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Political TV shows have become one of the most popular genres of dramatic and comedic television. They give us insight into the cutthroat, farcical, and sometimes hopeful lives of political bodies, all of which are the ingredients for must watch TV. So let’s countdown the list of the best political TV shows.
The Thick of It
Without The Thick of It there would be no Veep, which is just one of the many reasons to love this show that puts the absurd nature of British politics under the microscope. The storyline is told from the point of view of verbally vicious Malcom Tucker, the government's Director of Communications (played by Peter Capaldi). The Thick of It satirizes many of the big events of British politics of the noughties, including the Prime Minister steeping down, and the mad dash to fill the power vacuum portrayed in season two, the phone hacking scandal in season four, and the antagonistic relationship between politicians and the press throughout the show. Considered by many to be one of the greatest British comedies of all time, The Thick of It even spawned the film In the Loop, which is seen by many to be both a celebration of the show, while also being the unofficial first go at Veep while earning critical acclaim in its own right.
The West Wing
As much as Aaron Sorkin still churns out good scripts about American touchstones like baseball (Moneyball), social media (The Social Network), and technology (Steve Jobs) his crowning achievement will always be The West Wing. Seen by many fans, and critics as the pinnacle of political TV shows, The West Wing is the story of President Josiah Bartlet (played by Martin Sheen) and his staff in the Oval Office. Not only is The West Wing a great companion piece to Veep, it's fun to imagine that they’re two parts of one administration. The series is considered to be one of the best shows of all time, unsurprising given its enviable cast which includes Alison Janney, Rob Lowe, Bradley Whitford, Stockard Channing and Richard Schiff. The dialogue is both powerful and reminiscent of screwball comedies, and the plotlines touch upon real American concerns. Honestly, I'd argue that The West Wing has made more of an impact than some of our actual United States presidents.
Created by Armando Iannucci, Veep is the HBO award-magnet starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Selina Meyer, the Vice President of the United States. Veep, which was adapted from Iannucci's British show The Thick of It, reapplies the same biting wit to the arena of American politics. The series follows Meyer and her team of neurotic, talented employees as they run into problems big, small, and ridiculous in pursuit of a legacy they can all be proud of. A critical darling since it first aired, Veep has won a host of awards including a sack full of Emmys for Dreyfus and co-star Tony Hale, as well as awards in writing and directing for Iannucci. Known for its often outlandish plots and attention to the ins and outs of everyday White House politics, Veep sets the standard for political TV shows; the show displays the inherent comedy in politics and takes a farcical look at the seemingly dull world of day to day bureaucracy.
Before Tom Hooper was winning Oscars for The King’s Speech he, along with screenwriter Kirk Ellis, tackled the political life of John Adams. Starring Paul Giamatti as Adams and Laura Linney, the miniseries chronicles the life of Adams as he battles for America’s independence, becomes the Vice President under George Washington, and eventually becomes the President of the United States. Told over the course of seven episodes, John Adams was acclaimed for its historical accuracy and epic scale, a fitting depiction for the life of such an iconic but often overshadowed president. The show was a critical darling and won numerous awards including thirteen Emmys (the most won by a miniseries) and won all of the four Golden Globes it was nominated for. While the time period is superbly recreated, the real draw of John Adams is the superb acting from Giamatti and Linney, both of whom put in stellar performances that will stay with you long after the rest has faded.
Based on Hilary Mantel’s acclaimed historical novels, "Wolf Hall", and "Bring Up the Bodies", Wolf Hall charts Thomas Cromwell’s rise to power in the court of Henry VIII. Oscar winner Mark Rylance's Cromwell leads a terrific cast which includes Damian Lewis as Henry VII, Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn and Jonathan Pryce as Cardinal Wolsey in this sumptuous, and engrossing political drama. While it was criticized by some for moving too slowly, Wolf Hall’s strengths lie in its attention to detail. Like Game of Thrones, lives are changed by a whispered conversation by two middle men, in sometimes more powerful ways than the will of a king. The series was popular on both sides of the Atlantic, winning Best drama at both the BAFTA’s and the Golden Globes.
