TV shows have been taking on politics for decades — take a look back at the most culturally significant ones
TV shows have been taking on politics for decades. Long before “The Crown” and “House of Cards” hit the small screen, viewers got inside looks at presidential campaigns, White House senior staffers, and the world of counterterrorism with shows like “Yes, Minister” and “Tanner ’88.” Take a look back at the most important political TV shows of all time.
Yes, Minister (1980-82) We start our list on the other side of the pond. This classic British show starred Paul Eddington as the minister of the (fictional) Department of Administrative Affairs, with Nigel Harthorne and Derek Fowlds as his two secretaries. The show inspired numerous spinoffs and was a favorite of Iron Lady Margaret Thatcher.
Tanner ’88 (1988) This early political mockumentary miniseries from Garry Trudeau (“Doonesbury”) provided a behind-the-scenes look at the fictional campaign of former Michigan representative Jack Tanner as he sought to secure the Democratic Party’s nomination for president. The series starred Michael Murphy in the title role, with Cynthia Nixon as his daughter, Pamela Reed as his campaign manager and Wendy Crewson as his girlfriend. The show nabbed cameos from several real-life political figures of the era, including Kitty Dukakis, Bob Dole and Bruce Babbitt.
Murphy Brown (1988-98, 2018) “Murphy Brown” starred Candice Bergen as a famous investigative journalist for a fictional CBS newsmagazine. The show satirized current events, blended fiction with reality, and even earned a denunciation from 1992 presidential candidate Dan Quayle, who criticized Bergen’s character for having a child out of wedlock. the statement turned into a major campaign controversy and received a televised response from the show’s characters, while commentators have said that this plot point paved the way for future single mothers in “Ally McBeal,” “Desperate Housewives,” and “The Good Wife.” It’s here that we have to mention the sitcom’s 2018 revival. The show doubled down on politics in the Trump era, but it didn’t resonate with viewers like back in the day. That’s all we want to say about the forgettable comeback.
Spin City (1996-02) Michael J. Fox starred as the deputy mayor of New York in this sitcom. The show also featured future “Friday Night Lights” and “Nashville” star Connie Britton as a City Hall worker in her earliest big television role. Later seasons saw Charlie Sheen as deputy mayor after Fox left the show for medical reasons.
The West Wing (1999-2006) This one set the bar for all political TV shows that came afterward. Aaron Sorkin’s famously idealistic series about the inner workings of the White House introduced Americans to “the guy the guy counts on,” as the show once said. Written in Sorkin’s signature rapid-fire dialogue, the show starred Martin Sheen as President Josiah “Jed” Bartlet, alongside Allison Janney, Rob Lowe, Richard Schiff, Dule Hill, Bradley Whitford, Janel Moloney and the late John Spencer as senior White House staffers. Regarded as one of the greatest and most influential television shows of all time, “The West Wing” earned two Peabody Awards, three Golden Globe Awards and 26 Primetime Emmy Awards.
24 (2001-10)Kiefer Sutherland starred as counter-terrorist agent Jack Bauer in this show from Joel Surnow and Robert Cochran — which, at its height, was referenced by everyone from Bill Clinton to Antonin Scalia. The show drew heat from human rights advocates for its portrayals of torture and Muslims, but TV critics heaped praise on its acting and unique style of narration (each 24-episode season covered 24 hours in Bauer’s life).The original “24” spawned a few Fox spinoffs. By the end of its run in 2014, the “24” franchise surpassed “Mission: Impossible” and “The Avengers” to become the longest-running counterterrorism-themed TV show of all time.
The Wire (2002-08) Widely regarded as one of the greatest TV shows of all time, “The Wire” provided a glimpse into various Baltimore institutions and their relationship to law enforcement. Throughout its five seasons, the show looked at the illegal drug trade, the seaport system, the city government and bureaucracy, education and schools, and the print news media. While the series received poor Nielsen ratings, it was routinely lauded for its realistic portrayal of society, politics and urban life. President Barack Obama has said that “The Wire” is his favorite television series, and “The Walking Dead” creator Robert Kirkman is also a big fan — so much so that he has sought numerous “Wire” alums for his own show, including Seth Gilliam, Chad Coleman and Lawrence Gilliard Jr.
Parks and Recreation (2009-15) This political mockumentary from Greg Daniels and Michael Schur brought viewers into the small town of Pawnee, Indiana, where Amy Poehler starred as the eternally optimistic Leslie Knopes, deputy director of the Pawnee Parks and Recreation Department. Chris Pratt — now one of Hollywood’s biggest actors — got his start in the show, as did Aziz Ansari, who went on to create and star in the acclaimed Netflix series “Master of None.”
