If you think today’s Washington is dysfunctional, venal, cutthroat, uncaring and winner-take-all, take heart: It’s not nearly as bad as the Washington you’ve seen this decade on fictional TV.
Remember Toby, CJ and Josh on “The West Wing,” walking and talking and righteously fighting for ethanol subsidies or nuclear talks with North Korea in the Bartlet administration? In today’s fictional Washington, they’d get chewed up and spat out. If they stumbled into the world of HBO’s “Veep,” they’d have to manage their boss’ perpetual gaffes, devote themselves to undermining enemies and brush up on their creative swearing.
If they worked in the White House in “Scandal,” they’d keep running into the president’s mistress, who had rigged an election to get him into office. (Oh, and the president murdered a Supreme Court justice. These things happen.) As much as people bemoan the churning Trump-era scandals, the allegations about porn stars and payoffs and cascading shady deals, it’s all kindergarten stuff compared with what aired every week, for seven seasons, on ABC.
And if “The West Wing” trio worked in Congressman Frank Underwood’s Washington, they might just get shoved in front of a moving Metro train. When Netflix premiered “House of Cards” in 2013, it seemed natural to juxtapose it with the brighter era of political TV that preceded it. If only we knew at the time that the show was preparing us for a decade of dark political TV to come—and reflecting an overall perception of Washington that would soon have an impact on the real Washington.
Of course, “Scandal” and “House of Cards” were just TV—few people on the government payroll, after all, could afford those wardrobes. But these shows’ portrayal of the creeping rot of Washington didn’t show up in a vacuum. Television can both set and reflect the mood of the nation, creating expectations about human behavior. After Barack Obama’s 2008 victory, many mused, in seriousness, about whether Dennis Haysbert’s acting turn as President David Palmer on “24” helped get voters used to the image of a black president. Something similar might be at work now. Today’s real-life sweeping nihilism about politicians’ motives, the widespread hatred of the “swamp,” the notion that the process is flawed and the rules of engagement themselves might not be worth following, was, if not created by television, then at least predicted by it.
To realize how dark TV’s take on Washington has been these past eight or 10 years, it’s worth thinking about how relatively sunny the view was just a decade earlier. The aughts were full of political shows whose central politicians were virtuous and well-meaning, engaged in public service for the right reasons. This wasn’t a just a liberal Hollywood thing; in ABC’s short-lived “Commander in Chief” (2005-06), Geena Davis, a vice president who ascended to the Oval Office when her boss died, was a political independent. Fox’s “24” (2001-10) didn’t take a progressive view of issues like torture—but when Kiefer Sutherland and his fellow counterterrorism agents played fast and loose with the Geneva Accords, they did so for the sake of virtuous presidents and the safety of the American people.
And nothing screamed “higher calling” more than “The West Wing,” which aired on NBC from 1999 to 2006, tracking the righteous souls who worked for President Jed Bartlet. The soundtrack was stirring and majestic; the opening sequence was gauzy and triumphant; in most episodes, someone gave a speech about doing the right thing. When the actors showed up on the Democratic campaign trail—as they did en masse for Hillary Clinton in 2016—you sometimes got the sense that they actually believed they had been part of the government.
“The West Wing,” created by Aaron Sorkin, was a liberal wish-fulfillment fantasy, but it also mostly imbued Team Bartlet’s conservative antagonists with a certain kind of honor: They wanted power, but in service to their causes, and with ultimate respect for the system. (That point was underscored in a 2002 documentary-style “Special Episode” that featured gauzy interviews about the work of White House staffers, and included such Republicans as Marlin Fitzwater, Peggy Noonan and Karl Rove.) Even though the show premiered seven months after President Bill Clinton’s highly partisan impeachment trial, it was forever optimistic about the system—confident that a few good friends and well-placed Sorkin-penned speeches could fix whatever ailed democracy. If there was political analysis embedded in “The West Wing,” it was the notion that the system fell short when the players didn’t fight hard enough for what they believed in; when they were too willing to play the safe bet instead of taking a risk for the greater good.
