This week NBC announced that the final season of Parks and Recreation will begin on January 13. I wrote about Parks, Veep, and other TV shows about politics for America magazine in November ("Uncivil Society"). Below is a longer version of that essay. Please check out my ongoing blog at America's website; today's post looks at how pop-culture obsessions like Serial and True Detective are now paralleled in political journalism and news coverage of events like the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
Fifteen years after the premiere of The West Wing, there are more TV shows about politics than ever before, with Scandal among the biggest hits on broadcast television and a half-dozen others in production on various platforms, including Netflix and Amazon. But the trend is not likely to boost interest in this fall’s real-life elections.
It turns out that the key to a successful TV show about politics is to take out the policy. Public officials can hold our interest only if they’re not able to do much of anything. Passing legislation and delivering social services aren’t as dramatic, or as funny, as scheming and outwitting opponents just to stay in office.
The cynical approach to politics is to be expected on series that rely on thrills and plot twists, but sitcoms have not always been so dismissive toward taking an interest in one’s larger community. It was only after the sitcom got hard-edged that politics became an attractive topic.
The rise and fall of empathy
At its peak in the 1970s, the American sitcom was all about empathy. All in the Family teaches the virtues of tolerance, and M*A*S*H attacks the dehumanization necessary to wage war. On the police comedy Barney Miller, the arrestees have stories that would challenge anyone’s “lock ’em up” attitude; the psychology patients on The Bob Newhart Show just need to know they aren’t alone; and on Taxi even people in New York City, including Jeffrey Tambor as a congressman who clumsily pursues cabbie Elaine, usually turn out to be decent souls.
But as the sitcom was evolving, faith in American government was unraveling. Vietnam, Watergate, and the dashed expectations of the administration of Jimmy Carter (whose election seemed as close as we could get to making The Andy Griffith Show come to life) made politics seem sordid and, at best, amoral. It’s not surprising that no highly successful ’70s sitcom is set in the world of politics or features an elected official as a central character. Regular characters on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Odd Couple, and The Bob Newhart Show, among others, run for local office in individual episodes, but politics is depicted as an off-kilter world where the fairness and decency don’t always apply.
By the ’80s, prime time was getting more cynical, and political stories occasionally popped up. For example, the police drama Hill Street Blues uses mayoral politics as a source of dark comedy (one candidate falls to his death after pushing on a window in a tenement to show how unsafe it is). Much like the legal drama The Good Wife would decades later, it contrasts the silly goings-on in government to the life-or-death stories playing out on the streets and in courtrooms.
As for sitcoms, the increasingly contemptuous attitude toward politics is typified by “Woody Gets an Election,” an episode from the last season of Cheers, in which psychiatrist Frasier Crane runs the simple-minded bartender’s campaign for city council as part of an experiment to see how gullible voters are. (“Just say the word ‘change’ about a hundred times,” he advises Woody before a debate.) Woody wins, and the episode ends with footage of atomic explosions — part of Frasier’s nightmare about Woody going all the way to the White House.
By the time Cheers signed off in 1993, Seinfeld was on its way to becoming the most popular sitcom on TV. Breaking from the traditions of the ’70s, Seinfeld depicts a world where suspicion of strangers is entirely warranted. (“I love it when people are difficult and hostile for absolutely no reason. I don’t know why, but that’s really funny,” Jerry Seinfeld said in a recent interview with Vulture.com.) As the show progresses, the four main characters themselves become the narcissistic, anti-social New Yorkers who make life worse for everyone they encounter, including short-term girlfriends and boyfriends. Seinfeld can be very funny, but sitcoms have been copying its tone ever since. The new lesson is that the people in front of you at the supermarket check-out — including, and maybe especially, the ones using food stamps — are, when you really get to know them, as rotten as you expected.
Compared with those of the ’70s, today’s sitcoms are light on empathy and more prone to a nasty surrealism that encourages distance from strangers. They are also much less popular than their earlier counterparts, even by the declining standards of network television, which now relies more on sci-fi/fantasy shows and gruesome crime dramas.
Friends popularized the tight, suspicious, and even incestuous friends-and-family circle now found on shows like Girls, New Girl, and Modern Family. Sitcoms are now less likely to be filmed in front of live audiences, thus making it easier to flatten guest characters and prevent viewers from paying too much attention to them at the expense of the stars. (Some find “laugh tracks” to be phony, but music cues and quick editing can make single-camera sitcoms even more manipulative of viewer reactions.) And though adult-oriented humor is not bad in itself, the emphasis on sex reflects a disinterest in the wider world. Maclean’s television critic Jaime Weinman hit upon one reason for this crutch in a 2012 essay: “it makes sense for sex to be the subject of mass-market comedy; in a fragmented era, sex is one of the few things that has universal appeal.” One certainly can’t say the same about politics or religion.