The Good Wife (2009-16)/The Good Fight (2017-present)Julianne Margulies starred in this acclaimed legal and political drama, which critics have called “television’s last great drama.” The show followed a stay-at-home mom who returned to the workforce as a litigator after her husband was caught in a sex and corruption scandal. The show earned five Emmy awards, several international remakes, and acclaim for its portrayal of the relationship between technology and law, leading some critics to call it “the most tech-savvy show on TV.” “The Good Wife” birthed “The Good Fight,” which stars Christine Baranski and currently exists on CBS All Access.
Borgen (2010-13) This Danish political drama became an international hit for its depiction of the first female Prime Minister of Denmark, played by Sidse Babett Knudsen. Described by the New York Times as a “bleaker, Nordic version of ‘The West Wing,'” the show was acclaimed for its originality, strong female characters, and depiction of Danish politics.
Homeland (2011-present) This spy thriller series from Showtime stars Claire Danes as a bipolar CIA agent. The first two seasons earned universal praise, along with a 2011 Golden Globe and a 2012 Emmy for Best Drama, and President Barack Obama is a known fan of the show. Like “24” before it, “Homeland” has also faced a fair amount of controversy over its depictions of torture and U.S.-Middle East relations (Lebanon was reported to have threatened to sue the show in 2011).
Scandal (2011-18) For 124 episodes and seven seasons, this show from Shondaland brought viewers into the world of crisis management in Washington D.C. The show starred Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope — who became the first African-American lead in a network drama in nearly four decades when she was cast in the show. The show is recognized with ushering in a new era of interactive television, thanks to the cast’s habit of live-tweeting the show as it aired.
Veep (2012-19)HBO’s brilliant political satire — depicting the inner workings of the office of the vice president, and later the president — has captured six Emmy Awards for leading woman Julia Louis-Dreyfus. “Veep” wrapped up earlier this year, and we’re still just trying to be OK with that.
House of Cards (2013-18)Five years before Netflix dethroned HBO as the most nominated platform for the 2018 Emmys, the streaming service entered the scene and became a household name when this massively popular series debuted. The show has earned 33 Emmy nominations for its portrayal of Congressman Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) and his wife Claire Underwood (Robin Wright). In 2018, “House of Cards” faced a potential death blow when Spacey was accused of sexual misconduct. He was fired from the show, and Wright took over the top spot on the call sheet — and the country — for one final run.
The Americans (2013-18)This critically acclaimed FX series starred Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys as undercover KGB spies posing as a married couple in 1980s America. The show recently finished up after six seasons — and in the course of its run, Russell and Rhys became a real-life couple and tied the knot off-screen. Although the show was largely ignored by the Television Academy for most of its run, “The Americans” won Emmys for writing and Rhys in its last gasp.
Madam Secretary (2014-2019) This political drama from CBS stars Téa Leoni as a former CIA operative and political science professor turned Secretary of State. It has earned critical acclaim — and some pointed questions about whether or not Leoni’s Elizabeth McCord is a stand-in for Hillary Clinton.
The Handmaid’s Tale (2017-present) Based on Margaret Atwood’s best-selling novel, this dystopian drama received immediate acclaim when it aired last year, and became the first series from a streaming service to nab an Emmy for Outstanding Drama. The series depicts a futuristic America where a totalitarian society subjects fertile women, called “Handmaids,” into child-bearing servitude. Some critics have drawn parallels between the show and Donald Trump’s America.
The Politician (2019-present)Ryan Murphy’s first Netflix series stars Ben Platt as a young man whose life-long dream is to become POTUS. And though the first two installments revolve around some low-stakes campaigns — Season 1 a race to become student-body president and Season 2 a battle for a seat on the New York state senate — the “American Horror Story” mastermind uses the satire to make serious commentary about American politicians and their skewed priorities.
The Comey Rule (2020)Based on former FBI director James Comey’s memoir, “A Higher Loyalty,” Showtime’s two-part miniseries recounted the chaotic 2016 election — giving Hillary Clinton supporters PTSD in the process — and the even more insane beginning to the Trump presidency. Jeff Daniels starred as Comey, who was fired by Trump months into his presidency, while Irish actor Brendan Gleeson donned the orange makeup and wig to portray the 45th president. It’s notable mostly because it paints a sitting president extremely poorly (and possibly illegally) less than 2 months before he attempts to get re-elected.
The Crown (2016-present)Is it about the British royal family? Yes, obviously. But Peter Morgan’s Netflix series is a dramatized retelling of historical moments in Queen Elizabeth II’s decades long reign that impacted the entire world. That, plus all of the juicy affairs, betrayals and scandals give “The Crown” exactly what it needs to go toe-to-toe with U.S. political TV series.
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