Political dramas are at an all-time high. Currently, eight major television shows are of the genre, including “Homeland,” “House of Cards,” “The Good Wife,” “The Americans,” “Hostages,” “Scandal,” “The Blacklist” and “Veep.” In addition to focusing on the inner workings of government, these shows are also similar in that they take a particularly cynical view toward politics. Yet, it wasn’t always this way.
In 1999, “The West Wing” premiered on NBC and, since its ending in 2006, has been widely regarded as the greatest political drama of all time. While “The West Wing” was controversial at the time, looking back at it, the idealism is clear. Martin Sheen’s President Josiah Bartlet was a liberal fantasy coming off of the heels of the Clinton administration, running all the way through the middle of Bush’s second term. While the personal lives of “West Wing” characters were convoluted and Bartlet was faced with countless tough decisions, overall he was brilliant and, more importantly, competent. In Aaron Sorkin’s vision of Washington, D.C., the good guys were public servants who held on to the power, and morals existed not just in theory. Washington, D.C. was a place to be respected, not antagonized. The next huge political thriller was “24,” which showed more of the dark side of government through the eyes of anti-terror agent Jack Bauer. While this may have not shown a pretty picture, Bauer, like Bartlet, was a hero. However, things began to lean a little more toward pessimism than heroism.
Whether it was the rise of the 24/7 news network battle royale, the constant display of corruption on every level of government or simply the general incompetency of politicians, D.C. has clearly lost a significant amount of respect since 1999. No doubt has this been reflected in political television culture. After “The West Wing” and “24” ended their runs, the political drama gained more popularity than ever. Unlike those two shows, political dramas today make no attempt to show politics as glamorized or moral. Until recently, demeaning the political process was seen as disrespectful, un-American even. So now, in an era where politicians are torn apart on a daily basis, audiences have no problem peeking into the inner workings of Washington. After all, it’s easy for Hollywood to glamorize D.C. corruption as being riddled with lies, sex, crime, bribes, power struggles, back-alley deals and general scumbaggery.
In addition to drama, audiences are searching for truth through these shows. While politics are regularly reported in the news, there is an assumption that the U.S. government is not trustworthy and is hiding key national and global secrets from the public. Conspiracies are everywhere, and we sense that our leaders are working in the shadows. These shows are able to suggest to the audience what really goes on when we’re not looking.
“House of Cards” is one of the best examples of this combination of cynicism and revelation. In season 1, Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood undertook an enormous and complex scheme in the hopes of gaining the presidency and enacting revenge. Throughout this journey, he is driven by lust, money and power and uses murder, bribing and a brilliant chess game of lies and manipulation to get there. While this seems outlandish, the series does seem to portray D.C. realistically. Underwood seems like a perfectly believable character to the audience, which is pretty depressing when you think about it.
Going one step further, “Scandal” gives us a part of D.C. that has been never discussed in popular culture — the business of crisis management. There is an entire network of people working to influence our perception of politicians, ideas audiences have found highly captivating. Rather than dramatizing D.C. through actions like murder and vicious crime, “Scandal” portrays cynicism through the idea that what we see is a construction; every deal and decision is carefully thought out for the purpose of image, not morals.
Even “Veep,” a comedy, is able to suggest the pitfalls of government through its silliness. While we are unable to better understand the inner workings of politics from this show, the drama and character development do reveal the incompetence and personal politics that exist. Selina Meyer, played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, is too often disrespected and underappreciated by other political players. Despite being knowledgeable, it is nearly impossible for her to be heard. The supporting characters are seen as either foolish or ridiculously egotistical, again pushing the idea of the pompousness of D.C.’s elite.
Overall, it is clear that television has become quite comfortable in its negative portrayal of D.C. Viewers no long believe that the Oval Office is the shining symbol of heroism and leadership, and they crave seeing a more realistic depiction. This begs the question, though, of whether political dramas will ever return to idealism or get even more corrupt. Let’s face it: A show about a president doubling as a serial killer would be hugely popular.