This summer I was a legislative research intern for CQ Roll Call, a news organization based in Washington, D.C. that covers Congress. As such, I spent 10 weeks living and working in the nation’s capital. More surprising to me than Sen. Ted Cruz’s beard actually looking quite nice in person was how inaccurately most political TV shows portray federal politics. For the purpose of reporting truth, what follows is a listing of the most accurate political TV shows based on my experience.
This CBS dramedy centered on three hapless DC denizens who found themselves in a war against government gridlock after alien insects begin taking over the minds of U.S. politicians, which causes them to become extreme partisans. Outside of the alien insect storyline, this show is spot on.
“BrainDead” starred underrated actress Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Broadway hunk Aaron Tveit and “Monk” star Tony Shalhoub and was created by Robert and Michelle King (who also created “The Good Wife”). This bizarre series only lasted one season that aired during the summer, but it’s the best depiction I’ve seen of D.C. on TV.
It accurately portrays how most lawmakers and Hill staffers interact among each other (like cousins at a family reunion who hardly know each other). It correctly presents the ridiculous lengths that need to be taken in order to get things done. Also, it’s the only D.C.-based show I’ve seen that acknowledges the existence of an entire city outside of the White House and Capitol Building.
Its most realistic characteristic, however, can be attributed to the series’ set designers. Unlike most shows that make Capitol Hill look like every surface is covered in marble, “BrainDead” portrays — correctly — that congressional offices essentially look like a doctor’s office but without the medical equipment.
On the theme of congressional offices, most politically-centered series depict staffers as being constantly out of breath either answering phone calls or running around doing the important work of government. While I would argue most congressional staffers work more (and are paid less) than the average U.S. office worker, “BrainDead” gets it right when it shows assistants, secretaries and interns sitting behind a desk answering emails in a pretty quiet office.
If I remember correctly, there is not a presidential character in “BrainDead.” This might seem odd, especially considering cable news mentions “Trump” — and from 2009–2016 “Obama” — once every five minutes, but in day-to-day policymaking the president is at worst annoying and at best irrelevant. This contributes to the veracity of “BrainDead” and is another reason why I consider it to be the most accurate political TV show.
My friend Emma stopped watching this HBO series after Trump was elected because, in her words, “It went from being a funny political show to a sobering documentary.”
Julia Louis-Dreyfus has won six Emmys for her portrayal of Vice President Selina Meyer. I only watched the first season of this comedy series, years before I interned in D.C., but it authentically depicts how inauthentic D.C. politics can be. While most political shows are hour-long dramas, I appreciate that “Veep” is a half-hour comedy — a much more suitable format for a show about Washington.
Like “BrainDead,” “Veep” shows correctly that political offices are not always hubs of activity. While the faux civility in “Veep” is not as accurate as the transactional friendships in “BrainDead,” it’s more in line with reality than Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue in “The West Wing.”
What it gets way off the mark, however, is people are not that externally mean to each other. Yes, a mind reader would likely say that a day on Capitol Hill mirrors a script for an episode of “Veep.” But “Veep” makes D.C. more callous than it actually is.
3. The West Wing
This NBC political drama was described by one D.C. journalist as “a fantasy show.”
Created by Aaron Sorkin (an Oscar-winning screenwriter), “The West Wing” was immensely popular when it was on the air and continues to grow in popularity on Netflix.
It’s known for putting into the mainstream the walk and talk (where characters literally walk and talk) and for its fast-paced and quick-witted dialogue. As can be ascertained from my previous entries, neither of these features are accurate to Washington nor is the show’s insistence that offices must always have one staff member running somewhere and one phone ringing.
One thing “The West Wing” gets right, however, is the relationship D.C. staffers have with their bosses. “Veep” makes it seem like underlings openly say their boss is an idiot. In reality, most staffers respect their bosses. If they don’t think that, they only tell themselves.
What most people criticize it for, however, is its supposedly far-fetched presumption that all politicians are in politics to, as Mr. Feeny would say, “do good.” I disagree with these critics. Most people in D.C. are there to “do good.” The problem with “The West Wing” is that the characters are there to do what Sorkin thinks is the right thing to do.
