TV's Love Affair With Washington

Way back in the Reagan Administration, I worked in Washington D.C. for several years – and, like the co-ed who spent a semester abroad and never stopped opining about the French afterwards, I’ve positioned myself ever since then as an expert on all things Washington, including how outrageously it is misrepresented on television.

My son will confirm what a bore I have become on the topic, since I am a frequent scoffer whenever we watch a show depicting politics.  And what a lot of shows there are to scoff at!  Never before have there been so many TV series focused on life in our nation’s capital: “House of Cards,” “Veep,” “The Americans,” “Scandal,” “Homeland,” and Amazon Prime’s “Alpha House” are just a few of the critical or ratings hits. Never mind the bombs like “1600 Penn” and “K Street.”

And next year there will be more of them.  According to Stuart Elliott in the New York Times,  almost every network will have its own presidential administration, with the introduction of new shows featuring female Secretaries of State, genius government agents, and idealistic CIA analysts.



What’s up with that?  Before the “West Wing” -- that seven-year lecture on how politics ought to be conducted -- the nation’s capital barely appeared on TV outside of the evening news.  Possibly the networks thought politics was too boring for prime-time entertainment.  Or maybe they thought it sacrilegious to expose the mysteries of the executive and legislative branches.  Or maybe they worried that a show about politics would be controversial or divisive.

It’s probably not a fluke that the increased popularity of Washington-based TV shows has coincided with the rise of cable news networks such as Fox News, MSNBC and CNN, as well as fake news shows like “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report.”  These shows make the government seem more dramatic and important than it really is. 

In fact, the depiction of national politics in popular culture has always reflected public anxiety.  Cold War movies like “Dr. Strangelove,” “Seven Days in May” and “Fail-Safe” predominated in the ‘60s; then the ‘60s produced “Three Days of the Condor” and “All The President’s Men,” movies about an out-of-control government.

Ironically, the many new scripted shows about national politics come at a time when the government has never been more stalemated or ineffective.  Aside from the passage of the Affordable Care Act, nothing much of consequence has happened in Washington for the past decade as Congress has been at bitter partisan loggerheads with the past two Presidents. 

In that regard, a show like “House of Cards,” where the ambitious House Majority Whip/Vice President bends Congress and various regulatory agencies to his will, is laughable in this day and age.   If anything, for all its stylishness and social media fixation, “House of Cards” is an exercise in nostalgia, hearkening back to the days when legislative geniuses like Lyndon Johnson pulled strings, did favors, issued threats and generally bullied Congress to get bills passed.  Nothing like that is remotely possible today. 

What “House of Cards” misses is the deep ideological conflict between the parties. When you have true believers from gerrymandered districts facing off over emotional hot-button issues, you are not going to get the kind of compromises and mutual backscratching necessary to pass a lot of legislation.

In that regard, “Veep” is a more accurate depiction of government dysfunction.  Vice President Selena Meyer  -- an ambitious careerist with no political convictions of her own -- is constantly thwarted by the incompetence of her own staff and the tangled and conflicting interests of the political class.  But if “West Wing” has an idealized view of government and “House of Cards” is insanely paranoid, “Veep” is overly cynical.  Government may be dysfunctional, but it’s not because of the incompetence of the personnel. Washington is stymied because it’s filled with TOO many extremely smart people who have extremely strong convictions, but can’t agree about anything. 

It’s inevitable that television will reduce politics to a caricature because nothing could be more boring than the legislative process.  Hearing after hearing, speech after speech, and if you’re lucky, compromise after compromise. Governing is a slow and incremental process.  ZZZZZZZZZZZZ. 

In reality, the current crop of political shows have as much to say about government as “ER” did about medicine or “Boston Legal” did about the law.  They are comedies, dramas or soap operas that happen to be set in the nation’s capital and should be enjoyed, or not enjoyed, for their entertainment value alone.  And if you actually want to learn about politics from television, there’s always C-Span.

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