Emmy voters are playing right into the election year by pointing a spotlight on strong guest performances in drama, comedy, and satirical series with political themes. Among the 24 Emmy-nominated guest roles, nine have a direct political tie-in.
It raises the question: Who’s winning in the battle of most outrageous storylines — the fictional or the factual politicians?
In many ways, TV seems like it’s trying to keep up with real life: Be it “Veep” politico Selina Meyer’s determined, misguided attempt to navigate Washington, “House of Cards” power couple Frank and Claire Underwood’s power-hungry mission to manipulate and take down anyone who stands in their way, or “Saturday Night Live’s” vision of a presidential candidate seeking counsel from her former self.
While Hillary Clinton was scrutinized for using a private email server, Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) deployed an internal investigation into which staffer called her a profane name (the verdict: everyone). Donald Trump caused a stir when he wouldn’t denounce an endorsement from former KKK grand wizard David Duke, and “Saturday Night Live” aired a commercial sponsored by “Racists for Trump” in which Colin Jost seems like a well-meaning citizen until he lifts up his arm to reveal a swastika band tied to his sleeve.
“That whole plagiarism thing, right?” says actor Mahershala Ali, referring to Melania Trump’s plagiarized speech during the Republican National Convention. “That’s a ‘House of Cards’ storyline.”
Ali, who is nominated for playing Remy Danton in “House of Cards,” has stiff competition in the dramatic guest actor category from Max von Sydow (“Game of Thrones”), Michael J. Fox (“The Good Wife”), Hank Azaria (“Ray Donovan”) and his “Cards” co-stars Paul Sparks and Reg E. Cathey.
Ali says that TV dramas — even those that don’t intentionally try to bestow Aesopian lessons — can help give us perspective when real life mimics a plot invented in a writers room. For example, the most recent season of “House of Cards” included a subplot about a contested convention — shortly before the real world possibility started to be discussed in earnest among political pundits.
“In real life things play out in a way that is similar to the show and it helps you understand how this stuff happens,” Ali says.
Even though, at its core, “House of Cards” is more about power dynamics than politics, Ali’s co-star and fellow nominee Molly Parker says she has been told by politicians that Washington shares a lot in common with “House of Cards.” (“Oh my god, I hope it’s not like that,” she jokes.)
|“I’m speechless as to what’s happening in the political realm right now. And I think it makes our show look really tame.”|
Parker plays congresswoman, and Remy’s love interest, Jackie Sharp. Their secret affair is used as blackmail material by first lady Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) in “Chapter 45,” which was entered for consideration. While the devious and power-mad Underwoods feel like a nightmare version of crooked politicians, that portrait is not so far removed from how many people view the current presidential candidates.
“I’m speechless as to what’s happening in the political realm right now,” Parker says. “And I think it makes our show look really tame.”
Parker is joined in the drama guest actress category by fellow “House of Cards” player Ellen Burstyn, Allison Janney (“Masters of Sex”), Margo Martindale (“The Americans”), Laurie Metcalf (“Horace and Pete”), and Carrie Preston (“The Good Wife”).
While Janney and Martindale’s characters are rooted in the politics of earlier eras, Preston’s eccentric lawyer attempts to determine exactly who’s behind an investigation into Illinois Gov. Peter Florrick (Chris Noth). That followed a storyline involving Florrick’s failed attempt challenge of Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries.
On the comedy side, “Saturday Night Live” has owned the space to laugh at even the most brutal and baffling election season for decades. This year is no exception, led by Larry David’s recurring appearances as Bernie Sanders.
His Sanders debut came during the cold open of episode three, hosted by his comedy guest actor category rival, Tracy Morgan. When the moderator asks David, “Senator Sanders, how are you?,” he responds, “I’m good … I’m hungry, but I’m good.” The audience ate it up.
David hosted the season’s 12th episode and toplined a sketch that merged the Sanders campaign with David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” for a mashup called “Bern Your Enthusiasm.” While on the campaign trail, a supporter played by Leslie Jones, coughs into her hand and then tries to shake his. “I am running for president,” he says. “I do not shake disgusting hands.”
For the purposes of the Emmy race, the timeliness and uncanny similarity between David and Sanders make an unfair fight. Not since Tina Fey — who is competing for guest actress in a comedy with “SNL” co-host Amy Poehler — played Sarah Palin’s doppelganger during the 2008 election has a comedic actor been so perfectly suited for a political candidate.
Fey and Poehler’s co-hosting gig indulged a callback to their 2008 election roles — Poehler as Hillary Clinton and Fey as Palin — for the sketch “A Hillary Christmas” in which they appear in a dream to advise present-day Hillary (Kate McKinnon) about the 2016 race.
“On Christmas Eve 2008, I was cocky too,” Poehler tells McKinnon. “Then someone named Barack Obama stumbled out of a soup kitchen with a basketball and a cigarette and stole my life.”
“Saturday Night Live” hosts Amy Schumer and Melissa McCarthy round out the category alongside Melora Hardin (“Transparent”), Christine Baranski, and Laurie Metcalf (both of “The Big Bang Theory”).
HBO’s “Veep” has earned its keep by mocking the incompetence of politicians. Each episode of the show is a reminder that scandals and problems exist in all sizes at every level. A “Veep”-worthy scandal even took place when one of its nominees, Peter MacNicol, was disqualified for appearing in too many episodes to be considered a guest actor under new Emmy rules. He was replaced by “Girls” actor Peter Scolari who joins Bradley Whitford (“Transparent”), Bob Newhart (“The Big Bang Theory“) and Martin Mull, who keeps “Veep’s” guest acting hopes alive this year, after MacNicol’s elimination.
Mull plays veteran political strategist Bob “The Eagle“ Bradley, who turns out to be too veteran when he mentally unravels. Amy (Anna Chlumsky) can tell he’s not well, but Selina ignores the warning signs until Bob shows up at the White House inquiring about the soup of the day. The episode ends with Bob being appointed cybersecurity czar and given an office in the basement with no cell service.
The storyline may not mirror anything on CNN at the moment, but don’t be surprised if that changes. Parker reminds that when “House of Cards” premiered just four years ago, the antics of its characters seemed like extreme displays of power.
And if television can’t always match the real life drama of a Benghazi hearing or pledge to build a wall, it can at least inform how we approach the political theater.
As Ali says of his time on “Cards”: “It just has made me more skeptical, that’s all. [I’m] more conscious of how things could potentially get spun because so much of what’s going on is below the surface.”