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Let’s get the obvious grumble out of the way right up front. Starring Sigourney Weaver as a stand-in Hillary Clinton, the USA Network’s current miniseries Political Animals resembles Washington life as locals know it at about the level that The Sound of Music is a grimly accurate portrait of Austria after the Anschluss or The Dark Knight Rises is a reliable guide to getting around Gotham in a hurry.
But what’s the point of complaining? We’re used to these indignities.
When it comes to “Washington” TV shows, old District hands know the drill. It starts with those random shots of the White Hill, the Capitol Basin, the Tidal Memorial, and Pentagon National Cemetery that put geography through the shredder. The shows never convey our pastimes, the lilt of the three seasons we keep to ourselves sans summer’s mobs of our fellow Americans, our provincial and yet passionately wised-up mores, our dress codes’ special mix of fashion’s hare and duty’s tortoise, or the city’s peculiarly half-crisp, half-zonked tempo. Next come the slovenly hunches about how democracy’s bigwigs behave behind closed doors, quickly resolved by the screenwriters’ guess that they act like most people on second-rate soap operas.
Then there’s the vague—or, in the case of Political Animals, not so vague—titillation of real-world analogues, which we only dig when they end up truer than the real deals to our sense of How It Was. In this case, Weaver is former first lady and failed presidential candidate Elaine Barrish, who’s currently her winning rival’s Secretary of State. Ciarán Hinds, who has no more business affecting a bumptious North Carolina accent than the Easter Island heads would have forming a barbershop quartet, plays her philandering, two-term presidential ex-hubby.
Above all, we groan at the writers’ fatal cluelessness about not only the likelihood of what unfolds, which we can give ’em a pass on, but the procedure—any true Washingtonian’s test of authenticity. Invent a nonsensical crisis, and we’re indulgent. Mess up on who’s in the loop when one happens, and we’re loaded for bear.
Even The West Wing’s surface verisimilitude decoyed viewers away from how much it left out about the nature of real White House staffs: no self-seeking motives, no ambitious jockeying for POTUS’s ear, no backstairs feuds. That grubby stuff had no place in Aaron Sorkin’s soaring civics lesson. But his finesse at plausible-seeming jargon, hierarchy, and corridor bustle leaves Political Animals looking even dumber.
You’d think this Clintonian roman à clef would make for fun trash, but the scripts turn the heroine sympathetic in all the wrong ways. Barrish is a gallant lady whose private pain the public never sees, and the hell with that noise. The triumphant, take-no-prisoners Madam Secretary of the Texts From Hillary Tumblr is the fantasy viewers crave. Worse, series creator Greg Berlanti doesn’t have the courage of his tabloid convictions. Barrish’s boss in the Oval Office isn’t a Barack Obama stand-in, which at least would have been juicy.
Instead, Adrian Pasdar plays a boring ofay substitute, which is only amusing if you share my suspicion that Pasdar has been secretly dramatizing Mitt Romney’s career for more than a decade. (He was the sociopathic corporate greedhead on Fox’s short-lived, fondly remembered Profit and the soulless pol on NBC’s Heroes.) Now that he’s finally in the White House, Posdar often looks unsure about what’s required of him—which is Berlanti’s fault, not the actor’s.
Or even Romney’s, I suppose, happy as I’d be to blame him for failing to inspire his TV epigone at crunch time.
Still, we all know—don’t we?—that whether Washingtonians hoot at Political Animals’ gumbo of ineptitudes couldn’t matter less. Nor does it matter what we think of Armando Iannucci’s scabrously reductive Veep or Shonda Rhimes’ glitzy Scandal, nor what we thought of Rod Lurie’s amiably silly Commander-in-Chief, nor what we will think of Josh Gad and Jon Lovett’s upcoming NBC sitcom 1600 Penn, starring Bill Pullman as a POTUS with a wacky family. (True sentimentalists will remember Pullman’s cocky first White House term in Independence Day and marvel at the vagaries of typecasting.)
