Just as the state of politics has changed in the real world recently, the state of politics on television has had to adjust as well.
“This show was aspirational,” director Thomas Schlamme said of “The West Wing” at a Television Academy panel about “Penning Pennsylvania Avenue” in Los Angeles on Wednesday. “[Creator Aaron Sorkin and I] both are patriots, and we thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to do a Valentine to public service?’”
Given the current state of the world, Schlamme said, “aspirational’s not so bad right now.”
But many current shows that are set in the world of politics — including HBO’s “Veep,” CBS’ “Madam Secretary” and CBS All Access’ “The Good Fight,” which were all represented on the TV Academy panel — take different approaches.
“The show has always been, dare I say, in response to ‘The West Wing’ — going, ‘That’s not what these guys are really like! This is what they’re really like — this is what politics are really like!’” said “Veep” showrunner David Mandel.
However, Mandel admitted that what is aspirational about Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) is that there are consequences to her questionable actions.
“She pays the price for saying the wrong thing, tweeting the wrong thing, making a gaffe,” said Mandel. “She suffers. That now seems aspirational. Now that seems like a very wonderful world we aspire to.”
“The Good Fight” centers on a core group of characters who co-showrunner Michelle King called “a cynical bunch.” But the drama aims for a more realistic bent. “It’s ‘West Wing’ Chicago, and we’re playing it pretty true,” she said. “All of our writers read and watch the news obsessively, so current events are always the topics, and if we’re fighting amongst ourselves, that’s how we know we have a show.”
In “The Good Fight’s” universe, unlike the others on the panel, King pointed out that Donald Trump is president, and although the show shies away from “anything too issue-y — or anything that might be too preachy” — they are doing a story about impeachment in the upcoming second season.
“The law firm is hired by the democratic party to talk about how would we go about this if we were to win in the midterms,” King said of the impeachment episode. “We weren’t hoping to give a civics lesson, but in researching we realized how complicated it is so we’re actually stopping the episode in the middle and doing an animated song.”
“The Good Fight” is also exploring the technology that allows people to create conversations — through a story where someone creates recordings of a fake Trump trying to initiate sex and then a fake Mike Pence trying to get in on “some threesome action,” explained King.
King admitted that stories on the show are dictated by what is happening in real world politics “a lot more than we would have initially thought.” However, she noted that they “try not to patronize, and we try to be honorable” when dealing with characters like Michael Boatman, who is a Trump voter within the show.
“Madam Secretary’s” Barbara Hall, on the other hand, said that because her show comes from the mission statement of politics without polarization — meaning no clearly defined party being followed — she prefers to focus on diplomacy. Recently, the show did a story about invoking the 25th Amendment, and it also took a stance on climate change being real, but overall, it’s about process and about policy.
“We’re showing you government as it could work and as it should work,” Hall said. “People can hear a view and not necessarily know where it’s coming from — if it’s conservative or liberal or moderate, and they feel invited to just listen.”
Mandel pointed out that due to the length of TV production, it can be logistically challenging to take on a news story — because by the time the episode actually airs, the story will have been in the news and late night cycle for weeks, if not months. Therefore, he noted, the seventh and final season of “Veep” won’t see Selina wanting a parade.
Sometimes there is more of a case of life imitating art, rather than the other way around.
For Hall, who does “almost exclusively foreign policy” on “Madam Secretary,” the objective from the beginning was to be one election cycle out and one year in the future. This means that a story about the Iran peace agreement was broken during a time when that was just starting to be talked about in the real world. “We gamed it out and did it,” Hall said. “A year later, John Kerry stole our idea.”
“West Wing” actor Bradley Whitford shared that as the show gained popularity, he would encounter lobbyists who wanted to get their issues on the show. Having a platform of what was then 21 million viewers per episode was appealing to those having hard time getting anyone to hear them in Washington, DC. (On the flip side, though, Schlamme remembered the hate mail they got when Dule Hill and Elisabeth Moss’ character kissed — those letters were the reason they wrote the story about the assassination attempt of his character.)
The importance of taking on issues vary from show to show, but as Mandel pointed out, what often takes precedence over the issues that can change from week to week is the relationships that develop between the characters.
“There’s an issue in every scene and the issues don’t really matter,” Mandel said. “What makes it feel very real is that when someone is sort of vaguely droning on about any bill, any issue, while [Selina] is being persnickety with Gary and not really listening. These characters want these jobs and they’re not particularly interested in what the bill is doing as long as the bill passes and the bill will get their guy more votes. If Selina is not president they will lose their jobs. I think in DC these people very much exist — they’ve always existed. It’s really about their own endgame and not really any policy. It’s very much about trying to get power and hold onto it, which I think betrays any sort of party loyalties or anything like that.”