Then came the end of Obama’s first term—a moment when, if you were a liberal with Sorkinesque optimism about “Yes We Can” slogans and transformative change, you might be coming to terms with the notion that politicians are imperfect, gridlock is pervasive and Mitch McConnell isn’t just going to step aside to make way for your higher cause, whether it’s universal health care or closing Guantanamo.
And a new era of political TV shows took that disillusionment one step further. Shows like “Veep” and “House of Cards” offered a new, darker theory: The system can never work if everybody in politics is terrible and venal and self-serving—and the very nature of Washington makes people terrible and venal and self-serving.
“Veep,” a kind of inverse of “The West Wing” that premiered in 2012, was a farce about ambitious politician Selina Meyer and her marginally competent, politically hungry staff. Here, majestic “West Wing”-style music is played in little jabs, like punchlines, between scenes where Meyer does her best to squeeze political capital from every situation. And her disdain for the actual public is glaringly obvious. (“I’ve met some people, some real people, and I’ve got to tell you, a lot of them are f—ing idiots,” she says in the first season.) Where the staffers in “The West Wing” were fast and loyal friends, Meyer’s staffers mock and undermine one another other without mercy. The closest thing Meyer has to a friend is the devoted body guy who brings her snacks on demand and whispers useful facts in her ear in public settings. In the series finale, she sets him up to take the fall for a political scandal—and watches FBI agents haul him away, out of the corner of her eye, as she delivers a nomination acceptance speech at the party convention.
“Veep” was created by a Scotsman, Armando Iannucci, a veteran of scathing British black comedies about the moral compromises of government. He held no special reverence for American institutions, and he was keenly aware of the comedic possibilities when teeming ambition crashed into powerlessness. Around the time of the series premiere, Iannucci told the Los Angeles Times that he was partly inspired by Lyndon B. Johnson, who spent his vice presidency “sort of sitting in his office waiting for a phone call.” (The running joke in the first season is that Selina keeps asking if the president called, and the answer is always “no.”) Like the best satire, the show has an undercurrent of sadness; Meyer is acutely aware of how much toil and personal sacrifice it has taken to obtain whatever capital she has, and how much the struggle has changed her as a person. The finale offers a brief, melancholy image of her sitting alone in the Oval Office, having sacrificed every relationship to reach her goal.
“House of Cards,” too, had roots across the pond; it was loosely based on a British political-thriller series from the 1990s. But where “Veep” spun nihilism into farce, “House of Cards” turned it into high melodrama. The credit sequence shows the monuments of Washington in ominous time-lapse photography, with dark clouds sweeping overhead and shadows climbing up the buildings. The central characters, politician Frank Underwood and his wife, Claire, are so deeply committed to Washington power that they’d do anything to get it—not just the garden-variety TV fare of murders, affairs and bribery, but some truly sinister bureaucratic moves. In the second season, in order to blackmail a pregnant former employee, Claire forges health insurance paperwork to deny her a drug that would aid blood flow to her placenta. “I’m willing to let your child wither and die inside you if that’s what’s required, but neither of us wants that,” she says, matter-of-factly.
The ruthlessness of politics was a running theme throughout the decade. Even soap-opera fantasies picked up on the idea of Washington as a force for ambition, evil and, really, not much else. “The Oval Office, in our show, was a place that corrupted anybody who came near it,” “Scandal” creator Shonda Rhimes told reporters before the series finale. “And the closer you came, the more corrupt it made you and the more damaged it made you.” This year, Netflix’s “The Politician,” a Ryan Murphy political allegory set at a California high school, mocked the poll-driven, values-free drive of a budding politician and his handlers.
The most powerful way that TV predicted politics in the 2010s, though, was in its prescription for a fix: the suggestion that what Washington really needs is an outsider to swoop in and shake things up (or drain the swamp, if you prefer). Mainstream networks in particular offered another archetype alongside these power-hungry nihilists: the accidental politician who reluctantly takes high office, then comes face-to-face with that broken system. These shows might have been more optimistic about human nature than “Scandal” or “Veep,” but in their own way, they were just as cynical about Washington.