The West Wing and its aftermath
One year after Seinfeld left the air, network television finally — after dozens of attempts over the decades — developed a hit series about American politics. It helped that by 1999, television audiences were so splintered that The West Wing could become a Top 10 show even when the great majority of Americans were bored or irritated by it. At its peak, The West Wing was on in 11.6 percent of all households with a television, according to Nielsen rating estimates, compared with 34.9 percent for The Cosby Show in the mid ’80s.
The West Wing is an idealized version of politics, full of smart professionals with good intentions and quick jokes. Like the classic newspaper comedy His Girl Friday, it centers on essentially decent people who somehow end up in a cynical profession. Though The West Wing still has a large following eight years after it ceased production, attempts to duplicate it have been unsuccessful. (Geena Davis as the Commander in Chief didn’t last; this season, CBS is hoping for better luck with Téa Leoni as the secretary of state in Madame Secretary.) Instead, politics has again been in the background in prestige dramas: not only The Good Wife, but The Wire, in which the mayor of Baltimore is too distracted by his hunger for the governor’s office to do the right thing by his city; Big Love, in which the protagonist wins a state legislative seat with a secret agenda of legitimizing polygamy; and even the sci-fi Battlestar Galactica, in which the decision to run an honest presidential election when humanity is on the verge of extinction has the worst possible consequences.
Meanwhile, politics has become an ingredient in what Meta Wagner, writing for the Boston Globe, calls “cartoon dramas,” which “take the most frightening and horrifying political events of the day and present them in an over-the-top, unbelievable, outrageous fashion.” The terrorism thriller 24, which coincidentally premiered only two months after the 9/11 attacks, pioneered the genre in which the White House is just another prize for conspiracy groups and espionage operations. Now we have House of Cards, about a murderous pol who schemes his way into the presidency, and the mainstream hit Scandal, about a public relations guru hired by various pols trying to cover up everything from extra-marital affairs to election fraud.
Political storylines still pop up in less sensationalist programs. In a past season of Modern Family, frustrated housewife Claire runs for city council, and on this past season’s Parenthood, cancer survivor Kristina runs for mayor of Berkeley, California. Both campaigns seem mostly about the women rebuilding their self-esteem, and both lose to men who are “professional” (i.e., unscrupulous) politicians.
Women are also the protagonists in the two most prominent political sitcoms now in production: NBC’s Parks and Recreation, which will return this winter for its final season, and HBO’s Veep, which aired its third season this past spring.
Parks and Recreation and bread and circuses
Parks and Recreation, which premiered in 2009, stars Amy Poehler as a workaholic serving in the local government of fictitious Pawnee, Indiana. It is sort of a spin-off from the American version of The Office, in that it has some of the same creative staff and uses the same “mockumentary” format that has characters speaking directly to the camera. Especially in its early episodes, it also has some similarities with the smartest series about politics until The West Wing.
The original version of Yes, Minister ran on British TV from 1980 through 1988, changing its title midway to Yes, Prime Minister as its protagonist ascends from the national cabinet to 10 Downing Street. Its protagonist, Jim Hacker, is a leader in a fictitious centrist party who’s well-intentioned but vain and rather naïve. Especially after becoming prime minister, he entertains ambitious reform programs — reintroducing the military draft to ease unemployment, introducing “school choice” to the ossified public education system — only to lose his nerve when resistant bureaucrats threaten to cause him political problems.
Yes, Minister is a brilliant reworking of the traditional sitcom story structure, in which the status quo is threatened at the beginning of each episode, only to be reaffirmed at the end. Politics is supposed to be about accomplishing things, and making life better for the people, so it would seem to a bad fit for episodic television. Yes, Minister solved this problem by making the lack of change the entire point of the series. But it is not a comfort show like the domestic sitcoms of earlier TV, in which we’re happy to see things return to normal at episode’s end. Yes, Minister instead feeds our cynicism and hopelessness about politics.
The early episodes of Parks and Recreation have a lot of similarities with Yes, Minister. Poehler’s character, Leslie Knope, starts out as a less craven but even more deluded version of Jim Hacker. In the pilot, she chairs a town meeting and stares uncomprehendingly when the crowd cheers a speaker’s disdain for “politics.” (“What I hear when I’m being yelled at is people caring loudly at me,” she babbles to the camera.) The first season or two of Parks is centered on Leslie’s attempts to turn an abandoned construction site, with a dangerous pit, into a public park, and how the bureaucracy thwarts even this modest goal.
