The top 10 political TV shows
You may be frightened by the clown car that is the 2016 presidential campaign. But you can’t deny that, as it speeds forward, it’s rather entertaining. With all the farce and intrigue, all the secrets and lies, politics is perfect fodder for TV series. When Mr. Smith has to go to Washington every week, he’s bound to trip over a few dead bodies — figuratively and, when it comes to the likes of “Scandal,” literally. As we enter the TV lull before the fall season, and as HBO runs David Simon’s extraordinary portrait of a cornered politician called “Show Me a Hero,” here’s a look at the series I’m electing into the Political TV Hall of Fame.
As we continue our epic voyage into the 2016 presidential crusade, keep “Veep” close at hand. It will help you smile when the political theater gets especially (cough, Donald Trump, cough) absurd. “Veep” is a show for our time, a portrait of the narcissism, malignant self-interest, banality, media self-pleasuring, and congressional paralysis that seem to afflict American politics more than ever. Interestingly, the comedy was created by a Scottish writer, Armando Iannucci, whose point of view as an outsider is less than forgiving. “Veep” has the ring of truth about it, which is essential for this kind of scathing satire to work. Other reasons “Veep” is No. 1: Because the take-no-prisoners jokes are spit-take-worthy, because the ensemble cast of D.C. puppets and puppeteers is so tight and synchronous (not least of all the White House court jester, Jonah, played by Timothy Simons), and because the lead, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, has the world’s most expert comic timing. She turns the humor of petty thinking — something at which every good politician must excel — into an art form.
Where to watch: Just finished 4th season on HBO. Episodes available on demand, on HBO Now, and on DVD.
This beloved 1999-06 drama managed a miracle — to both show mainstream viewers how politics, foreign policy, and law-making works and nonetheless maintain a spirit of Frank Capra-esque idealism. “The West Wing” soothed what ailed Democrats during the George W. Bush era. While “Veep” reminds us that we are at the mercy of vain, ineffectual roaches, “The West Wing” inspired hope because at least a handful of honorable figures had made it to the top — not just the preternaturally intelligent President Bartlett, but his preternaturally fast-talking and witty staff. Series creator Aaron Sorkin wrote scripts that were little heroic masterpieces, when they didn’t succumb to painful nobility or preachiness. And he built characters that were easy to root for as they marched through the hallowed halls, when they weren’t behaving like emotional baby robots. After Sorkin left in 2003, John Wells took over and the show grew more consistent but no less watchable. While so many other shows about politics serve as warning signs — beware; here there be monsters of ego — the rousing “West Wing” probably stirred a few people to sign up.
Where to watch: Episodes available on Amazon, Netflix, and DVD.
This three-season Danish political series has deservedly gained international respect since it premiered in 2010. Surprisingly, many American viewers have been willing to brave the subtitles because, not surprisingly, Danish politics look a lot like our own, although without the same kinds of global stakes and insane standstills. “Borgen,” the name of the seat of power in Copenhagen, is more acerbic than “The West Wing,” but less terminally cynical than “Veep” and “House of Cards.” Our heroine is Birgitte Nyborg, Denmark’s first female prime minister. We watch her — a relatively principled person — get caught up the ins and outs of power, the media, and spin control, and along the way we see how these compromises alter her personal life, including her beautifully portrayed marriage. Along with its tight plots and dryly humorous asides, “Borgen” is a brilliant, unsentimentalized, and intimate psychological portrait of a politician.
Where to watch: Select episodes available on Link TV and linktv.org; seasons available on DVD.
The Netflix remake of this British miniseries has its fans, those viewers who don’t mind the increasingly ridiculous plot turns and the mugging and smugging of Kevin Spacey, whose Frank Underwood, we are reminded with every word and glance, is a snake. The four-episode original, made in England and written by Andrew Davies (ace screenwriter of more “Masterpieces” than I can mention including 1995’s “Pride and Prejudice”), is more bleak and ascetic, the moral decay mustier. And star Ian Richardson is icier and more hauntingly Hitchcockian than Spacey, not least of all when he breaks the fourth wall. He looks so controlled, but there’s anarchic, childish rage right behind his eyes. The storyline has Richardson’s Francis Urquhart awaiting his political reward for helping the new prime minister, then taking revenge when he doesn’t get it. His slippery line — “You might very well think that; I couldn’t possibly comment” — is brilliantly evasive, as he taints everyone who gets caught in his web.
Where to watch: Episodes available on Hulu, Amazon, and DVD.