In “Into the Woods” during the song “No One is Alone,” the Baker and Cinderella sing to Jack (of “and the Beanstalk” fame) and Little Red Riding Hood: “Someone is on your side. Someone else is not.” The erroneous attitude in “The West Wing” is that everyone is on Sorkin’s idealized leader President Bartlet’s (Martin Sheen) side.
In the series, the president is always right. Congress is simply there to approve whatever do-no-wrong Bartlet wants. The show completely disregards collaboration in the political process.
I believe that Sorkin, to his credit, was aware of this. In a scene between Bartlet and his Republican opponent during a re-election, his opponent says, “You’re an academic elitist and a snob. You’re Hollywood…You’re liberal, and you can’t be trusted.” While Bartlet ultimately had the final word in this argument (and won re-election in a landslide), I don’t think the opponent’s point was lost to the viewer — that what Barlet (i.e. Sorkin) thinks is best for America is not what a big chunk of America wants for America.
4. House of Cards
This was Netflix’s first hit. Is it accurate?
Not one bit.
I think some congressmen probably identify with the show’s protagonist, Frank Underwood, but really they should identify with Selina Meyer from “Veep.”
What I find most aggravating about “House of Cards” is that Frank (Kevin Spacey) and his wife Claire’s (Robin Wright) supposedly brilliant schemes would blow up in their faces. Frank’s plan to gain power by —
- Making a problematic congressman run for Pennsylvania governor
- Killing said congressman
- Becoming the vice president because the current VP decides to run for Pennsylvania governor
- Killing a journalist
- Forcing the president to resign over fears of impeachment for something he didn’t do
- Bamboozling the Democratic convention to have Claire become the VP nominee
- Wining re-election through fake electoral crises
— would never work, or he’d get caught between steps two and four.
In the last season, when Wright became the lead after Spacey was accused by multiple men of sexual misconduct, the show was on to something with its contrast between President Claire Underwood and the uber-rich “top one percent” siblings played by Diane Lane and Greg Kinnear. Claire, who despite killing multiple people had a “West Wing”-style view of government, throughout the season battled the siblings, who also did horrible things but who worked toward limiting government for their own benefit.
I’d argue this dichotomy defines current political debate, but the show’s insistence on making D.C. look like the iPhone’s “Dramatic Cool” photo filter earns “House of Card” the third to last spot on my list.
This ABC drama made for must-see-TV and spearheaded the creation of multiple new series featuring women and people of color in lead roles. And I can’t point to a single thing that was accurate about it.
“Scandal,” which was created by Shonda Rhimes of “Grey’s Anatomy” fame, starred Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope — a Washington PR consultant who took names and kicked ass. The show made quite an impression on me in high school; I wrote in my senior yearbook that I wanted to be Olivia Pope.
But even for a drama, it dramatizes D.C. to an almost comically absurd level. “Scandal” tried to make government sexy when it’s not. In Rhimes’ D.C., people act like they’re in a soap opera and dress like they’re in a Gucci magazine.
While “House of Cards” was similarly absurd in its depiction of D.C. behavior, at least it relied, sometimes, on realistic antics. For example, when the Underwoods rigged their election they did so by manipulating the internet akin to Russia’s disinformation campaign during the 2016 presidential election. In contrast, “Scandal” relied on a super secret government spy agency — B613 — to drive its plot.
It also assumes, incorrectly, that politicians listen to PR consultants.
6. Designated Survivor
I couldn’t get through the first season of this ABC drama series, but here’s my complaint about the show.
The plot rests on the idea that the Capitol Building is blown up during the president’s State of the Union address, killing the entire U.S. government except for the secretary of Housing and Urban Development (Kiefer Sutherland) who was the “designated survivor” in case of an attack.
First off, the whole U.S. government does not attend the State of the Union. Some Supreme Court Justices always skip. And based on their attendance for committee markups, there’s no way all 535 members of Congress attend the State of the Union.
Secondly, most Capitol Hill activity does not take place in the Capitol Building. When this bomb exploded, some members and most staff would’ve been in their offices, which are in different buildings that are accessible from the Capitol Building via tunnel but are in different buildings nonetheless.
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