Politics for pretty people

A raft of new shows appeals to the broadest audience possible by getting rid of the parties
Politics for pretty people
Getty Images; USA Network; CBS Photo Archive; HBO; MMXI Lionsgate Television Inc.; Photo Illustration by Taylor Shute

“What’s going on in the real world of politics is really nutty,” says Greg Berlanti, co-creator of the new show Political Animals. “That allows us in the fictional world to be even nuttier. So we thank the real world for that.” The show, a miniseries that will lead to a full series if it does well enough, stars Sigourney Weaver as a female secretary of state and former first lady who is absolutely nothing like Hillary Clinton. It’s the culmination of a year when TV has been dealing non-stop with politics, a subject that most TV characters never discuss under any circumstances. The dean of cable networks, HBO, has introduced Veep, starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus as a gaffe-prone female vice-president, and The Newsroom, Aaron Sorkin’s talky tale of a cable news commentator (Jeff Daniels) who decides to fix America by taking on the Tea Party and other political ills. Boss, returning for a second season in August, has Kelsey Grammer as a corrupt mayor, and ABC gave a second-season pickup to Scandal, about a former White House official who devotes her life to helping politicians with dark secrets. If, as people used to say, politics is show business for ugly people, then today’s TV is politics for pretty people.

Even shows with a small political component can find themselves taken over by that story. The Good Wife, starring Julianna Margulies as the wife of a disgraced politician, originally focused on her life as a lawyer and intended to make her husband (Chris Noth) only a minor character; three seasons later, much of the show is about politics, and one of the most popular characters is a political operative (Alan Rickman). The Emmy-nominated Parks and Recreation started out as a story of small-town bureaucracy, and got a lukewarm reception. It soon began incorporating more political stories—including parodies of real-life scandals—and when the show’s fifth season begins in September, the lead character will become an elected official.

Not that there’s a shady, Watergate-style conspiracy among the shows’ producers to flood the airwaves with political content. Berlanti says he and co-creator Laurence Mark wrote Political Animals and realized only when they started shopping it around last year that “there was a lot of the same kind of material out there beginning to circulate.” It could be that writers were just fed up with the same old stories about cops, doctors, drug dealers and other mainstays of modern TV. Veep writer-producer Simon Blackwell says they get a lot of story ideas for the show from the unique circumstances of Dreyfus’s character, Selina Meyer. “For instance, Selina is president of the Senate and can break a tie. So we think, oh, wouldn’t it be nice if she had to vote ‘no’ on a policy that’s dear to her heart for whatever reason?” In an era when there are more shows than ever, a political setting at least offers some variety.

They also have built-in dramatic tension, because the characters are public figures and anything they say could destroy their careers. “I think the appeal is seeing intelligent people under a lot of pressure and under constant scrutiny,” says Blackwell, who also worked with Veep’s creator Armando Iannucci on the hit comedy about British politics, The Thick of It. “The stakes are really high in a 24-7 news cycle. The chance of doing something ridiculous, or trying to hide the ridiculous thing you did, is very high.” Mark adds: “In the political arena, everyone’s wearing a mask all the time. We get to take that mask off.”

That’s why most of these shows—comedies and dramas alike—focus on politicians trying to hide their secrets or deal with public gaffes, and that’s one difference between them and the most successful political show of the ’00s, Sorkin’s The West Wing. That drama was famous for its idealized fantasy view of how a country should be run. Today’s crop of shows go back to the more traditional show-business view that politicians are liars and cheats: Grammer’s character on Boss is a vicious anti-hero, Dreyfus’s vice-president is a narcissist who plays an important scene in a room filled with pictures of herself, and the first season of Scandal climaxed with the president of the United States blackmailing his vice-president. One of the few sympathetic politicians interviewed by Daniels on The Newsroom is a congressman who just lost his primary to a Tea Party insurgent.

But the makers of these shows often deny that they’re creating a cynical view of politics. Blackwell thinks shows like The Thick of It and Veep actually combat cynicism by humanizing politicians, and making us understand that they are just regular, stressed-out people. “It’s easy to hate a politician abstractly,” he says. “When you see them as human beings under pressure, you think, ‘If I were under that pressure, I might make that messy compromise. I might go back on my principles.’ You can’t help but empathize.” On Political Animals, Weaver’s ex-husband is a former president, modelled somewhat on Lyndon Johnson, who is portrayed as an amoral, back-slapping politician who was also a good president. “People have noble intentions, but that doesn’t mean there’s not ambition or greed at work,” Berlanti says of this mix of cynicism and admiration. “You have this tension between what the characters’ instincts are and what their actions are.” Blackwell adds that the tension on Veep comes from the fact that “Selina has gone into politics to do good. But she also wants to make a mark politically, and she is also still chasing the presidency. So it’s about the compromises she needs to make on the way.”

It’s the tension between public and private lives, and what Berlanti calls “someone who is messed up personally trying to do something high-minded,” that inspires these new political shows; despite the stereotype of Hollywood as a hotbed of left-wing advocacy, most of them aren’t particularly interested in partisan politics. On Veep, Dreyfus’s party is never mentioned: “We don’t want to limit ourselves and say this is a Republican and this is a Democrat,” Blackwell explains. Boss is about the mayor of Chicago, a city ruled entirely by Democrats, but still refuses to mention party affiliations. Political Animals specifies that the characters are Democrats, but the point of the show is not their conflicts with Republicans: “It’s in-party fighting,” Berlanti says. “They’re Democrats, but a lot of times they’re destroying each other. It’s not so much about us versus them, but us versus ourselves.” Even on The Newsroom, where Sorkin constantly advocates for liberal causes, the main character is a self-described moderate Republican.

One difficulty that all this non-partisanship can create, though, is that the writers frequently have to come up with stories that could conceivably cut across party lines. And in an era of increased partisanship, that isn’t easy. “Frank Rich is an executive producer on the show,” Blackwell explains, “and we go to him and say, ‘What are these cross-party issues that actually could come from either side?’ Clean jobs could be on either side,” and so could filibuster reform, which Dreyfus’s character takes up as one of her signature issues. But that could leave many issues—the ones that would definitely establish a character’s political leanings—off the table. In a time when more people are very strongly conservative or liberal, most of the characters on TV have no clear ideological commitments at all.

But the advantages of this lack of ideology may outweigh the disadvantages. Blackwell says the shows he’s worked on have been able to attract “an ideological cross-section” of viewers. “You would think that The Thick of It would appeal more to a left-wing audience,” he says, “but one of our most vocal fans on Twitter is a Conservative MP. We do see both sides.” The biggest fear TV networks have in putting on political shows is that they’ll alienate half the potential viewing audience. By focusing more on the aspects of politics that are universal—the circus-like atmosphere and the pressure the characters are under—shows like Veep and Scandal can appeal to anyone, no matter what their party registration is.

And if these shows continue to demonstrate cross-party appeal, we may be seeing more of them. Others are in the pipeline: one of the new shows for the upcoming TV season is 1600 Penn, a half-hour family comedy where the family just happens to live in the White House. Of course, since there’s such a long lag time between making a show and getting it on the air, any upcoming political shows will have to be careful not to get too topical; producers won’t know who will be in the White House next year, let alone what they’ll be doing.

But Blackwell notes that even when a political show tries to steer clear of topical stories, it can stumble on them by accident. In one episode, he recalls, “Selina goes on Meet the Press and says something that has repercussions for the president. That went out the same week Joe Biden went on Meet the Press and talked about gay marriage.” When writers do shows about policemen or lawyers, any story they write has already been done. With politics, writers have a chance to tell some original stories—as long as the crazy real-life politicians don’t beat them to it.