This holiday break, want to find some political TV fiction to stream? Here are one political scientist’s recommendations.
Cream of the crop
“Veep” (HBO, 2012-19) is one of the best shows about U.S. politics ever made. While crass and cynical, it is also steeped in important modern political controversies. It follows the career of Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), a sidelined vice president who takes the top job when the sitting president resigns, finds herself out of office and then claws her way back in. The ensemble cast is brilliant. The most poignant arc is the slow rise of Jonah Ryan (Timothy Simons) — a detestable, paranoid, sexist jerk — from no-access White House staffer to a presidential contender demanding election recounts using “Christian math.”
“Borgen” (DR1/Netflix, 2010-13, 2022) follows the life and career of Danish member of parliament Birgitte Nyborg (Sidse Babett Knudsen) as she moves in and out of leadership and struggles with family matters, along with soap opera — adultery! double-dealing! — and policy and media issues. To this Americanist, the most compelling stuff covers managing a majority coalition in a multiparty system. The third season, in which Nyborg tries to build a new party, is particularly smart. While I wasn’t a huge fan of the fourth season, it tells a fascinating story about Denmark’s strained relationship with Greenland’s Indigenous population.
“Andor” (Disney, 2022-). In its first season, this show is the best that political sci-fi has to offer. Set before the original “Star Wars” (1977), this show treats things like empire and rebellion as actual political entities rather than one-dimensional evil vs. good cartoons, examines the mixed motivations of the characters involved, and looks at how both protecting a regime and undermining it corrupts all the actors involved. (You don’t need to know or care about the Star Wars universe; there’s no Force, no Skywalkers, no Ewoks.)
If you enjoy political sci-fi, I also strongly recommend “The Expanse,” “For All Mankind,” and several segments of “Battlestar Galactica,” especially the episodes about the New Caprica occupation and the trilogy about Admiral Cain (Michelle Forbes).
The solid middle
“Parks & Recreation” (NBC, 2009-15) is a joyful show set in the city offices of the fictional Pawnee, Ind. It places in this middle tier because it is not reliably political — many plots surround the friendships and romances of the large, lovable cast of characters, centered on deputy director Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler). But it is terrific at depicting the politics of municipal bureaucracy, elections and the character’s occasional interactions with angry members of the public. Don’t miss Patton Oswalt’s Season 5 cameo as an unholy blend of constitutional textualist and Star Wars nerd.
“The West Wing” (NBC, 1999-2006). Yes, there’s a lot of unsubtle sexism in the early seasons and a fair amount of sanctimonious moralizing in this Aaron Sorkin production. (Don’t watch the 9/11 episode.) Yet the cast, writing and production values are far better than we should expect from late-90s network TV, and quite a few of the political plots are compelling. The show doesn’t mind going into the weeds for stories about legislative shirking, random sampling and the census, and proper polling language. Despite the occasional smarminess, President Jed Bartlet’s (Martin Sheen) team lost as often as it won, and it frequently had to settle for half loaves in negotiations with Congress. The post-Sorkin seasons don’t get a lot of love, but they’ve aged better; the plots around Rep. Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits) and Sen. Arnie Vinick (Alan Alda) seeking their parties’ respective presidential nominations are very, very good.
“The Crown” (Netflix, 2016-) deals mostly in palace intrigue, but it’s rooted in the political history of the long reign of Queen Elizabeth II (played by Claire Foy, Olivia Colman and Imelda Staunton). Her interactions with many prime ministers, especially Winston Churchill (John Lithgow) and Margaret Thatcher (Gillian Anderson), are fascinating, as are her complicated interactions with various U.S. administrations. Princess Margaret (Helena Bonham Carter) charming Lyndon B. Johnson (Clancy Brown) is amazing. The Charles and Diana saga gets tedious, which is accurate.
Up for some shorter fare? Strong recommendations for:
“Show Me a Hero” (HBO, 2015). In this show, Oscar Isaac stars as Mayor Nick Wasicsko of Yonkers, N.Y., as the city struggles with enforced racial integration in public housing. Written by David Simon (“The Wire”), it offers penetrating looks at White backlash and racial and economic divisions in what was ultimately a fairly successful public policy experiment. It also shows some of the best, worst and saddest outcomes of a political system built on ambition.
“John Adams” (HBO, 2008) covers some early U.S. history, from the Boston Massacre to Adams’ 1826 death. Paul Giamatti is impressive as Adams, portraying him as intelligent, principled, grumpy and aloof. Laura Linney is an absolutely badass Abigail Adams, taking it on herself to inoculate her and her children against smallpox while John was away in what was a pretty disgusting and risky procedure. Tom Wilkinson is a fun Ben Franklin.
“Mrs. America” (FX/Hulu, 2020) follows several feminist leaders of the 1960s and ’70s, including Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne), Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba), and Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman), and the conservative counter-movement led by Phyllis Schlafly (Cate Blanchett) at the same time. Schlafly is shown sympathetically as a gifted organizer, policy expert and writer who is repeatedly sidelined by male conservatives, and whose personal life exemplifies the “feminine mystique” that Friedan was trying to upend. My favorite episode looked at the 1972 Democratic convention’s negotiations between the feminists and the George McGovern campaign.
“Designated Survivor” (ABC/Netflix, 2016-18) starts out interesting, with Housing and Urban Development Secretary Tom Kirkland (Kiefer Sutherland) as the lone presidential successor after a massive terrorist attack during a State of the Union address decapitates the federal government. The writing and plots aren’t brilliant, but it’s interesting to see him navigating a government he doesn’t really understand while a shadowy plot against him unfolds. After that plot is resolved, though, the show just turns to him being an awesome guy because he’s a non-politician politician, which manages to be smarmy and lazy and uninteresting all at the same time.
“House of Cards” (2013-18), as I wrote here at TMC in 2015, is a watchable drama that works really hard to know nothing about U.S. politics. At one point, a Democratic presidential candidate, trailing by 15 points, is campaigning in South Dakota. Think about that.