Political TV shows are a staple in American entertainment, with sensational dramas like House of Cards or character-driven comedies like VEEP giving us a fictional look into the inner workings of actual governmental systems. While most are blown wildly out of proportion, like Scandal (although based on real fixer Judy Smith), others can still teach us a thing or two the about the actual inner workings of government. Let’s get into some of our favourite TV shows to see how they depicted the U.S. government more accurately than we might have thought.
On the militarization of police
The fictional 99th precinct in Brooklyn, led by Captain Raymond Holt (Andre Braugher), also stars Andy Samberg as Detective Jake Peralta. In the 19th episode of the first season, titled “Tactical Village,” the nine-nine unit executes drills using high-powered weapons and military-grade machinery. And while it was serious training, the team was thrilled to play with these “toys,” as they called them.
Although it’s a comedic take on the police forces’ weaponry, the supply of military-grade machinery to local police departments true. Police precincts around the country receive (sometimes brand new) equipment from the military through subsidized programs like the 1033 program; many other programs provide small precincts with military weapons like tanks and battering rams.
So, it’s scary, but accurate: Brooklyn Nine-Nine used satire to illustrate the militarization of the police force and the excited attitudes of their employees to participate.
On corruption in congress
A driven and power-hungry congressman named Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey) and his wife Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) manipulate the system in Netflix’s House of Cards to rise within the government ranks. The lengths that the Underwoods go to keep secrets and expose others for their personal gain is appalling, but made for some damn good television. Unfortunately, the show also reveals some of what could be the true inner workings of the U.S. government (along with some wild sensationalism, of course).
I spoke with Brooklyn Democratic County Committee Member Colleen Hughes to get her take on what’s the most realistic, and one of the elements of the show Hughes found especially intriguing was the idea of whipping votes.
“Essentially, whipping votes means ensuring/pressuring/bargaining with members of your party to vote according to the party platform, rather than according to their own individual interests or the interests of their donors or constituents,” Hughes tells Lifehacker. Whipping votes, Hughes says, is an accurate representation of the ways members of congress push congregational bills to pass.
On the importance of local government
Parks and Recreation (aka Parks and Rec) is a mockumentary-style comedy following the wacky procedures of the Parks and Recreation department in the fictional town of Pawnee, Indiana. The show stars Amy Poehler as Deputy Director of Parks and Recreation, Leslie Knope, and her staff’s silly antics. It also stars Nick Offerman as Ron Swanson, Knope’s boss, and colleagues played by Chris Pratt, Aubrey Plaza, Aziz Ansari, Jim O’Heir, and Retta.
Their office prides itself on the bureaucratic systems it uses for its parks and local events, including large colour-coded binders and a seasons-long fight to fill a local sinkhole.
“Comedy aside,” Hughes says about Parks and Recreation, “it’s a pretty accurate portrayal of the monotony and ridiculousness that is local government.”
She also commends Parks and Rec for portraying the impact of local government, saying “something as simple as the clean up of a park, the ploughing of snowy streets, and even a memorial for a pony can create direct positive impact on you and your neighbour’s lives.”
On idealism in the White House
Another show that Hughes commends for accuracy is The West Wing.
“The West Wing is also a pretty accurate, if incredibly idealistic, depiction of the White House,” she says.
The West Wing starred A-list actors like Allison Janney, John Spencer, and Martin Sheen depicting the inner workings of the official workplace of the President of the United States.
On egotistical insecurities in leadership
The office of the Vice President is highlighted in the popular HBO show, VEEP, and while VEEP doesn’t much accurately portray governmental procedures, the over-the-top characters tend to be surprisingly true-to-life in terms of their egos.
Former insider Tommy Vietor, who worked under the Obama administration, confirmed the self-centered actions of government officials and those in congress were spot on. Vietor told VEEP writer David Mandel on the podcast Pod Save America, “you guys nail the fragility of the egos, and the, like, day-to-day idiocy of the decision-making.”
Yep, the one element of the show we hoped was exaggerated is the one that was most authentic.