TV's Best and Worst Fictional Political Campaigns

Most Overrated: The West Wing

I have to confess I didn’t watch much of this show, after the first episode featured a group of antisemitic “conservative” teachers (as though that’s a bigger problem with conservatives) and President Martin Sheen, I mean Josiah Bartlett, telling a bunch of conservative pastors (in real life, Israel’s best friends) to “get your fat asses out of my office.” That easy, clichéd slander was enough for me.


This show was constant liberal wish fulfillment throughout its run, like any production from the much-overrated Aaron Sorkin that directly deals with politics. Knock down straw men that represent liberal nightmares about conservatives, then be all self-congratulatory for taking on the “tough issues.”

In 2002, President Bartlett’s campaign was against the typical Republican candidate, a stupid, Southern right-wing governor, so it was an easy victory — despite the fact that the most recent president was someone that Hollywood considered a stupid, Southern right-wing governor. And a year after 9/11, the central issue seemed to be green energy; and, of course, liberal goodness and farsightedness won the day because the president had the good sense to embrace it.

In 2005, the show presented the “ideal” Republican candidate. The one that liberals supposedly fear the most. A pro-choice moderate played by… wait for it… Alan Alda!

His most triumphant moment is his refusal to go to a conservative mega-church and a declaration against religious tests. But, alas, he is a Republican, so of course he is most afraid of a dynamic Latino candidate on the Democrat side, the idealistic Jimmy Smits, and uses immigration as a wedge issue to hurt him in his own primary, leading to this slapdown by a close aide:

But aside from the constant liberal fantasy, there are two things that anyone who has ever worked for — or even with — government has to find laughable. First, the idea that government at any level doesn’t move with the speed of a glacier.

And second — adding to the ponderous pretentiousness of the show — did the White House not pay its light bill? The noirish atmosphere may be dramatic, but government buildings are anything but dimly lit, and their favorite type of lighting tends to be fluorescent.


During the run of The West Wing, every successful Republican for president in a generation had run as a conservative, while every successful Democrat had run disguised as a moderate. Of course, 2012 changed all that…

GRADE:  The Show Overall — C, the Campaign — D

Most Underrated: The Good Wife

I only tuned into The Good Wife because I saw a trailer with the scene above.  My number one pet peeve is unfaithful pols who use their wives as human shields with the press when caught. I even refused to work for a conservative gubernatorial Republican candidate in Michigan whom very close clients of mine were raising scads of money for, because he had put his consultants’ advice ahead of his wife’s dignity (and his own) in just such a situation.

Otherwise, the idea of a show about a high-powered political law firm with Democrat ties, set in Chicago right after the election of Barack Obama, raised all kinds of red flags with me, and I probably would have tuned out.

Instead, what I found was network TV’s most complex drama, and the antidote to a decade of Law and Order and The West Wing invariably finding conservative villains being vanquished by liberal heroes.

Unfortunately, The Good Wife is too subtle and complicated for conservative websites that live by drumming up outrage, like Big Hollywood and even the Media Research Center. Yes, guys, the show’s main protagonists are Democrats, but that’s what makes it fun when their liberal illusions are confronted — and sometimes shattered.

Among the show’s best recurring guest stars is Gary Cole as a gun-loving Sarah Palin fan and a genuine member of the Tea Party who makes the firm’s most outspoken liberal, Diane Lockhart (a superb Christine Baranski), go weak in the knees. He is also invariably the most principled — and smartest — guy in every room. Somehow, the MRC managed to find liberal bias in a show in which a radical left-wing lawyer was suing the Chicago cops on a false charge of shooting a bank robber because he was black.


As far as the campaigns go, they concern the bad husband making a political comeback, first to his old job of state’s attorney in Chicago, then a run for governor of Illinois. Think Eliot Spitzer, but with a better personality, trying to return. His campaign consultant is brilliantly played by Alan Cummings, who is masterfully hilarious at expressing the frustration that candidates and their families cause political pros.

The Good Wife, in its campaign moments — unlike The Wire — tends to focus on the big, fun, dramatic public maneuvers. None of these are completely unrealistic, but the show rarely shows the sheer drudgery of a campaign.

Recently the show has focused on the insanity of campaign finance rules, selective prosecution of them by officials at all levels, and especially the overreach of federal prosecutors. (See Harvey Silverglate’s fine book Three Felonies a Day.)

The show’s real strength is in bringing up ethical dilemmas and showing the effects of having a family member in the public eye. The show also has an unusual number (for a network legal show) of genuinely interesting cases, and shows good but flawed characters grappling with the complications of life.


The Show Overall — A  

The Campaign — B+

Best: The Wire Seasons 3 and 4

Cops, journalists, and people involved in the political process can all point to a “Viola” moment in the superb HBO series The Wire when they said, “This is real!”

For cops, it’s the very first scene of Season 1, where a detective hears the story of an extremely stupid murder victim, a petty thief called Snot Boogie, who every week tries to steal money from a street craps game and gets the snot beaten out of him.

As a guy who freelanced for a newspaper for 20 years, the sight of the smokers gathered outside at the loading dock in Season 5 was frame for frame from my memory.


But as someone who has worked on hundreds of political campaigns for 20+ years, there is a scene in Season 4 that ONLY someone who had been intimately involved in a campaign would have written.


