American politics has been the centre for many a compulsive thriller or drama, sometimes comedy, to come from the US. Something about the hierarchy of the US political system and its highest office in the land lends itself to some of the most compulsive and binge worthy series of nearly the last twenty years, from classy dramas, to action thrillers, to soapy melodramas, to intense character studies, to comedies that can be either somewhat vicious, to charming.
They rank as some of the most enjoyable television series ever put to air and with Designated Survivor in the middle of its second season, now is as good a time as any to look back at those series that put American politics, from the office of the President, to those just below the highest office in the land, to small town politics, front and centre of our favourite shows from across the pond.
The West Wing
Possibly the most iconic series to feature the President and The White House at its dramatic centre, Aaron Sorkin’s acclaimed and brilliant drama chronicling the lives of those working at the top-tier of US politics was critically acclaimed, award-winning and popular, at least in the US. In the UK the series struggled on Channel 4, who did their best to make the series work, but alas mainstream UK audiences didn’t seem as interested.
It’s a shame, because at its peak The West Wing is one of the finest dramas to ever air on television, and, premiering the same year as The Sopranos, was one of the first shows to brilliantly compete with the movies in its ability to bring class, brilliant filmmaking and superb writing to the small screen in a way that really challenged the authority of the big screen. That it starred Martin Sheen and Rob Lowe probably helped.
Although initially marketed as a Rob Lowe-vehicle, it was clear that it was the winning ensemble that made the series what it was and soon more focus was being put on Sheen’s superb performance as President Josiah Bartlet, a fictional president who came along during the dying days of the Clinton administration and the emergence of the Bush years, and became a president we all wished actually worked within the hollowed halls of the Oval Office. Completing the masterful ensemble was Allison Janney, Bradley Whitford, the late great John Spencer and Richard Schiff.
Sorkin’s writing was superb, but when he left after the fourth season, the series did struggle in its fifth year, but rebounded superbly in years six and seven with storylines that cut back between the Oval Office and the hard-fought election of those who were aiming to take over. A superb drama in every way and a true contender for best television drama ever. Its season two finale, “Two Cathedrals”, may be the greatest hour of television ever scripted. What’s next?
If The West Wing was the liberal answer to the emergence of the Bush administration, then 24 was the series that dealt with it head on with its combination of storylines involving politics and terrorism, not least the war on it that emerged post-9/11. Not without controversies due to its portrayal of enhanced interrogation techniques (torture, of course), the series may have sometimes wore its right-wing tendencies on its sleeve (even though it had a writers room that was evenly split between the left and right), but that never stopped it from being a brilliant, and sometimes ridiculously, compulsive action thriller.
Featuring a sensational comeback performance from Kiefer Sutherland (who would return to this realm, somewhat, with Designated Survivor), 24 managed to be both tough, gritty, and as ridiculous as any James Bond film. That it gave pop culture another iconic action hero in Jack Bauer cannot be disputed.
Initially running for eight seasons, the series came back a few years later for the London-set 24: Live Another Day, and was subsequently followed by a soft reboot/revival in the shape of 24: Legacy. The first five seasons, for the most part, are the best, mixing political intrigue, with high-octane action. Sometimes the more right-wing leanings of its creators, Joel Surnow and Robert Cochran, was abundantly clear, but it was hard to complain when it was as well made and cinematic as this was.
The first season felt the freshest, combining real-time and split screens to fantastic effect in a way that hadn’t been done before on the small screen, and while subsequent seasons upped the ante considerably in terms of threat and scale (the fifth year was particularly fantastic, going so far as to make the President himself the big bad of the season), the series had a fearlessness in going into the realms of worse case scenario by having its terrorist threats be successful.
However, the first season, glaring trip into amnesia aside, probably delivered the best in terms of thrills and shocks, building to a finale that was as dark and shocking as anything delivered on US network television at the time. Another series that made us move to bingeing are favourite shows, when viewed just be prepared to have that sound effect in your head for days.
