Beyond ‘Veep’ and ‘The West Wing’: Five Places to Set Washington TV Shows That Aren’t the White House

Veep, HBO’s half-hour comedy about a flailing Vice President starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus, has been on the air for three weeks, but it’s only the beginning of what promises to be a glut of Washington-based and politically-themed television shows. Shonda Rhimes’ Scandal, about a DC PR fixer based on Judy Smith, seems likely to be back for a second season. USA has a stacked cast behind its show Political Animals, in which Sigourney Weaver will play a former First Lady who’s now Secretary of State. And NBC just picked up 1600 Penn, a family comedy in which father had better know best because the fate of the free world depends on it. Despite being set in Washington, it’s not clear how much these shows actually have to say about contemporary American politics—I tend to agree with critics who say that Veep is more an office comedy where the employees happen to work for the Vice President than an examination of the specific and hilarious cravenness of our current political system. If you want to get at that, though, you might have to move beyond the White House and the Old Executive Office Building. Here are five Washington locations that would be perfect settings for television shows that would actually get at what it’s like to work—and fight for what you believe—in the Nation’s Capitol.

1. Congressional Offices: Most of the time, Hollywood loves to portray Congressmen as minor figures who get in the way of the President’s agenda, and who can be dismissed or shamed with a single big speech. It would be much more interesting to flip the script and focus on a Senator or Representative who often serves as a swing vote. You could have legislative fights that come down to the wire in a realistic way, told from the perspective of people who are getting lobbied rather than doing the lobbying, and decisions that are either genuinely heroic or transparently self-interested. And if it’s a Representative, you get a big reelection subplot every two years.

2. Agencies: Pop culture forgets almost all the time that the executive branch isn’t limited to the White House, though it makes an exception for the FBI and national security agencies. You could set an awesome drama in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights, or Treasury’s Terrorist Financing and Financial Crimes division, or a hilarious Parks and Recreation-like comedy at a minor agency like the Office of Personnel Management, whose preternaturally cheery director John Berry is essentially a real-life Leslie Knope.

3. Political Publications: The hell with the noble, Watergate journalistic tradition of the Washington Post, or the kind of supposed truth-telling Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom will try to celebrate. If you want a sense of how stories blow up in Washington and minor gaffes become huge stories only to be forgotten again, set a show at a political tabloid like Politico or a website like Huffington Post. Young reporters party hard, scrap hard for stories, and have hilarious stories from the campaign trail. And it’s a setting that lets a show tackle everything from elections, to sex scandals, to legislative fights.

4. Advocacy Groups and Trade associations: Has no one learned the lessons of Thank You For Smoking? If, God forbid, Parks and Recreation comes to an end, someone really should snap Rob Lowe up, make use of his surprisingly excellent comic timing, and write a show where his character is the head of some hilarious or malevolent advocacy group or trade association. Want to know why Washington is messed up? It’s not because of a lack of rhetorical force by the president. It’s about money and distractions, some of them provided by
these kinds of organizations.

5. Think Tanks: Friend of the Blog Chris Marcil actually got me thinking about this list when he tweeted “Has anyone pitched a Washington show set at a think tank? They seem like places where people do nothing but have B-stories and go on NPR.” Some of that’s true, but if you want episodes about where political ideas come from, you could do worse than think tanks. Plus, there’s the hilarity of think tank softball.