That premise couldn’t last for long, partly because sour humor doesn’t seem to play as well in America but mostly because Poehler is too likable and too energetic to be stuck playing a dope. By the third season, the pit is filled in, and Leslie shows off her organizational skills by reviving Pawnee’s harvest festival; the batch of episodes that culminates in an aerial shot of the townspeople enjoying carnival rides and comfort food may be the apex of the series.
Tellingly, it’s this “bread and circuses” approach to government that proves to be the most popular in Pawnee. Leslie is not as successful in her battles with the most persistent villain of the series (the junk-food manufacturer Sweetums, which seems to be Pawnee’s largest employer), and many of her attempts at innovative government backfire (she secures a bailout for the town’s artsy video store, only to see the owner turn it into a porn shop). After she successfully leads the effort for Pawnee to merge with the neighboring town of Eagleton, a blow for “good government” efficiency, she is rewarded by losing her city council seat in a recall election.
Though Leslie’s wonkish fascination with government has been turned into an admirable trait on Parks and Recreation, the show sticks with the current sitcom message that friends and family, not the larger community, are what counts. Outside of Leslie’s beloved parks department, the other bureaucrats and elected officials in Pawnee are generally mean-spirited incompetents, and the citizenry is simply grotesque. (Typical complaint at one of Leslie’s town meetings: “I found a sandwich in one of your parks, and there was no mayonnaise on it!”
In the most recent season finale, Leslie triumphantly stages a “unity” concert for Pawnee and moves up to a job in the National Park Service — “probably the only branch of government worth a damn,” says her libertarian colleague Ron Swanson, continuing the show’s presumably unintentional message that government works best when it provides entertainment and recreation, as opposed to more essential services for the unwashed masses.
The evolution of Veep
Veep, which premiered in 2012, is another show with a boutique-size audience, but it may become a cult classic like Arrested Development when its availability expands beyond HBO subscribers. Seinfeld alumnus Julia-Louis Dreyfus is a big draw, in a deservedly Emmy-winning performance as a superficially appealing but deeply narcissistic politician.
The first season of Veep has similarities to Yes, Minister and early Parks. Vice President Selina Meyer struggles to prove her relevancy by shepherding an environmentally friendly “clean jobs bill” through Congress, but she has to make so many compromises that the legislation becomes meaningless. A running joke of the season has Selina asking her receptionist, “Did the president call?”, the answer to which is always no.
Veep, like Parks, improves in its second season by making its protagonist smarter and more effective, and as profane as any of the men she deals with. Selina gets involved in foreign policy — more glamorous than trying to address unemployment. She strongly advocates for a military operation that costs an American soldier one of his legs, leaving her rattled whenever she sees someone sitting with one leg curled up and out of sight. We never see the soldier; the rules of Veep would demand that he turn out to be unworthy of empathy, and that would be too dark even for this series.
As Veep proceeds, its emphasis shifts to Selina’s campaign to move up to the Oval Office. Despite stumbles, she makes progress because her rivals — including military veteran Danny Chung, who does exaggerate and exploit his battlefield resume — are at least as nakedly calculating as she is. In contrast to Parks, the “civilians” who show up on the series are not particularly dumb. On one of the best episodes of the series, in which Selina formally announces her presidential candidacy, a grassroots activist for child care, is treated shabbily by the campaign — invited to stand behind Selina during her speech, then disinvited because “children are of no value,” as a political strategist puts it. The activist decides not to go public with the incident, instead hoping that she can later collect a chit from Selina. A knack for figuring out the angles, it seems, is the only entrée into the world of public service.
Veep concluded its third season with Selina at the height of her political power, but still in a precarious position. As her character has become more savvy, she’s also become more paranoid — with some justification, since we’ve seen a few of her closest aides secretly explore the possibility of jumping to another campaign. In the June season finale, she says of her remaining rivals for the presidency, “Can’t we just take them out? Is Jack Ruby still alive?”
The episode was presumably written before President Barack Obama kidded in May about “predator drones” taking out the Jonas Brothers if they attempted to get near his daughters. The writers of Veep, accustomed to shocking viewers with blunt humor — in the same episode, Selina tells her staff not to schedule any campaign appearances at a hospice because “I can’t risk some fucker flat-lining next to me” — must have been startled when the real-life president made a more current sick joke.
Both Parks and Recreation and Veep, as well as Scandal and The Good Wife, have been praised for smart humor and for strong female protagonists on a medium that had mostly limited women to scatterbrained or passive roles. Television is richer for shows like these. But as for encouraging community service, or boosting enthusiasm about getting to the polls … well, we might be better off avoiding prime-time politics during the first week of November.