From writer Peter Morgan and director Stephen Daldry (both of whom are responsible for Helen Mirren’s Oscar winning performance in The Queen) The Crown charts the reign of Queen Elizabeth II. The show, though, is not your typical biopic series; the Queen, played by Claire Foy, and her ascent to the throne is only one aspect of this ambitious Netflix production. As well as the young monarch’s first years as queen, the show uses her reign as a framing device to show the struggles and co-operation between the Monarchy and the British government. This means that Prime Minister Winston Churchill, played by the magnificent John Lithgow, is vitally important to the series' portrayal of the twin pillars of the crown and the government. The show plays with the contrast of power; the monarchy is becoming increasingly ornamental, the government is gaining more substantial power, yet their figureheads are in the opposite position. Elizabeth’s reign is just starting, whereas Churchill’s position as Prime Minister is constantly under threat.
While Battlestar Galactica isn’t the first show that comes to mind when we think of political TV shows, it deserves its place on this list as its discussion, and practice of politics is one of the reasons this multi-layered show is held in such high regard. Ronald D. Moore’s reboot of the cult science fiction show centers around a convoy of spaceships, led by the military vessel Battlestar Galactica, who are the only human survivors after the Cylons destroyed their home planet in a carefully planned surprise attack. The show works as an allegory for the Bush years; the President elect–seemingly under-qualified Laura Roslin–and Admiral William Adama–who’s in charge of Galactica– must combine to create a new society after the devastation. Using its unique format, the show delved deeply into political issues, utilizing its sci-fi credentials to inform viewers of universal problems and solutions. The show's politics were so popular that the cast and crew were invited to speak at the United Nations.
From the creator of Scrubs, Bill Lawrence, Spin City was not only a hilarious example of his signature sharp wit and surreal humor, it also marked the return of Michael J. Fox to the small screen. Spin City deals with a fictionalized New York government headed by Mayor Randall Winston, but mostly kept kept together by Deputy Mayor Mike Flaherty (Michael J. Fox) and his team. Fox's Mike is something of a one-man West Wing team: incredibly talented and hopeless in his personal life. The show, while never reaching the same popularity as Scrubs, was highly acclaimed and influential as it was one of the first series to demonstrate the appeal of a politically-themed TV comedy. Without Spin City to test the waters, there might not have been a West Wing, Parks and Recreation or Veep. Its first four seasons are by far the best, at which point Fox left the show following his Parkinson's diagnosis, with Charlie Sheen taking over the final two seasons. While certainly more of a cult hit than an all-out classic, the show's influence can’t be denied.
House of Cards
House of Cards isn’t just Netflix’s first of many triumphs of original programming, it’s now the biggest political drama around. Based on the British drama, itself adapted from the novel by Michael Dobbs, House of Cards follows the ascension of politician Frank Underhill–played with magnificent ooze by Kevin Spacey–as he climbs his way up the political ladder in Washington. The series format, in which Underhill repeatedly breaks the fourth wall by addressing the audience, makes for an uncomfortable viewing experience as you, the viewer, become his chief confidant, privy to his horrible plans of political back-stabbing and much worse.
Parks and Recreation
Most political TV shows deal with the high stakes of major political power, following people who form a major part of a national administration. In fact, most of this list features that type of shows. So let’s lower the stakes, and celebrate a smaller show that is no less ground-breaking. Parks and Recreation first emerged as a poor knock-off of The Office in its first season. That changed quickly as the show found its own voice, as members of the 'Parks and Recreation' branch of the local Pawnee government started to deal with more interesting topics with equally small stakes. Led by Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler), Parks and Rec satirized many topics with its own brand of farcical humor and diplomacy. Not only did it have the best comedic cast of the last decade, it used each one of them to great effect and created a gang of not-very-political animals that you could, and did, root for.