In 2016, ABC launched “Designated Survivor,” a political thriller starring Kiefer Sutherland, best known as fearless agent Jack Bauer in “24.” Here, Sutherland plays Tom Kirkman, a mild-mannered career academic who serves as secretary of Housing and Urban Development—but is so bad at navigating Washington politics that one morning, he learns that president plans to fire him. He has one final duty: to be the Cabinet member taken to a secure location during the State of the Union address, just in case. As it so happens, that night, somebody blows up the Capitol.
Kirkman takes the Oath of Office with no trust, no mandate and no idea how to do the job, though viewers surely trust that his inner Kiefer Sutherland will come through. It does, in a mild-mannered way, as he fires subordinate generals, stumbles through international crises and finds it within himself, eventually, to deliver a stirring speech. (In the third season, he delivers his own State of the Union address, but goes off-script and caterwauls at Congress: “The system is broken and you people broke it!”) Through it all, Kirkman is fighting against a greater conspiracy: a network of corruption that wrongly believes he’d be an easy mark. As other characters handle the action-adventure work, Kirkman stands his ground; it’s his rare integrity, his un-Washingtonian Kiefer-ness, that holds the nation together.
CBS’ “Madam Secretary,” which premiered two years earlier, has a similar premise: Elizabeth McCord, a former CIA analyst-turned-college professor, is tapped to become secretary of State after the current one dies in a plane crash. The president, a former CIA director, tells McCord he trusts her to think more expansively than most Washington lifers, and within reason, she complies, battling a White House chief of staff who would prefer she follow protocol more often. “This is me not being a politician,” she declares in one early episode, explaining an unconventional decision.
“Madam Secretary” is more like “The West Wing” in the sense that multiple characters have virtue. The president is a basically a good guy; the McCords’ marriage is a mutually supportive dream; the State Department staff is behind her. (So are some real-world political operatives: In one 2018 episode, former Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton, Madeleine Albright and Colin Powell appear together, as themselves, to offer bland advice about pushing for national unity after a crisis.) Still, the show’s backdrop is a Washington that’s compromised and divided, full of conspiracies and unworthy opponents, from secretive bureaucrats to government moles and ambitious two-dimensional senators. At the end of the first season, one such senator discovers that McCord shared classified information with her husband Henry. Issued a subpoena to appear before the Senate committee, Henry declares his intention to obstruct justice. “This whole thing lacks integrity,” he tells Elizabeth. “I feel no ethical obligation to play by their rules.”
Ultimately, Elizabeth barges into the hearing, takes Henry’s place at the witness table and delivers an impassioned speech, saying she only broke the law because she cared about the country and didn’t know who else she could trust. (“Man, I have never heard a more eloquent defense for violating the Espionage Act,” another character says, in admiration.) She storms out of the hearing without being dismissed. Soon afterward, the president informs her that the Justice Department has decided to let it pass.
Of all of the political shenanigans on television this decade, that 2015 scene might have been the most telling, and the most predictive of the real-life politics that were to come, not long after the episode aired. “The West Wing” never argued that the rules of political engagement can and should be broken. But today, real-life Washington is full of disagreements, not just about facts and outcomes, but about the basic codes of conduct, the processes that everyone needs to follow, the obligation anyone has to play by anyone’s rules.
Again, it’s just TV. But academic treatises have been written about how TV crime shows can create a warped impression of the criminal justice system, giving jurors outsized expectations, for example, of the power of forensic evidence. A decade ago, on political TV, we had an openhearted baseline expectation about how the system works, why it fails and what kinds of behavior gets rewarded.
But in these 2010s shows, the characters learn that breaking the codes of conduct and propriety will wind up taking you far. Selina Meyer of “Veep” and both Underwoods of “House of Cards” all get to be president in the end. Elizabeth McCord, of “Madam Secretary,” eventually becomes president, too. But, you know, a good one. So long as you’re on her side.