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.