A Big Year For Political TV Shows — With A Twist

It’s not exactly surprising that there’d be a lot of interest in politics in a presidential election year, but even given that, the heavy investment by networks in political shows feels unusual. And it’s even more unusual that all the political or Washington shows coming down the pike sound—or are, given what I’ve seen of them—surprisingly smart and fun.

What’s making this an official trend is USA’s announcement that it’s picked up a series called Political Animals. The network’s other Washington show, Covert Affairs, can be a little silly about Washington geography and what kind of shoes Washington women can afford on civil service salaries, but it had a decent sense of the relationship between the press and the administration and of tension over leaks. So I’m not shocked that USA’s first real political drama is doing something intelligent in focusing on a main character who is a not-so-thinly-veiled version of Hillary Rodham Clinton: a former First Lady who is now Secretary of State. The civil service geek in me is pretty excited about this and Kal Penn’s workplace drama set at the UN, both of which are a welcome expansion beyond the White House and spies for subject matter. And I think it’s smart to get out of the legislative process, which by this point is fairly well-worn dramatic territory, and into diplomacy and the press—the main character’s best friend will be a reporter. I don’t exactly count on this to be an accurate depiction of diplomacy any more than I expect Royal Pains to be a penetrating look at the Hamptons, but the concept is savvy, and should provide a couple of good roles for non-twenty-something women.

As does Veep, HBO’s terrific comedy about a female Vice President dealing with needy staffers, a president who ignores her, and a press corps that picks up on her every misstep. The sitcom, which premieres April 22, certainly is heightened and ridiculous, but the pilot nails the rhythms of speech and attitudes in Washington, along with the obnoxious and prickly gatekeepers and the minor screw-ups that become major catastrophes. “I want it to be right. I want it to be accurate,” creator Armando Iannucci, the force behind In the Thick of It and In the Loop, told me at the Television Critics Association press tour. “I want to know the dull stuff. What time do people get in in the morning? Who do they sit next to? If someone calls from a newspaper or a television show, who takes the call? How do they issue a retraction?” He and star Julia Louis-Dreyfus told me that they continue to consult with advisors on both sides of the aisle in the city, and from what I’ve seen of the show, that care and attention pay off. When a prominent and aged Senator dies, the Vice President muses about the last time she saw him: “He was full of bourbon, and he grabbed my left tit.” Later, when Amy (Anna Chlumsky, who appears to be Iannucci’s current muse), her chief of staff signs her own name to a condolence card for the man instead of the Veep’s, she moans of the screwup “it’s going to look like the Veep couldn’t be bothered to sign a condolence card for one of the most celebrated perverts on the senate.” And the show mines a lot of humor out of the Veep’s lame attempts at humor, a perfect example of official Washington squareness. “I have stepped into the president’s shoes this evening and who knew he wore kitten heels,” the Veep says to kick off a speech. ” Just kidding. He’s more of a stilettos guy.” Sometimes, politics is both small, and small-minded (as is also the case with Hulu’s first original scripted series Battleground, about campaign workers in a Wisconsin Senate race).

And then there’s Scandal, which is essentially Revenge for the Washington set. Based on the experiences of Judy Smith, the Washington crisis manager, the show is soapy as hell. The president is sexy and straying! The cases handled by Kerry Washington’s PR firm are totally over the top. The real estate is improbably gorgeous. But if you can appreciate it for what it is, Scandal is a wonderfully entertaining funhouse look at Washington from Hollywood’s perspective—it’s Hollywood for ugly people with the ugly people subbed out. I imagine it’ll drive real politicos nuts, but if you can suspend disbelief and just enjoy it, Scandal is going to be awfully diverting.

Which is good. Even political junkies need a break from what will undoubtedly be a bruising campaign. And if we can only downshift to political shows, rather than to something entirely off-topic and escapist, it’s nice to know that there will be diverting alternatives to dusting off our West Wing DVDs.