A candidate is sent to a back office by his handlers and told he can’t come out until he raises 30 grand.

What’s not included in the above clip is that the candidate makes one phone call, is sympathetic to all the excuses he is getting from the prospective donor, and hangs up with a “no” that sounds like “later.” The candidate looks at the stack of index cards he is supposed to call through and, like any salesman taking comfort from the seemingly large amount of possibilities, is reluctant to face reality by whittling them down — and nobody likes to hear “no.”

The candidate wads up the card he just called, stalls from his unpleasant task, and proceeds to play wastebasket basketball with the card.

Somebody knows candidates.

No television show or film has ever chronicled the reality of urban America like The Wire, from policing to politics, to the plight of those caught between drug dealers and failing schools. One of the show’s real strengths is that it shows good people finally being beaten down and just trying to survive the system. When a former drug enforcer trying to go straight decides he just can’t do what the public school system is asking of him, we don’t blame the mid-level school educrat who is asking it of him, or think she is an awful person.

A large part of The Wire Seasons 3 and 4 was taken up with the improbable campaign of a white candidate for mayor of Baltimore (modeled after the Martin O’Malley campaign). Like O’Malley, Councilman Carcetti runs on a tough-on-crime platform. Later, as mayor, he is hampered in implementing his police programs by a bankrupt public school system sucking up all the money. So, all of a sudden, creative crime stats become the norm (again like O’Malley).


The following scene is typical of The Wire. It shows how reality bites, but doesn’t wring its hands over the cynicism, and even finds the poetry in the corrupting motion.

Taken as a whole, The Wire chronicles the complete breakdown of liberal-run institutions in a major American city. It does not flinch from the notion that the people in charge are black — or that they are Democrats — or try to find rich whitey to blame.

GRADE: The Show Overall –A+  The campaign– A+

Worst: Nashville Season 1

Nashville had a chance to be the Southern Good Wife by taking a look at how celebrity and politics interact, whether they should, and how it turns votes on the shallowest of reasons.

And while the show is very good at the politics of the music business, it features one of television’s all-time worst political campaigns contained in an otherwise high-quality show.

The foreground of the show is a battle between a middle-aged “Queen of County Music” Rayna James (the always ultra-appealing Connie Britton of Friday Night Lights) and an up-and-coming youth movement pop-country star (an equally good Hayden Panettiere) who is not above using auto-tune in the studio.

But on the personal side, Rayna also has a tough personal life. Her father Lamar (a sneering Powers Boothe who would twirl his moustache if he had one), one of Nashville’s richest citizens, is running a campaign for mayor with Rayna’s husband Teddy as the figurehead.

The campaign storyline leaves no hoary cliché unturned, particularly in the person of a scenery-chewing Powers Boothe (normally a welcome presence in anything), who embodies the sinister forces who buy campaigns and candidates to further their own ends.

The campaign subplot of Nashville is just another reason God gave us DVRs (American Idol being the other)—so that we can fast forward through the lame stuff and get to good parts.


Nashville needs to stick to firmer ground, like the homogenization effect of commercial success and the fact that great music is more apt to be played in a previously smoky bar than in a huge arena.

Nashville benefits greatly from an always credible and occasionally brilliant soundtrack — though, truth be told, Rayna is just a little too pop herself, considering the fact that she is supposed to represent the old guard and the Truth of Country Music Authenticity. Invariably, the best music on the show is provided by the supporting characters of a young couple, Scarlett and Gunnar, who are just making their way up.

Quibbles aside, Nashville is one of the few bright spots in a dreary couple of years for new dramas on the broadcast networks.

GRADE:  The Show Overall– B+  The Campaign– F

Most Deceptive: MSNBC, 2012 Presidential Coverage

Yes, this is supposed to be about fictional television campaigns, but MSNBC only claimed it to be about real life. In actuality, its coverage was as clichéd and believable as the campaign in Nashville.

If you tuned in to MSNBC during the 2012 presidential campaign, you were treated to the continuing saga of a ruthless right-wing white billionaire trying to buy the election away from the saintly, well-meaning president of color by utilizing the most unscrupulous tactics of voter suppression. He also used divisive and racist tactics including resurrecting the Old Confederacy, while our Dear Leader valiantly tried to keep the country on track and do what is best for everybody, no matter the political cost.

If you think that’s non-fiction, you probably have swallowed whole The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.

It’s easy to pick out Chris Matthews, but that’s just because he is the only member of the MSNBC nightly lineup that was ever considered legitimate — I’m not even going to elevate Al Sharpton, a race-baiter whose body count was just recently passed by Christopher Dorner, to the level of mere propagandist.


Then there is Rachel Maddow, who spent a year weaving not only racial voter-suppression conspiracies, but fantastic fascist dystopias in which Republican governors were eager to take over financially failed cities in order to… well, it was unclear what they got out of it, other than depriving black people of the chance to vote in city councils who would continue to loot the treasury.

Unlike Fox, which has straight news coverage (and Shep Smith, who skews Left whenever possible) and clearly delineates its opinion programs, MSNBC keeps it up all day, with every single host openly coming at news stories from the liberal to Left side of the spectrum.

Grade: F 


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