Not only is our expertise, if it can be called that, unspeakably irrelevant. Thinking otherwise makes us naïfs, not sophisticates—which is a real shame, considering that familiarity with Washington’s ways is damn near the only thing we ever get to feel sophisticated about. But so it goes.
To find a television depiction of Washington wanting or absurd because it doesn’t capture the “real” D.C. is to succumb to the fallacy that this was in any way its purpose. What matters is whether the show in question delivers a nominally Washington-set cartoon that chimes in some satisfying manner with the larger public’s suspicions, maudlin streak, or prurience. That’s why, so far as pop-culture mojo goes, Berlanti’s misjudgment of Hillary Clinton’s current place in our collective unconscious is a bigger boo-boo than all the nuts-and-bolts details he gets wrong.
Of course, TV’s sense of whatever’s distinctive about other American cities is every bit as vapid as its take on D.C. Back in the ’70s, The Mary Tyler Moore Show didn’t exactly make viewers think they could find their way around Minneapolis drunk and blindfolded. These days, I somehow doubt ABC’s Chicago-set Happy Endings floods the Obamas with Windy City nostalgia.
With very few exceptions, most of them created by David Simon—the Baltimore of The Wire, the New Orleans of Treme—a use of locale that makes natives delightedly say “They got that right!” has never ranked high among TV’s priorities. There’s a good reason for that: TV shows need to have national appeal. Even series set in L.A. generally cater to the rest of the country’s stereotypes, not the creators’ observations of their milieu. If Los Angeles can’t or won’t get itself right, why should D.C. be unique?
What we can’t help bleating in reply is that we are unique. Sure, denizens of L.A. and Las Vegas—similarly artificial cities that are more glamorous in the pop-cultural imagination—would probably bleat the same thing. But up theirs! There’s only one nation’s capital.
We feel resentful because we were their ugly-duckling prototype. Washingtonians were remaking reality in an invented place nobody had an organic reason to live in back when Los Angeles was a bunch of orange groves and Vegas was nothing but cacti and Gila monsters. In a very real way, the District was postmodern before postmodern was cool. Yet even the history of our pale casino—and in our gray way, we do gamble here for bigger stakes than Vegas will ever know—gets no respect. Despite TV’s renewed interest in the American midcentury, nobody’s tried a Mad Men equivalent set here in D.C. in the jaunty ’60s.
Or better yet, the fearsome ’50s, when the country was making itself over as a superpower and the likes of Roy Cohn were slithering around. (If it weren’t too gay-themed to attract most cable networks, Thomas Mallon’s novel Fellow Travelers would be a swell place to start.) All in all, one of the most dejecting things about being a Washingtonian is the glum recognition that, except during rare interludes, we don’t stimulate our compatriots’ imaginations worth a damn. To be perceived as evil without even getting to be chic is to inhabit a special kind of pop-culture purgatory.
Since the Civil War, our moments of drama-worthy fascination have been few: the Kennedy Administration, Watergate, and that’s pretty much it. Inevitably, both engendered a slew of docudramas—the TV format that, by definition, makes creativity moot. And makes context moot as well, since the events are always treated in isolation from any sense of larger continuity or community.
Any TV movie or miniseries involving the Kennedys is bound to be about, you know, the Kennedys. Not governance, not democracy, not the Cold War. And definitely not Washington, a backdrop flimsier than the “Paris” in An American in Paris. (One partial exception is 1983’s Blood Feud, starring Robert Blake as Jimmy Hoffa opposite Cotter Smith as the best Bobby Kennedy I’ve ever seen.) But if the Camelot docudramas make charisma their subject while failing to cast anyone who exemplified it—no actor playing JFK or Jackie has ever matched their magnetism—the Watergate Xeroxes are even worse. With another partial exception (Lane Smith’s good, pained job as Tricky Dick in The Final Days), they erred above all by being solemnly respectful treatments of something fundamentally scurrilous.
