Column: Trump fatigue? 17 political TV shows to watch if you’re totally over politics
Hey, Hollywood, here’s a political series pitch:
The United States is in the midst of a worldwide pandemic that happens to coincide with an election year. The president, who refuses to follow protocols recommended by the Centers for Disease Control, holds regular press conferences during which he often openly contradicts his own medical advisors and blames the media for everything. His opponent, who, like the president, falls into the at-risk category of being over 65, continues to abide by his state’s shelter-at-home order, communicating with the world and American voters from his basement. Subplots include the U.S. Post Office teetering on bankruptcy even as the potential of a mail-in election becomes a distinct possibility and the federal government stockpiling medical equipment while hard-hit hospitals go begging.
No one would believe it, you say? Maybe not. Fortunately, we have a welter of what suddenly seem like far more plausible politically themed television series to choose from.
Before we had a reality star in the Oval Office, political series fell, for the most part, into four categories: aspirational (“The West Wing”), instructional (“The Wire”), satirical (“Veep”) and sensational (“Scandal”). Because television is character-driven, all examine the effects of power on the individual and the inevitable tension between people, good, bad and complicated, and the democratic system, also good, bad and complicated.
At times like these, viewers need some of all of these things. So here is a list of some of the best.
A mode of communication designed to get us to stay home, often skewered as the “boob tube” or “idiot box,” TV kept its lights on as others flickered out.
“Madam Secretary” (Available on: CBS All Access, Netflix)
Former CIA operative Elizabeth McCord (Téa Leoni) is enjoying an academic life far more aligned with her highly sensitive moral compass when a Tragic and Suspicious Event throws her back into the snake pit that is Washington politics. There, she and her professor/Middle East expert husband (Tim Daly) and their three mature and maturing children attempt to keep the U.S. on the straight and narrow, even as all manner of outside forces, from terrorists to the realities of international relationships, threaten and tempt. Aspirational politics never looked so good. Leoni is fabulous, the depiction of a two-career family marvelous; the plots are always complicated, resonant and realistic. Well, realistic enough. And where else are you going to see scenes shot in the U.N. or cameos by actual former secretaries of state, including a fine and necessary conversation about the evils of nationalism between Madeleine Albright, Hillary Clinton and Colin Powell? Only on “Madam Secretary.”
“Mrs. America” (FX on Hulu)
The story of the failed Equal Rights amendment told through key women on either side is a chilling reminder of how easily a vocal minority can overturn the efforts of a complacent majority, even in a democracy. Thwarted in her attempts to influence American foreign policy, Phyllis Schlafly (Cate Blanchett) chose to mobilize a relatively small group of American women to fight the nascent Equal Rights Amendment, which most people, including Republican congressmen, considered a slam dunk. The success and repercussions of her campaign are with us today, and by showcasing many of the players, including Schlafly, Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne), Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba), Bella Abzug (Margo Martindale) and Betty Friedan (Tracey Allman), “Mrs. America” offers a brief master class in women’s history, and terrific acting.
“The West Wing” (Netflix)
President Josiah Bartlett (Martin Sheen) and his staff set the template for aspirational politics, offering a fictional take on current events with monologues so stirring that it was often dinged for “preachiness,” almost always of the liberal variety. But it’s hard to think of another show so plot-propulsive and crisply written, and its depiction of the personal and political foibles of those in the fictional halls of power make it universal and, fortunately and un-, timeless. It also launched the career of one Allison Janney, and for that the world gives much thanks.
Wouldn’t it have been great to see a crossover of “Veep” and “The West Wing”? The time/space continuum would shatter as dark met light but man, think of the dialogue! If Sheen’s Bartlett is every liberal’s dream date, Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ Selena Meyer is their living nightmare. A vain, venal, vacuum-packed embodiment of political ego, Meyer lives in a world of bunglers, schemers and jaded professionals whose collective main goal is political survival at all costs. Based on the British series “The Thick of It” (available on Amazon), “Veep” grew ever darker as it aged (and moved through the Obama administration into Trump’s), culminating in a Nietzschean victory of a last season and one of the better finales in TV history.
