its international diplomatic work in New York and elsewhere. There’s definitely potential for spin-offs and other projects that donors could fund.

Marie: I’d love that idea! The format gives you flexibility and we are definitely open for co-productions! We had to center the story on Canada but we would love to amplify local voices from other countries!

Ben: Comedy is incredibly cultural relative and it often doesn’t travel well.

Marie: We couldn’t write the story about, say, the Nigerian mission to the UN. Not in 2018 and not with all the global talent that could write these stories in their own ways.

Aidnography: Thanks for your time! Looking forward to the show! 


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