‘Parks and Recreation,’ ‘House of Cards,’ And The Rise Of The Political Procedural

New Yorker television critic Emily Nussbaum and I got together for a Bloggingheads episode about Scandal and House of Cards, and towards the end of it, Emily made a critically important point that I hadn’t considered before: we’re really at the first moment, post-West Wing, when political shows are emerging as their own form of procedural that can operate in both comedy and drama.

Political shows are everywhere, in all media, and part of what’s striking about them is how varied they are in setting and form. Parks and Recreation, which follows a local city councilwoman and employees of a small-town public works agency, seems likely to get a sixth season, given NBC’s ratings woes. The network took another stab at political comedy with 1600 Penn, a family comedy that happens to be set in the White House. ABC’s Nashville featured a municipal mayoral race prominently in its first season, though it’s an open question whether that plot will remain a significant part of the show, and the network has ridden to ratings success with Scandal, which makes the president an object of sexual desire, and explores the desire of his family, staff, and lover to possess both him and the power that he embodies. CBS is bringing politics into the police procedural with Golden Boy, which tracks the rise of an ambitious young cop to the police commissioner’s office. Starz recently ended its dark political drama Boss, but HBO’s sitcom Veep, which takes a similarly biting perspective on people in power, but from a mocking rather than a grand angle, is returning for its second season this spring. And new media outlets have their own spins on political procedurals as well: Netflix made a big push around its glossy, expensive adaptation of the British miniseries House of Cards, while last year, Hulu debuted a low-budget story about the staff of a midwestern political campaign, Battleground.

Precisely because this is an emerging space, it means that the conventions and values of political procedurals are very much up for grabs. What will the stock cast of characters in political procedurals be? So far, the formula of the West Wing seems to have stuck, with shows focusing on a politician and the relationships of (mostly) his staff and surrogates to that figure. The tone varies: the candidate was more of a distant figure in Battleground than in other shows, and the president is alternately warm and fuzzy in 1600 Penn and an object of intense sexual passion in Scandal. In Veep, the Vice President is risible, in Parks and Recreation, Leslie Knope is kooky but irresistible, and in Boss, Tom Kane was an almost demonic force, as is Frank Underwood on House of Cards. Interestingly, most of these shows have spent more time on governance than on campaigns: campaigns make for a great season structure and allow for a certain number of shenanigans on the trail, but you can’t do them often. Governance stories are harder to pull off, but they can be a way to bring in more characters and set up more complex long arcs, as has been the case with Leslie’s five-years-long fight for Pawnee Commons.

But even though a lot of these shows are spending time on the work of government rather than the process of getting into it, it’s far from clear what their views on government are. In House of Cards, Frank Underwood has no particular attachment to any ideology or policy—the federal government is basically a chew toy for him in his pursuit of self-aggrandizement. Veep wants to satirize the meaninglessness of political ritual in Washington, but spends much more time treating its titular Vice President as an eager flake. In both Scandal and Nashville, the president and the mayor, respectively, are underqualified, pretty-boy stalking horses for other interests. Parks and Recreation is unique in that it’s able to both recognize both the ludicrousness of political ritual and still believe that government can do a lot to make people’s lives better.

As a critic, I often think I’m harder on shows that wade into politics than those that don’t even bother, in part because it’s what I know and what I prioritize, I want badly for those shows to get politics right, and it’s easier for me to spot errors of logic and procedure. I might have graded Golden Boy higher, for example, if it was just a standard police procedural rather than a story about how a rising police commissioner decided what his values as a cop were. But thinking about political shows as an emerging genre makes me want to fight even harder for them to be smart, and to ask good and interesting questions (which is not to say they have to be inherently progressive to work). It would be an awful shame if the conventions of a new style of procedural were getting set and they turned out to be as lazy and cliche as some of what’s on offer today.