Without a doubt one of the most underrated series currently on television, Madam Secretary is one of the most quiet success stories in recent years. Possibly because it’s on CBS, the network that has given us copious amounts of crime procedurals (it also gave us the magnificent The Good Wife), Madam Secretary has somewhat flown under the radar over the last four years, but it’s American network television’s most obvious successor to The West Wing in that it brings intelligence and class, as well as a winning ensemble delivering great dialogue, in beautifully made hour-long mini-movies each week.
Even if it doesn’t quite hit the heights of The West Wing, it still is a compulsive hour of television each week, and at the centre of it is a superb, career defining performance from Tea Leoni as Secretary of State Elizabeth McCord.
Created by Barbara Hall (whose previous credit was the wonderful Joan of Arcadia), Madam Secretary is classy, well made and with a very intelligent centre, brilliantly mixing stories with political scale, with scenes back at the McCord home, with Tim Daly sharing wonderful chemistry with Leoni as her husband, Henry. A brilliant show that deserves more attention.
Make no mistake, Veep is crass, filled with bad language, and has a line of dialogue somewhere that will surely offend, but it also has some bitingly brilliant things to say about the current political climate, so it’s no surprise that it comes from Armando Iannucci, creator of the equally superb The Thick of It.
Centered around the working of Vice President Selina Myer (Julia Louis-Dreyfuss, who is brilliant beyond words here) and her somewhat scattershot staff, the series delivers biting, sometimes acidic humour, coupled with storylines that are clearly inspired by real life.
If The West Wing is how we wish politics was, then Veep is probably how it actually is. With much of its humour centred around incompetence, political embarrassments, and scandals, it is without doubt one of the best comedies on television today, and with its final season around the corner, its loss will be felt when it’s all over.
Parks and Recreation
Initially developed as a spin-off from the US version of The Office, Parks and Recreation eventually became its own entity, although interestingly it had a similar trajectory in terms of quality as the us The Office; somewhat muddled first season, followed by subsequent seasons of higher quality.
As good as season two was, it wasn’t until season three that the series really hit it stride, by placing Adam Scott and former West Wing star Rob Lowe into its superb ensemble cast, an ensemble centred around Amy Poehler’s iconic performance as Leslie Knope, head of the Parks department of Pawnee, Indiana, who, over the course of its seven season run (so it never outstayed its welcome like The Office) goes from running the parks department, to Council Woman, and possibly beyond.
With it small town setting, the series featured witty and brilliant handling of storylines that were based around all manner of important subjects, the key difference being that Parks and Recreation kept itself to small town politics as opposed to the bigger arena of Washington, although that didn’t stop the series making the trip there and throwing in all manner of brilliant cameos from the likes of Michelle Obama, Joe Biden and John McCain.
What made the series so wonderful were its themes of friendship and kindness. The parks department of Pawnee was made up of many different personalities, and, in the case of two key characters, vastly different political outlooks, but who worked hard to be decent to each other. In the case of political outlooks, Leslie Knope and Ron Swanson (an incredible comedic portrayal from Nick Offerman) were at different points in the political spectrum, with Leslie a full hearted liberal and Swanson a hardcore libertarian, who, despite obvious differences, were best friends who always looked out and cared for each other in the work they did.
It’s a series that should be mandatory viewing for just about everybody in politics nowadays, and that it conveys themes like this while throwing in running jokes involving a miniature horse named L’il Sebastian, Andy (Chris Pratt before he became a major star) and his alter-ego Burt Macklin FBI , Nick Offerman and his real life wife Megan Mullally doing some very outrageous things as Ron and ex-wife Tammy II, and Adam Scott delivering the greatest fourth wall breaking in television history, not to mention some brilliantly anti-social behaviour from April, a superb, bordering on dark comedic performance from Aubrey Plaza, is to be commended.
At its heart, however, is Poehler. Leslie Knope will probably go down as one of television’s greatest ever characters thanks to Poehler’s performance that went from annoying in the first season, to incredibly competent, charming and lovable from season two onwards. Knope was a character you couldn’t help rooting for, and along with Adam Scott as Ben Wyatt, portrayed one of the greatest romances in US televsion.
Thanks to her and superb writing, not to mention brilliant running jokes and a great support cast, it is probably the finest comedy series to ever come from the US, as well as a great portrayal of politics.
Designated Survivor Season 2 is now airing weekly on Netflix in the UK.