From 1979’s Blind Ambition (Martin Sheen as John Dean, Rip Torn as Nixon—and, unbelievably, Christopher Guest as Jeb Magruder) on down, they were too pious and literal-minded to much resemble the extravaganza that Washingtonians of a certain ideology and sell-by date will always remember as the most euphoric time of our lives. In our deepest heart, we’d always wanted to be Shakespeare’s first musical. As Kennedy speechwriter Richard Goodwin put it the day Nixon quit the White House, “Now I know how all those rock freaks felt when they heard The Beatles were breaking up.”
That’s why the outlier here is my favorite District-set miniseries ever. Officially unavailable for 35 years until Acorn Media rereleased it this spring—I confess to ponying up for a bootleg in the meantime—ABC’s pulpy Washington: Behind Closed Doors is Watergate as I remember it: a venal, comic, outrageous circus that delighted us with its twists and cliffhangers. Jason Robards stars as President Richard “Monckton.” Robert Vaughn is H.R. Haldeman in all but name. Playing peekaboo with everybody’s “real” identity frees up the series from docudrama’s notional—but cramping—sense of responsibility. Given a choice between an official Judy Garland biopic and Valley of the Dolls, which would you pick?
Because it was made so soon after the real events—it’s the Harold Robbins version of The Battle of Algiers—Washington: Behind Closed Doors also has an effortless authenticity when it comes to how D.C. looked back then. The clothes, the hairstyles, Constitution Avenue in the ’70s: Talk about trips into the time machine. Better yet, this 1977 miniseries may be the only TV treatment of Washington to accurately depict how the District’s elites function as a social organism. Early on, there’s a garden-party sequence at a nameless ambassador’s residence that looks exactly right; the boldface names are clearly doing something they do every week. If they don’t find the task onerous, they don’t find it especially glamorous either. For better or worse, not many scenes on TV have made this renegade State Department brat want to blurt, “That’s just what it was like.”
One huge advantage that Washington: Behind Closed Doors had over most District-set TV shows was that the audience’s memories of the real Nixon administration were so fresh. That meant the personalities, milieu, and intricate skullduggeries being parodied were intimately familiar and interesting to most Americans. This is never the case in normal times, no matter how often politicos and pundits are shocked to realize that the crap they natter about and obsess over 24/7 just doesn’t register a whole lot outside the Beltway.
If Hardball is mother’s milk to you, try to remember that fewer than one out of every 300 Americans ever tunes in. There may be more people who claim they’ve seen UFOs than people who watch Chris Matthews, and he’s far from alone. That’s one reason most Washington satires have to stay generic instead—usually opting for the easy route of treating politics as a branch of showbiz.
Raunchy dialogue aside, Veep stays true to this ostensibly acerbic but innocuous tradition. It could just as easily be about a movie star or a female business tycoon. While I enjoy it more often than not, I gave up hope that Veep was going to be Washington-savvy as soon as Vice President Selina Mayer (Julia-Louis Dreyfus) announced that her big undertaking was “filibuster reform”—of all possible projects, the one the Senate would be least likely to tolerate a member of the executive branch intruding herself into. But that’s just my District crank talking, as beside the point as ever.
The mere fact that Veep has been renewed also makes the series an anomaly. As a rule, we’re ratings poison. True, ever since The FBI back in the ’60s, plenty of long-running shows about crime-solving and spy derring-do have featured characters who work for either real or notional federal agencies headquartered here. But whether we’re talking about NCIS at the spectrum’s square end or The X-Files at the outré one, to call them Washington or even “Washington” shows would feel silly—except, of course, to whatever extent the city’s name conjures up either stodgy gravitas or ominous power in the audience’s mind. Either way, in dramatic terms, D.C. is pretty much just the phone booth Superman steps out of, if not the one Don Adams used to drop out of sight in on Get Smart.
Non-genre shows—that is, the kind involving our particular crowd of arbitrary indigenes going about their business in more or less recognizable settings—have generally been short-lived. The earliest example I remember is Hal Holbrook as “The Senator”—somebody’s dream of a vigorous and capable Eugene McCarthy combined with a wryly self-effacing Robert F. Kennedy, two oxymorons that perhaps only Holbrook could have made plausible—in an anthology series called The Bold Ones. His 1970–71 arc got folded in a hurry, setting the pattern.
