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A popular Philippine cop show is real political theater as its actors run for office

Coco Martin, star of the popular Philippine soap opera “Ang Probinsyano,” or “The Provincial Man,” which has become one of the country’s most popular shows. (ABS-CBN)

MANILA — Dozens of inmates are cramped in a precinct cell. The officers on duty are drinking, gambling and snoozing. Special forces burst through the door, ready to whip these sleazeballs into shape.

“The president told us to take down anyone who stands in our way,” the head of the special forces unit tells a cop jolted out of a nap. Then he punches the sleepy officer in the face.

It’s just another day on “Ang Probinsyano,” or “The Provincial Man,” one of the Philippines’ most popular and enduring soap operas — airing every weekday since September 2015. 

But the series doesn’t just boast star power. It also yields unlikely political influence in a nation where movie stars often find a second career in elected offices.

And nothing in Philippine pop culture captures the blurred lines between entertainment and politics quite like “Ang Probinsyano.”

At least seven cast members ran in May’s midterm elections, which helped cement President Rodrigo Duterte’s grip on power.

Three won seats, including actor-turned-senator Lito Lapid, who partially credits his win to the series. His character was “murdered” in February. The character who did the deed is played by actor Jhong Hilario, who also won a seat as a city councilor in Makati City, south of Manila.

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Rolando Tolentino of the University of the Philippines Film Institute said the show stands out in a selection of prime-time soaps about romance and extramarital affairs. The action genre has a “clear good and evil,” he said, and good usually triumphs.

“They believe in this messiah, either in politics or television,” said Tolentino, adding that entertainment is a distraction from the hardships of poverty. “Masses in ‘Ang Probinsyano’ and in real life look for saviors to uplift their condition.”

The Philippines is hardly the only country in which acting can be a pathway to politics. The U.S. list is long: Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Clint Eastwood, former senator Fred Thompson and others. Of course, there was President Trump on “The Apprentice” and his several movie cameos.

Some countries are testing the thespian waters. In Ukraine, new President Volodymyr Zelensky played the role of the country’s president on a TV show. 

But few voters seem to embrace its actors the way the Philippines does. 

Action star Joseph Estrada was president from 1998 to 2001. Boxer Manny Pacquiao — who has one superhero film under his belt — is a senator. Another actor, Bong Revilla, clinched a Senate seat despite a multimillion-dollar corruption scandal. His son Jolo Revilla, an “Ang Probinsyano” star, was elected vice governor in a province south of Manila.

The late star of the original “Ang Probinsyano” film in 1997, Fernando Poe Jr., almost became president in 2004. His wife, Susan Roces, now plays the grandmother of the show’s main character, tough guy cop Cardo Dalisay. 

Roces’s daughter, Grace, was a third “Ang Probinsyano” winner in the midterms. She had the second-biggest vote tally in the senate race and won a seat.

While some action shows depict macho violence or raunchy scenes, “Ang Probinsyano” is family-friendly — in part because of television restrictions for the prime-time audience. The character Cardo is nasty around criminals, but he maintains a steady love interest, adores kids and is devoted to his family.

Tolentino says this brand of “morally upright” action is packaged as Poe’s legacy. 

“It’s a narrative that a lot of people believe in. It becomes a commodity,” he said. “It translates to consumption. In this case, political consumption.”

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Last year, the Philippine National Police took offense at a plotline about abusive cops.

The Interior Department said it “demoralized” police officers and threatened legal action — despite the tough-talking Duterte, who has admitted to killing suspected drug traffickers and had threatened to dump drug lords in Manila Bay. 

“I thought it was a bit paranoid of them to do that,” said Jaime Fabregas, who plays Cardo’s superior, Delfin Borja, on the show. “They got a lot of backlash from the audience in a way they had to back out. . . . [It] was like, ‘Why are you so affected by it? Is it true?’ ”

Fabregas, a critic of Duterte, said he pushed for a scene where his character reflects on a shootout with other police officers.

“I was really bothered by that,” he said. “Even if it was in self-defense . . . why are we in this situation where police have to shoot police? How do we bring it back [to a point] where we don’t have to do this?”

“Ang Probinsyano” walks a tightrope between being subversive and subservient. The show blasts erring cops and, on one occasion, referenced 17-year-old Kian delos Santos, a student killed by police as part of the drug war who became a symbol for innocent victims.

But it also has to work closely with police for permission to film in their headquarters and use their uniforms. 

Duterte has threatened the channel carrying the show, ABS-CBN, with the nonrenewal of its franchise amid his attacks on the media.

“I feel like we’re headed for scary times in this country right now,” said Fabregas, who endorsed the opposition. “It’s better [to say] something instead of keeping quiet.”

“Hopefully, we can educate also with the show,” he added. “But I don’t know. I’m just one actor there.”

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