8 election-themed TV episodes to watch before the polls close
Election day doesn’t need to be stressful. In fact, in one form or another, democracy in action has inspired countless hours of TV, from “The West Wing’s” version of Dixville Notch to a brilliant new docuseries about a Chicago mayoral race, “City So Real.”
In that spirit, we’ve rounded up our favorite election-themed TV episodes, broadly defined, some about unforgettable presidential contests (1960, 2000, 2008), others about races for student council, sheriff and (animated) mayor. Some are dark, some are hopeful, most are funny, or at least absurd. Yet they all share a common devotion to the idea that elections matter — even, on occasion, too much.
So if you can’t take your mind off politics today, but need a respite from the showdown at hand, check out the eight episodes below.(And if you’re more in the mood to hide under the covers and pretend you’re somewhere else, we’ve got that covered too.)
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.
“Parks and Recreation”
This election episode features Paul Rudd, who has already earned his wings as a civic angel in this year’s election by handing out cookies to Brooklyn voters waiting patiently in line. But in “Win, Lose or Draw,” the Season 4 finale of the beloved workplace sitcom, Rudd concludes his guest run as Bobby Newport, the clueless rich dude running against Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler), everyone’s favorite deputy director of the Pawnee Parks Department, for a seat on the city council. In the episode, which caps off Knope’s seasonlong arc to get elected, it’s finally time for voters to cast their ballots. Then the hurdles begin. There are questions over rigged voting machines, which reward those voting for Newport with vouchers for chocolate bars, while Knope voters are greeted by sounds of crying babies. And there’s a call for a recount midway through the episode. Two endings were shot for the episode — one in which Knope is victorious, and one in which she’s defeated. In the end, Knope delivers her spirited acceptance speech. Many found eerie parallels to the 2016 presidential election ... we’ll leave that up to you. (Available on: Peacock)
“You’re Not Elected, Charlie Brown”
Warning: The title is a plot spoiler. This Peanuts special aired on CBS in 1972, during the Watergate scandal, just nine days before Richard Nixon was reelected for a second term. This little gem arrived at the height of an American political meltdown, which makes it a perfect candidate for 2020 viewing. Poor Charlie Brown is talked into running for student body president by his biggest fan, Linus. Lucy deems herself Charlie’s campaign manager until she takes a poll and realizes he’ll never win. She of course reminds him of what a loser he is, then finds another candidate in ... Linus! Cult of personality politics, PB&J bribes and stump speeches about the Great Pumpkin ensue. The wrong man wins. Is it as heartwarming as a runty, wilted Christmas tree revived by love? No. It’s bleak, cynical and realistic, which is exactly why it’s made for this election.
“Boy Meets World”
Fake news and false promises were alive and well in elections back in 1995 — specifically, the one featured in “I Am Not A Crook,” from the second season of “Boy Meets World.” At this point, Cory Matthews (Ben Savage) is an all-too-average eighth grader who tries to distinguish himself by trying on student government. With Shawn Hunter (Rider Strong) as his campaign manager, he starts off on a platform of everyman honesty, but things quickly turn into a competition of who can slander the other guy more and who can best lie about their own potential (“How are you gonna get them to shoot ‘Baywatch’ at your school?“). It’s a reminder that, as the big standoff between two elderly men finally draws to a close, it’s not just this election that’s particularly intolerable, but also the deceitful, disparaging way in which elections have come to be run, at any level. (Available on: Disney+)
“The Powerpuff Girls”
“The City of Townsville” are the words that open most every episode of Craig McCracken’s great, civic-minded superhero series. Nominally overseen by an incompetent but not corrupt mayor, named Mayor — whose look derives from the little man on the Monopoly cards and whose voice derives from Frank Morgan, the Wizard of Oz — it is continually rescued from his less fruitful impulses by the Powerpuff Girls — Blossom, Buttercup and Bubbles — and pulchritudinous assistant Miss Sara Bellum (ironically only ever shown from the neck down), who actually runs things. (Although many episodes end with Townsville in ruins, it is always built back the next one — it’s a City That Works.)