“Scandal” (moves from Netflix to Hulu on May 20)
What started as a political procedural based on the life of D.C. fixer Judy Smith quickly became an over-the-top, cliffhanger-driven and, for many, highly addictive political soap in which Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) pushed the outer limits of political, and situational, morality. Never before has the inner Beltway been so stylish, or ruthless; never before has a presidential love story achieved so much expressive fandom or such a high body count.
I was going to put “Designated Survivor” in this slot, with a reference to that other Kiefer Sutherland drama, “24,” as a side note. Certainly “Designated Survivor,” in which Sutherland plays Tom Kirkman, a low-level cabinet member who absurdly becomes president after everyone else in the government is blown up, is an obvious if extreme examination of the opposing forces that make up a government, as well as a notable example of the Reluctant Leader trope (see “Madam Secretary”). And given its reboot by Netflix after being canceled by ABC, it’s also a symbol of life in the new world. But it isn’t as good as “24" or, in the end, as reflective of the age-old American conflict between the individual and the institution.
Launching on Fox mere weeks after the 9/11 attacks, “24" became a flashpoint for our collective and individual feelings about many things, including but not limited to terrorism, profiling, torture, conspiracy and the meaning of democracy in a country that had never before been attacked so ruthlessly on its own soil. It was deemed heroic by some, corrupt and racist by others, but most everyone had something to say about it. For years.
Jack Bauer (Sutherland) was the knight errant, self-assigned to preserve the union, occasionally from its own government. The point being that individuals, rather than governments, determine the course of history (although it certainly helped that Bauer had a crack team of helpmates, including and especially Mary Lynn Rajskub’s Chloe O’Brian). The fact that, for a time, the show occupied such a huge portion of the cultural conversation, and came back briefly four years after its finale, seems to indicate that many feel exactly the same way.
So if we include “24,” we have to include “Homeland,” another post-9/11 show that examined the role the United States government plays in the international theater, particularly the Middle East, while aiding the second-millennia renaissance of television. It is difficult to imagine now the wonderment of “Homeland” when it debuted in 2011. As in “24,” Washington politics are secondary to the actions of the individual in the field, in this case CIA officer Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes), and presidents exist to aid, thwart or, when the ante needs to be upped a tad, get killed. But her boss, Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin), assumed a larger role in the series, and the government, serving as a bridge between the realities of the field and the demands of diplomacy; through him we saw one of TV’s best depictions of politics in action. (As a pandemic binge, it also has the benefit of having just ended, so you get the best of both worlds — closure and timeliness.)
“Parks and Recreation” (Netflix)
It’s easy to forget, with all the feel-good hilarity, that “Parks and Rec” is a workplace comedy set in local government. Pawnee City Hall may be the nicest seat of governance ever seen on television but its main characters are, for the most part, civil servants, with ambitions high (Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope) and low (Nick Offerman’s Ron Swanson). Incompetence may abound, and narrow thinking, but nothing more nefarious than that and, as the recent “Parks and Rec” pandemic reunion proved, everyone really did care about the common welfare. Wouldn’t the world be great if we could say the same about Washington?
“Commander in Chief” (VOD: Amazon Prime)
Geena Davis stars as the first female vice president, and then the first female president, in this short-lived ABC series that debuted mere months before “American Idol” shook up broadcast television and in the same time slot as “House.” Plagued by production issues, it was axed in its first season, and if that sounds highly symbolic considering the experience of recent female presidential candidates, well, that was probably not the intent. Davis makes a fine president, if one of indeterminate political leanings, and many of the predictable issues — the working-mother conundrum, generalized sexism, what to do with the first gentleman — are neatly addressed. It’s worth the Amazon purchase fee, if only to imagine what might have been.