Say what? Yup, if you’re looking for a show that dives into the nitty-gritty of political relationships, the way factions and alliances can form in an instant and just as quickly fall apart, how betrayals and self-interest are a way of life and nice guys usually finish last, this reality granddaddy will do. “Survivor” is a game of thrones among strangers put together to compete — with gorgeous natural locations standing in for D.C. or state capitals. Obviously, the players aren’t vying for political office, but, like politicians, they’re working to survive vote after vote. Some of the show’s villains, including Richard Hatch, have been like the leads in both versions of “House of Cards” — honest with the viewers while conning everyone else. Like any elected official, they all need to sleep with one eye open.
Where to watch: The 31st season premieres on CBS on Sept. 23. Old episodes available on CBS.com, Amazon, Hulu, and DVD.
6. The Wire
David Simon’s five-season series, which ran from 2002-08, was an intimate epic, in a way, as it looked at the broad systems that control urban life as well as the particular individuals who run them and who are victimized by them. Simon captured not just the political chess game of street life, of the school administrators, of the media, and of the police, but of the politicians who are supposed to serve their needy community. They are all corrupt, of course, toying with public opinion, crime statistics, and arrest targets in order to preserve their careers. Do the people who run Baltimore want big investigations that will nail those at the top of the drug trade? No, especially since those kingpins have friends in high places. But a few street arrests will serve them nicely in the press. Honorable mention: Simon’s fine miniseries “Show Me a Hero,” currently airing on HBO, which gives us a politician caught between what’s right and what wins elections.
Where to watch: Episodes available on demand, on HBO Now, and on DVD.
7. Tanner ’88
Director Robert Altman and writer Garry Trudeau gave us this early HBO gem, a satire about a former Democratic congressman from Michigan, Michael Murphy’s passive Jack Tanner, running for president and getting pulled into the campaign-media machine. The ambitious series follows Tanner on the trail, from New Hampshire to the Atlanta convention, mixing actors with real politicians and journalists of the time, including Bob Dole, Linda Ellerbee, and Gary Hart. The show isn’t always successful; the mixture of improvisation and scripted lines, the overlapping dialogue, and the hand-held camerawork can all feel chaotic. But that’s part of the point Altman and Trudeau were making: Reaching willfully uninformed voters through a twisted political process involving a rabid media is a rather muddled undertaking.
Where to watch: Episodes available on Hulu, Amazon, and DVD.
Aw. This series may be the sweetest take on politics ever made for TV. Amid the partisan gridlock that defined American politics during the show’s run, 2009-15, it was a balm. Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope was a blooming politician who deeply believed in the value of government when it came to helping a community thrive. Leslie wasn’t an idealist, no matter how upbeat she was; she was a dogged realist, one who, through pluckiness and optimism, made good things happen. She was even able to work with those on the opposite side of the fence, symbolized on a regular basis by Leslie’s own Lou Grant — Ron Swanson, who believed that the smaller the government, the better. Imagine that. Knope? Yup.
Where to watch: Episodes are syndicated on FXX and are available on NBC.com, Hulu, Amazon, Netflix, and DVD.
9. The Good Wife
This drama, one of the best currently airing on network TV, is about that rare case of a male politician fooling around behind his wife’s back. Yeah, just kidding. It’s the kind of story we frequently see in the media, as elected officials fall in love with their own power and ultimately reach self-destructive ends. “The Good Wife” took that scenario when it premiered in 2009 and it is still skipping gleefully ahead with it, focusing on the story of the wife — Julianna Margulies’s Alicia Florrick — and her decisions, including a run at office, while living in the limelight. The show zeroes in on the power of the people behind the candidates, one of whom is embodied with great comedic relief by Alan Cumming’s Eli Gold. The Florricks’ public lives, to some extent, are in the hands of their ruthless campaign managers, whose hands are always dirty.
Where to watch: The 7th season premieres on CBS on Oct. 4. Old episodes are available on CBS.com, Amazon, Hulu, and on DVD.
We don’t generally like finding out that the people who run America are amoral power mongers. Except, of course, when it comes to TV, where we love to get caught up in juicy intrigues that make Watergate look like a game of capture the flag and the Clinton-Lewinsky affair look like a children’s book. “Scandal” blows dastardly White House doings wide open, with a cast of slinky foxes and goons lurking behind the scenes, most notably the fixer and top dog Olivia Pope, played by Kerry Washington. Once an insanely addictive soap opera, the show has fallen into repetition and sheer silliness — a sad byproduct of being a Shonda Rhimes joint. But still, it’s a pulpy, overheated kick.