top of page

The Magic of Political TV Shows


We want to view our politicians as capable and in control, always playing the long game. Eleanor Taylor explores the functions of political television, and if it exists to delude us.

Political dramas and comedies have a long history. Born out of a desire to address current affairs in entertaining ways, the earliest form of this genre can be seen in Athenian Theatre with productions such as Aristophanes’ anti-war comedy Lysistrata. Later on we have playwrights, such as Shakespeare, examining the complex motivations behind individuals and how they act in positions of power. His work Coriolanus used the setting of Ancient Rome, but was based on Elizabethan politics. Now we can see parodies of political dramas such as Yes Minister, a fantastic comedy about how inept the British government is. On the other side of the spectrum is The West Wing — a show about capable leaders making strategic decisions and always being one step ahead of the game. House of Cards provides a very intense, almost Machiavellian view of American politics, depicting it as a field dominated by sociopathic white men. Essentially, as long as there is politics, and a form of government, we will have a media that aims to critique the system and in some cases, uphold it.

"We will do what is hard. We will achieve what is great. This is a time for American heroes and we reach for the stars." — President Bartlet

As a viewer of The West Wing, you feel pulled into the Capitol, like a fly on the wall watching important decisions being made. There is a sense of authenticity, like we have been invited behind the curtains into government. The exclusive world of political decision making becomes known and demystified. The characters were attractive, witty and could get anything done through their sheer confidence. This show is so wild in fact, that in one episode President Bartlet manages to negotiate peace in the Middle East. That's right, he straight up just talks it out with world leaders and solves the Israel-Palestine conflict. In a world where the United States is a global superpower, it is terrifying to imagine it as being run by idiots making constant mistakes. Shows like The West Wing served as a way for us to feel like everything was under control. Sure, they are dramatic political thrillers, but at the end of the day sometimes these shows feel oddly comforting and give us a false sense of security. It feels good to watch someone as competent as President Bartlet make peace in the Middle East, even if it's just on TV. But The West Wing came out 21 years ago, and boy has a lot gone down. America has seen 6 elections and 4 presidents since then. Social media was created and has exploded in popularity to the point where it can be used as a news source. The internet has been democratised and we have more information available to us about how badly our governments behave than ever. Living through a global pandemic has only amplified our discontent. The West Wing is a relic of a patriotic past showing us a government where politicians exist to serve and always restore control over any situation.

“Democracy is so overrated.” — Frank Underwood

We also have cynical perspectives; think The West Wing, but everyone is a psychopath. Political drama House of Cards was one of Netflix’s most successful shows, demonstrating that there was a new perspective being shared here which people wanted in on. We are a suspicious society now, clued into the fact that politicians are short termist and self-interested. The politicians in House of Cards were cunning and calculated. These characters were deeply intelligent, always had the upper hand and the ability to keep things under control. Just as skilled as the cast of The West Wing, except these characters were duplicitous. They lacked any empathy or compassion, displayed little emotion and a Machiavellian-esque philosophy of doing whatever it takes to succeed. The series opens with a murder — introducing us into the real world of politics, which is far grittier than we expect. Where The West Wing gave us patriotic heroes, House of Cards gave us evil tyrants more interested in gaining power than actually utilizing it. Scandal is another example, drawing us into secretive negotiations and the murky forces involved in politics. Scandal shows that behind the scenes are lots of individuals acting according to their own interests. The government is duplicitous and an entire industry exists which revolves around protecting its image. These shows serve to increase our suspicion, to show us how little we know about the leaders that govern us. In stark contrast to The West Wing, House of Cards makes the audience feel like they know politicians in a bad way, alienating them from the government.

“The public doesn't know anything about wasting government money. We are the experts.” — Sir Humphrey

Finally we have the other main genre of political television: the political comedy. Parks and Recreation, Yes Minister, Veep (my personal favourite) and Utopia to name a few. These all represent a radically different perspective to House of Cards, Scandal and The West Wing. Generally speaking, the stakes in these shows are quite low; Utopia follows a fictional government department, Yes Minister also does this with a ‘Department of Administrative Affairs,’ playing on the idea that governments are overly bureaucratic with unimportant positions that prevent any work from actually occurring. In both of these shows, the characters are smart and witty. At the same time they are woefully inefficient and often fully aware of how useless politicians are. Most of the humour comes from jokes made by the main characters about how bad government truly is. For example, this quote from the main character, Minister Jim Hacker: “I don't want the truth. I want something I can tell Parliament!” Here we have characters who are often genuinely motivated to be involved in politics and then end up in positions that probably shouldn't exist, finding themselves disenfranchised with the system. Here we are in on the joke, which is that no one knows what is going on.

“You get to BS-ing: brainstorming” — Leslie Knope

Parks and Recreation differs from Yes Minister in that here, politicians are generally all idiots. They fail to get anything done because the cast are simply bumbling in and out of disaster. Unlike in Yes Minister, politicians in Parks and Recreation are not preloaded with witticisms and tongue in cheek remarks about the inadequacies of democracy. In Yes Minister, the characters are all Oxford alumni, elite politicians who are fully aware of the failures of their government. In Parks and Recreation, politics occur on a smaller scale in the town of Pawnee and the main character Leslie Nope is a naive optimist. Even when all of her coworkers are disenfranchised and her boss is a libertarian who wants to break the government from the inside, Leslie appears to be the only character who is genuinely trying to make a difference and believes that she can. It is a nice comfort viewing where nothing is as high stakes as it is in House of Cards (someone is actually murdered, wtf??) or The West Wing (peace in the Middle East is stressful!). Although this show is obviously critiquing politics by characterising politicians so negatively, it is a positive and fun show to binge watch.

The West Wing gives us big American propaganda energy, and I don’t think people really buy that anymore. It's kind of funny now, because American exceptionalism is becoming increasingly parodied, even by Americans — Just look at Parks and Recreation. This is probably the reason why we don’t have political dramas in the same way we used to. We can see a shift occurring, where we've gone from viewing politicians as noble patriots to seeing them as either evil or just useless. Social Media has definitely enabled us to mock politics on a much larger scale than ever before. On Twitter, the hashtags “Scottyfrommarketing”, “Scummo” or “Clot Morrison” are trending at least three times a week. It is hard to convincingly characterise politicians as being competent and awe-inspiring individuals, simply because we are exposed to every way they are not like that now. Ultimately, it will be fun to watch how political television develops, especially given the fact we are living through a pandemic. I hope we never lose our ability to find a level of humour in literally any situation — it provides good viewing.

bottom of page