“The Handmaid’s Tale” (Hulu)
No list is complete without a political dystopia, and the television adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s extraordinary novel is among the best ever made. Sometime in the future, vast portions of the United States have been taken over by a religious-based patriarchal and totalitarian regime that uses the government’s interpretation of God as the ultimate arbiter and certain passages in the Old Testament as law. In case you needed an argument for protecting the separation of church and state, not to mention the free press, “The Handmaid’s Tale” is there for you.
We polled more than 40 TV critics and journalists, inside and outside The Times, on the best TV show to binge while stuck at home.
“Borgen” (VOD: iTunes, YouTube, Google Play)
When Birgitte Nyborg Christensen (Sidse Babett Knudsen), the leader of Denmark’s moderate party, unexpectedly becomes prime minister, she realizes that her understanding of government has been hopelessly optimistic. As it turns out, greed, fear, chicanery, envy and corruption make the world go round, and simply declaring sensible solutions is not enough. A surprise hit when it debuted, “Borgen” filled the hole left by “The West Wing” and introduced American television audiences to subtitles, which alone makes it worth watching.
When the Norwegian prime minister (Henrik Mestad) puts his Green Party politics into action by cutting off all fossil fuel production, the EU and Russia strong-arm him into restarting it and “accepting” Russian “oversight.” Needless to say, a rebel group forms, a heroic bodyguard and a scrappy journalist are involved, and the series follows a terrifyingly realistic, and occasionally dramatically predictable, look at both modern occupation and the forces on both sides of fighting climate change.
“House of Cards” trilogy (VOD: Amazon Prime, Vudu)
The British original of the Netflix remake is shorter, creepier and strangely more believable. Francis Urquhart (Ian Richardson) is an MP who will do anything to become and stay prime minister, and I mean anything. Written by Andrew Davies, the second part features a plot to foil the newly crowned king (Michael Kitchen) that makes “The Crown” look like “Sesame Street.”
“Secret City” (Netflix)
You’ll come for Anna Torv as Harriet Dunkley, a former journalist turned MP advisor, but you’ll stay for Jackie Weaver as Catriona Bailey, the Australian minister for justice. Following up a suspicious murder, Dunkley uncovers an international conspiracy that involves the U.S., China and Australian intelligence. And if you tell me you have watched too many series about international conspiracies involving Australian intelligence, I will have to ask for names.
Gérard Depardieu plays Robert Taro, mayor of Marseille, who is beset on all sides. First his protégé betrays him, the French mob threatens him and then a group of right-wing nationalists takes over his town. Taro is an arrogant and very familiar mess of a guy, but Depardieu sells him hard and hey, it’s Marseille. Which is a fine place to visit and maybe even brush up on your French.
Worricker trilogy (Amazon Prime)
A series of movies — “Page Eight,” “Turks and Caicos” and “Salting the Battlefield” — the Worricker trilogy follows a longtime MI5 agent (played by Bill Nighy) as he attempts to reveal and thwart the crimes of the prime minister (Ralph Fiennes). Traveling through London and international locales, he is aided at times by his neighbor (Rachel Weisz), his former lover (Helena Bonham Carter) and his daughter (Felicity Jones) while facing off against a tycoon (Robert Graves) and acting deputy general (Judy Davis). It’s all very complicated and occasionally nonsensical, but with a cast like that, there is honestly no excuse for complaints.
“Da Vinci’s City Hall” (Amazon)
The short-lived sequel to the long-running Canadian crime drama “Da Vinci’s Inquest,” “Da Vinci’s City Hall” follows former Montreal coroner Dominic Da Vinci (Nicholas Campbell), now the city’s mayor. Not surprisingly, it’s a bit crime-heavy for a political show, but there’s a realism to the wildly disparate duties of a mayor, and the real-life problems of a city dealing with drugs, homelessness and racial issues, that makes it worth catching at least a few of the 18 episodes.
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