How to Become a Tyrant (Netflix) is ideal history TV for Generation No Attention Span. Presented in six bite-sized chunks by Peter Dinklage, aka the ‘Imp’ Tyrion Lannister from Game of Thrones, it tells you most of the things you need to know about Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Gaddafi, Kim Il-Sung, Idi Amin and Saddam Hussein, without obliging you to think or grapple with any tedious detail.
Instead of examining the dictators individually, it explores their careers thematically, looking for the ingredients they have in common. It’s split into half-hour episodes — ‘Seize Power’, ‘Crush Your Rivals’, ‘Reign Through Terror’, ‘Control the Truth’, ‘Create a New Society’, ‘Rule Forever’ — which mix contemporary film footage with attractive animation.
I actually quite like this ongoing trend towards shorter TV. Many of my favourite series last half an hour or less: Cobra Kai; Rick and Morty; Community; Midnight Diner. It feels like less of an intrusion on one’s time, less presumptuously demanding, in the same way that eating at the bar so often seems a preferable option to sitting down in the restaurant proper where you have to go through the full rigmarole.
Also, the concept behind the series seems fundamentally sound. Though I haven’t read the book on which it is based — The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics — it does appear to come from the right place, a position of well-informed cynicism. Written by two political scientists, Alastair Smith and Bruce de Mesquita, it develops the assertion that ‘Leaders do whatever keeps them in power. They don’t care about the national interest.’ I’m sure this is absolutely correct and that it applies to almost all politicians in all eras — and not merely in dictatorships.
This was especially noticeable in the episode dedicated to propaganda.