Which Political TV Dramas Are Worth Watching?
I do love a political drama, and there’s plenty to choose from. Here’s my favorites, and the answers I give to the questions:
- What to watch after the Sopranos?
- What to watch after Breaking Bad?
I like intelligent programming, and I’m not averse to comedy. When the two fit together well, like they do in The Thick Of It, then I’m in heaven. I’ve enjoyed all of these shows, I hope you will too.
If none of these work for you then there’s always Spin City, or Parks & Recreation, they were fun too.
The West Wing
The West Wing is a fabulous series, and has the advantage of being complete. If you watch it now, you’ll have none of the distress of waiting for the next season to come around as there will be no new seasons, I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler for anyone that it was a two term presidency.
The West Wing focuses not so much on the President, as on his back room staff, the people who make things happen for the President, and as such it provides an interesting insight into the workings of an American Presidency. There’s the Chief of Staff, the Press Secretary and the Head of Communications, along with their staffs and an occasional political adviser. This shifts the focus away from the great rhetorical speeches we expect from a President and on to how those get written, how compromises, agreements and (dirty) deals with a hostile Congress are struck.
The show looks at the dull day to day business of the Presidency – meeting representatives of pressure groups and foreign missions, balancing principles and pragmatism – as well as the big decisions. There’s comedy and pathos as we get to know the characters and their personal backstories.
What really marked out The West Wing for me was the relentless optimism of the show. It showed people in the White House trying to do the right thing, arguing about how best to achieve their goals for the American people and the wider world through foreign policy. The West Wing does show some horse trading, and some political intrigue, but its overarching message is that it is the job of the President, and of the Presidential staff to live up to the ideals of the Presidency, and the faith that the American people put in that office. There was the danger that this high-mindedness could come over as saccharine, but for me it worked, staying on the principled side of soppy. I was a total West Wing fan, and if I’d been given the chance to vote for a real-life Jed Bartlet I probably would have done, and I would have expected for more from him than any human could deliver.
The Thick Of It
The Thick Of It takes a far more jaundiced view of politicians and their staffs than the West Wing does. Using the same notion of focusing on the backroom staff, The Thick Of It has a Government Minister, rather than the Prime Minister at its center, with party politics and the daily news cycle being far more of a driver than high matters of State.
Not for the faint-hearted, The Thick Of It has some of the most extended, violent and creative episodes of swearing I have ever seen on television (even making Deadwood sound demure by comparison). The main character, “Malcolm Tucker”, ably played by Peter Capaldi (the new Doctor Who), is the very angry Director Of Communications, who many British people thought may have been based on Tony Blair’s close adviser, Alistair Campbell, but the writers have hinted that American producer Harvey Weinstein was their inspiration. I’d love to share some quotes with you but I can’t think of one that’s not very, very sweary.
Chris Addison plays a Special Adviser to the Minister and is often on the receiving end of Tucker’s ire. James Smith plays the more senior adviser and the tension between young and ambitious and old and cynical works well.
Originally on BBC4 and aimed at a small audience, the show moved up to BBC2, giving it a bigger budget and more mainstream audience, before being picked up for a transatlantic film version “In The Loop”. I didn’t love In The Loop quite as much as the TV series, perhaps because it had to compromise to appeal to a largely American film market, and the casting wasn’t quite as strong.If you enjoy politics, and have a high sweary-ness tolerance, this is a great show.
I’m a big fan of all Nordic Noir and this political drama is no exception. It’s less Noir than many, but absolutely Nordic.
Whilst some viewers might find it hard to understand The Thick Of It’s British regional accents, not many will understand Borgen’s Danish speakers, but the big advantage with Danish TV shows is that they come with English subtitles, making them easier to understand than Malcolm Tucker.
Borgen centers on the character of Birgitte Nyborg, who becomes Denmark’s first female Prime Minister unexpectedly as a coalition government form around her. Unlike the more binary politics of the UK and USA, coalitions are common in Europe, and the level of negotiation, trading and power sharing is fascinating to watch.
