What TV’s Political Dramas And Comedies Have Taught Us About The Real World

Political TV shows do what seems undoable – make suited bureaucrats look exciting. The most recent addition to the canon, Marseille, tried to make experts in French regional politics out of all of us. After all, we’ve learned loads from these shows, argues Mike Rampton

The West Wing – 1999-2006

What’s that then? Aaron Sorkin’s drama set in the White House, starring Martin Sheen as President Jed Bartlet and Rizzo from Grease (Stockard Channing) as the First Lady. A lot of genuine White House veterans worked on the show, giving it a rare authenticity and leading it to be praised as much by former Presidents Gerald Ford and Bill Clinton as by TV critics.
What it’s meant to teach us: That deceiving the public can sometimes be morally justified. That even the most liberal of leaders eventually reaches a point where a line is crossed and conflict is inevitable. And that however flawed a system might be, good people can still make a difference.
What it really taught us: That everyone is at their most eloquent and loquacious while perambulating through corridors. That Rob Lowe, who played Deputy Communications Director Sam Seaborn, does not age, and possibly has a really hideous painting in his attic that looks worse by the day. Also, that if Rob Lowe demands too much money, well then, Rob Lowe can go and be on a sitcom (Parks And Recreation) and the show will trot along just fine without him.

The Thick Of It – 2005-2012


What’s that then? Armando Iannucci’s hilarious, profanity-drenched look inside the workings of the government’s fictional Department of Social Affairs and Citizenship. A lot of it follows Malcolm Tucker, the Prime Minister’s head enforcer, based on New Labour spin doctor Alastair Campbell and played to foul-mouthed perfection by Peter Capaldi.
What it’s meant to teach us: That the major political parties are far more similar than they are different, especially when it comes to the levels of incompetency and ignorance at their heart. That the relationship between Downing Street and Fleet Street is hideously complex and symbiotic, with endless mutual back-scratching and bulls**tting.
What it really taught us: Everyone in the government has the mouth of a particularly Tourette’s-y sailor. Take, for example, Tucker’s Law (“If some c*** can f*** something up, that c*** will pick the worst f***ing time to f***ing f*** it up, because that c***’s a c***), the most tea-towel-ready maxim TV has ever produced.

Scandal– 2012-present

What’s that then? Creator Shonda Rhimes’ impossibly glamorous combination of soap opera and conspiracy thriller, like if there was a Hollyoaks spin-off about ethically sketchy political crisis management.
What it’s meant to teach us: That there’s a staggering amount of behind-the-scenes machinations going on to control which stories make it out and which don’t. There’s a whole damage-limitation industry based around keeping certain stories out of the public eye – enough to make one deeply cynical.
What it really taught us: Everyone is sleeping with everyone, or was sleeping with everyone, or is trying to sleep with everyone. Like, it seems some fairly influential decisions are made while seven inches deep in a colleague. People at the inner echelons of secret government crisis management organisations – a job that you’d imagine mainly involves sending emails – are surprisingly photogenic.

Homeland – 2011-present

What’s that then?An American remake of an Israeli series following what happens when a marine who’s been a prisoner of al-Quaeda for eight years is released and may or may not have been converted into a terrorist. Both Damian Lewis and Claire Danes won awards by the fistful for their portrayals of troubled turncoat Nicholas Brody and unstable CIA agent Carrie Mathison.
What it’s mean to teach us: Even on home soil we’re never truly safe from the global reaches of terrorism. Foreign policy is incredibly complex and laden with grey areas that mean a poor decision now can have repercussions that last decades. Government departments intertwine in frequently counterproductive ways, and you can never be entirely sure that the goodies aren’t just as unstable as the baddies.
What it really taught us: That US TV now frequently consists of three British dudes trying to out-American-accent each other. And that there’s no need, just because a character has children, to fill an exciting high-stakes show with crap subplots about their kids struggling to fit in at a new school. Most notably, though, that Mandy Patinkin, who plays Saul Berenson, has a beard that’s the living embodiment of the word “luxuriant”.

House Of Cards – 2013-present


What’s that then? Netflix’s American remake of the BBC original, which sees Kevin Spacey’s ruthlessly ambitious Democrat stop at nothing to get to the White House.
What it’s meant to teach us: That power is addictive and the thirst for it is compelling. That the cut-throat world of politics can bring out the darkest sides of people, and that ambition often goes hand-in-hand with a conscious lean into immorality. That you don’t get into a position of influence without stepping on a few people’s faces.
What it really taught us: How to, um, kill someone and get away with it. The importance of wearing luxury watches at all times, displayed in lingering, almost pornographic close-ups, and how incredibly versatile the PlayStation Vita is, thanks to judicious product placement. Also, that while it’s technically possible to sign up for Netflix for the free, month-long trial and then cancel it, nobody’s ever managed to do so.


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