Even Hollywood’s biggest names tend to get star-struck by politicians, in the way many become little kids around pro athletes. The currency of fame places a high premium on those capable of doing something you can’t — like influencing regulatory policy, or hitting a curveball.
Still, if TV for a time commanded Washington’s attention and admiration with “The West Wing” — a series graced with an alluring blend of Frank Capra-esque fantasy and wonkish smarts — more recent portrayals of politics have hewed toward the crass, cynical and silly.
As eager as Hollywood seems to impress its D.C. counterparts, the town is flunking Politics 101.
Two examples premiering this month illustrate misguided attempts to use politics as a backdrop for serialized drama and dry comedy. ABC’s “Scandal” follows a D.C. crisis-communications fixer and former White House operative, whose dealings bring her into a plotline involving a former client, the sitting U.S. president. HBO’s upcoming “Veep,” meanwhile, looks for humor in the office of vice president — situated as it is near greatness, but with no real power.
Both shows disappoint, for different reasons. But where “West Wing” actually found drama in policy and governance, these two new programs steadfastly avoid tackling such weighty matters — leaning toward the salacious in “Scandal,” which turns the leader of the free world into a love-struck schoolboy; and awkward interactions resembling “Curb Your Enthusiasm” on “Veep.”
After giving the matter some thought, neither of these programs represent an anomaly. If anything, a ham-handed approach to politics — prone to view government officials as venal in the broadest of strokes — has lately been more the norm than the exception.
Fascination with the halls of power, if nothing else than as a high-pressured glamorous setting, has continued to linger, from Starz’s “Boss,” starring Kelsey Grammer as a ruthless big-city mayor; to Hulu’s “Battleground,” chronicling a senate campaign. USA has another contender — “Political Animals,” starring Sigourney Weaver as a former first lady — due this summer.
One of the last serious candidates, “Commander in Chief,” also demonstrated where post-“West Wing” players began to go wrong. Although strong initial ratings indicated clear interest in the 2005 premise about the first female president, the ABC show quickly squandered any goodwill with wearisome caricatures, including the not-so-loyal opposition, and couldn’t recover despite on-the-fly attempts to salvage it.
Other than that, D.C. has mostly served as a backdrop for sci-fi and thrillers, from NBC’s “The Event” — whose president, facing an alien invasion, had it even worse than President Obama — to “24,” in which one fictional president was assassinated, and another engaged in treasonous crimes that make Richard Nixon look like a choirboy.
Chalk it up, perhaps, to post-Iraq war fallout, but for all Hollywood’s supposedly liberal, big-government leanings, wanton abuse of executive power has been a recurring theme. It’s an inherently cynical view preoccupied with backstage machinations and ruthlessness, but not much patience for policy. As gripping as “Homeland” is, for example, the show’s most predictable element involves an administration up to no good, having covered up nefarious activities abroad.
The one area in which D.C. has been treated in an intelligent fashion, not surprisingly, is in HBO’s reality-grounded run of movies, including “Recount,” “Too Big to Fail” and most recently, “Game Change.” The notion of re-creating such fresh events — and inviting those who lived through them to D.C. premieres — no doubt has a leavening effect on the tendency to go dramatically overboard.
A couple of years ago, the Washington Post explored the expression “Washington is Hollywood for ugly people,” tracing its genesis back to former Clinton administration advisor Paul Begala. While he didn’t completely take credit for the line, he explained the comparison as follows: “There’s a needy quality that actors and politicians have, but there’s also an element of caprice. … Both take a lot of talent and drive and discipline, but there’s also the element of lightning striking.”
In a way, “The West Wing” represented its own lightning strike — a network TV show that dared to embrace the minutia of politics, without stooping to conquer.
Something else might eventually conjure the same charge of electricity, but for now, the skies look just as clear as can be.