In addition to the politics going on in parliament, we get to witness domestic politics in action as the Prime Minister’s husband takes a career break to look after the children whilst she runs the country.
In Season Two we’re more used to the idea of a female Prime Minister from a minority party, and can settle in to enjoy more interaction with her family as well as with her colleagues and political enemies. The show also focuses on the interaction between politics and the press, and we see a lot of the goings on in Copenhagen TV and press newsrooms.
The Danes unashamedly call spin doctors “Spin Doctors”, and the Prime Minister’s special adviser is central to the plot.For intelligent political drama that explores a system of government quite different to those I’ve been used to living in, this is a great viewing choice.
House Of Cards (Original Series)
Despite being almost a quarter of a century old, House of Cards is still very watchable, and features in the British Film Institute’s top 100 British television programs list. The series’ main protagonist, Francis Urquhart, is a scheming politician, who takes advantage of everything he knows about his colleagues to work his way into the leadership of his party to become Prime Minister.
In an interesting twist Urquhart often breaks from the drama, turns to the camera and talks directly to the audience, with no effect on the rest of the cast, it’s like we’re in on his secret plotting. The series has left the marvelous phrase “You may think that, but I couldn’t possibly comment” to the English language, and it’s often used with malevolent glee.
House of Cards (US)
The American remake appeared in 2013, with the interesting variation of not being broadcast for television, but made available for streaming on Netflix on viewers own timings.
The writing is less Shakespearean, but Kevin Spacey is a treat, obviously enjoying playing a scheming, dark-hearted politician
Yes Minister is unashamedly a comedy. Set in the Department For Administrative Affairs it follows our hero, “Jim Hacker MP” as he takes his first ministerial appointment, and learns the ropes. He quickly discovers that power doesn’t lie so much with politicians as with the Civil Service, and his Permanent Secretary “Sir Humphrey Appleby”.
The series explores how policies can get killed in administrative red tape, and ministers can be sidestepped and outwitted by their permanent government colleagues.
It’s best known for the wonderful obfuscation from Appleby, played by Nigel Hawthorne, who had the catchphrase “Yes Minister”.
When, through a series of unfortunate events, and Appleby’s scheming Jim Hacker became Prime Minister, we thought the series would be at an end, but it returned as Yes Prime Minister.
British politicians and civil servants agree that whilst overstated for comic effect, the relationships and scenarios were realistic, and students of British politics still watch the show for an inside track on how the two elements of government work together.
The New Statesman
The New Statesman was very much a product of its time. Set in the Conservative UK Government of Margaret Thatcher, the series centered on the Member of Parliament Alan B’stard. His name tells you a lot about his character and the tone of the show.A beastly, venal, self centered man, B’stard is married to an equally nasty woman, but she wants his money and he wants her father’s connections so they’re bound together despite their serial affairs. If you are truly disillusioned with all politicians, this is the show for you.
Not really a political drama for purists, The Wire is as much about crime in Baltimore, and something of a police procedural around that, but I include it here as it does explore city politics in a fascinating way.
Through interaction with the police around drugs, crime and schooling, we get to know the local politicians in Baltimore, and we get to understand their motivations, which aren’t all entirely high minded. The trade offs and corruption of city, school board and union politics all play their part, and we follow a mayoral election.
Come for the cops, stay for the politics.
Veep is the US’s second attempt at creating an In The Thick Of It type show.
The first never made it to our screens, and the original UK series creator Armando Iannucci confesses to being glad about that. He took a more involved role with Veep, co-writing the series.
HBO has proved a more comfortable home for Iannucci, as his characters can swear, although not to the degree of their British counterparts, which is probably realistic.Veep also follows In The Thick Of It’s fake documentary style filming, with unusual camera shots, and he feeling of intruding on private moments between the Vice President and her staffers.Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Elaine in Seinfeld) is an absolute treat in the role of VP, alternately arrogant, insecure, frustrated and petulant.
The show has been picked up for a third season with Iannucci and fellow writer Simon Blackwell on board.