In the election-themed Season 1 episode “Impeach Fuzz,” hillbilly villain Fuzzy Lumpkin is accidentally elected mayor after telling the Mayor, whose barnstorming has disturbed his sleep, to shut up. (“Shut up!” says a citizen. “I like it! What an excellent campaign!”) Soon, he has turned the mayor’s office into a pig sty, “literally.” “Fuzzy isn’t a real mayor,” says Blossom in words that, 22 years after this episode aired, sound oddly timely. “He doesn’t care about our town; he only cares about himself.” A “wrassling match” decides the city’s fate, as it may ours. (Available on: HBO Max)
Election day is upon us, and like many, you may be freaking out. Take a break from the stress with our guide to TV’s best counterprogramming.
“The Andy Griffith Show”
What could be more comforting during the tumult in our country than a trip back to that sleepy small town of Mayberry, the setting for this beloved classic series? Be careful what you ask for. In the fifth season, Mayberry gets caught up in election fever that causes a rare rift between easygoing Sheriff Andy Taylor (Andy Griffith) and high-strung deputy Barney Fife (Don Knotts). When Andy makes plans to move to the big city for a job just before the election for sheriff, he persuades Barney to run. But when the job offer falls through, the two friends are suddenly at odds as Fife decides he would be a better sheriff than Taylor. “Barney Runs for Sheriff” features the smooth, low-key humor and spot-on chemistry between Griffith and Knotts that made the series such a huge hit. (Available on: Amazon Prime Video)
Politics are complicated even in magical worlds populated by frog people. “Amphibia” follows a young human girl named Anne Boonchuy, who was somehow transported into this beautiful fantasy world where she befriends a family of frogs: Sprig, Polly and Hop-Pop Plantar. In the Season 1 episode “Hop-Popular,” Hop-Pop has been nominated by the townsfolk to run for mayor against Mayor Toadstool. It’s a race between a corrupt, greedy incumbent who thinks money can solve all problems, and a beloved grandfather who actually cares about other people. The episode features silly and dangerous campaign events and includes a lesson about both the importance of doing what’s right and of knowing how elections work. (Available on Disney+)
“Nixon vs. Kennedy” has a little bit of everything that made “Mad Men” unique: fascinating historical context, problematic drinking, rampant workplace harassment and a light sprinkling of identity theft. On election night in 1960 — a night that ended with a razor-thin surprise victory for Sen. John Kennedy — the gang at Sterling Cooper gather to watch results. An expected Nixon victory party instead becomes a super-sloppy, creme de menthe-fueled office bacchanal. Knowing how things turned out, contemporary viewers may cringe with recognition when they hear a news report that Nixon is favored 22 to 1 to win the election. Or when young Sally asks Don what the electoral college is. “I don’t believe that’s a conversation appropriate for children,” he replies. (Oh, Don, you have no idea.) The penultimate episode of the first season, it’s also the One Where We Find Out the Truth About Don’s Past, thanks to the sniveling Pete Campbell — a revelation that, within the world of the series, is every bit as stunning as Kennedy’s historic upset. (Available on: IMDb TV, AMC+)
“Recount” is a made-for-TV movie, yes, but it’s also the first in HBO’s series of docudramas about glaring weaknesses in the American political system — which continues with the dithering and deregulation that led to the Great Recession (in “Too Big to Fail”) and the Republican Party’s courtship of an unsavory right-wing fringe via vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin (in “Game Change”). Of the three, “Recount,” though set furthest in the past, comes closest to encapsulating the furor of the present moment, with eerily familiar reference to botched network calls, voter suppression, election law and court challenges. Written by Danny Strong and directed by Jay Roach, the film, whose heroes are tireless Al Gore staffers Ron Klain (Kevin Spacey) and Michael Whouley (Denis Leary), is unabashedly partisan, and by dint of being released in 2008, at the end of the George W. Bush years, it avoids the temptation to treat the outcome of Bush vs. Gore as a quaint pit stop on the winding road of democracy. If anything, time has made “Recount” all the more pungent: To know that 20 years on we’ve learned nothing from the disenfranchisement it depicts is a form of electoral despair all its own. With Laura Dern as Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, a preening party apparatchik and clear predecessor to “Big Little Lies’” Renata Klein. (Available on: HBO Max)
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