Obscure then and unmourned today, D.C.-set sitcoms that flopped range from Hail to the Chief (Patty Duke as the first woman president, canceled after seven episodes) to Norman Lear’s The Powers That Be (John Forsythe as a U.S. senator, 19 episodes). Dramas haven’t fared any better, from The Lyon’s Den (Rob Lowe as a D.C. lawyer, 13 episodes) to First Monday (Joe Mantegna as a Supreme Court justice, ditto). And let us not forget—or rather, let’s—Steven Soderbergh’s K Street, which at least permanently squashed the notion that James Carville’s opinion of his own charisma was shared by the public at large.
The two huge exceptions are both remarkable in how they de-Washingtonized Washington just enough to be crowd-pleasing. Under its jangle of topical jokes and real-world cameos, Murphy Brown made it to 10 seasons in part by keeping the heroine’s off-camera life reassuringly homey: the familiar gang of shlubby workplace intimates, that cozy local watering hole. In actuality, newsmagazine anchors of Murphy’s caliber are a lot more likely to hobnob with other media and political bigfeet than to pal around with the help, not least because the help makes so much less money than they do. Being conscious of that doesn’t mean they’re considerate, either—it means they’re worried about devaluing the brand.
I used to marvel at series creator Diane English’s cunning duplicity about such elementary facts of a media star’s life. Eliding everything that might have all too accurately made Murphy’s milieu look exotic to viewers outside the Beltway, not to mention infuriatingly privileged, was sitcom genius. While the show’s writers couldn’t very well stick Murphy in a one-bedroom off Logan Circle, they ingeniously humanized her swank Georgetown townhouse by parking Eldin the house painter there as her unlikely blue-collar confidant.
That’s how the series normalized Murphy into someone people could root for, even—or especially—when she was tangling with Dan Quayle. Needless to say, George H.W. Bush’s hapless vice president did the show a favor by unwisely slagging Murphy the character in a 1992 campaign speech for being an unwed single mom, something all sorts of women could humbly identify with. If Quayle had attacked her instead as a snobby media elitist pretending she was just folks, I might have applauded.
The West Wing’s version of Fantasyland was even more artful. It may be the most successful “political” series in TV history, but the reason—unsurprisingly— is that it’s not about politics at all. What makes The West Wing the most escapist series ever to fool intelligent people into thinking it was a realistic portrayal of American government wasn’t only that Jed Bartlet was that contradiction in terms, an idealized Bill Clinton—first as a corrective to the real Bill’s vacillations and foibles, then as flat-out alternative history once George W. Bush was in. It was also that, from POTUS on down, not one of the Good Guys had any personal agenda. The wellbeing of the country was all that counted.
In other words, the Bartlet White House was basically the starship Enterprise plunked down at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Martin Sheen was clearly James T. Kirk, minus the randiness that would’ve made Bartlet a mite too Clintonesque for comfort. John Spencer was Spock, Allison Janney was Uhura, Richard Schiff was McCoy, Bradley Whitford was Chekhov, and so on. Meanwhile, huge swaths of the politics Washingtonians delight in—cynical stunting, endless fundraising, constant maneuvering, calculated small treacheries, overweening ambition—might as well have been sucked down a black hole.
Maybe that’s where it belongs. The touching side of The West Wing is the proof that they’d love us Out There if we were their church, not their cesspool. The rest of America wants us to be The Mary Tyler Moore Show crossed with Star Trek. But depending on whether we’re Democrats or Republicans, Washingtonians know that the reality is more like Game of Thrones fused with either The Sound of Music or The Dark Knight Rises—with the Seinfeld version of Waiting for Godot as our common ground. That’s why we moved here, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, so long ago.
Due to a reporting error, the article originally misspelled actor John Spencer’s name.