Capitol Gains: TV Goes to Washington
Before executive producer Greg Berlanti came in to pitch what would become Political Animals, USA Network wasn't actively looking for a series set in Washington, D.C. "We were probably as averse to [D.C. shows] as any network," says Bill McGoldrick, USA's executive vice president of original scripted programming.
Not wanting to alienate viewers, TV execs have mostly steered clear of D.C.-set shows over the years — and the few that made it on the air rarely succeeded, with The West Wing being the notable exception. But the broadcast and cable networks have now fully embraced that world. There may have never before been more faux politicians on TV than right now: Political Animals, which stars Sigourney Weaver as the Hillary Clinton-esque secretary of state; HBO's Veep, starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus as the put-upon vice president; ABC's Scandal, which centers on Kerry Washington as a D.C. crisis expert and Tony Goldwyn as the flawed president; and Showtime's Homeland, in which a brainwashed former POW runs for Congress.
Next season there's also ABC's Last Resort, in which a D.C. conspiracy forces a ballistic missile submarine led by Andre Braugher to go rogue, and the NBC sitcom 1600 Penn, starring Josh Gad as the bumbling son of the president. "When there are that many, it's probably not a coincidence," McGoldrick says. "There must be something at play. I do think D.C. offers a nice setting for a lot of drama and a lot of characters that have a lot of ambition."
"There are only so many shows you can do about cops, doctors and detectives," adds Political Animals executive producer Laurence Mark. "At some point you have to look elsewhere. And that's D.C. It turns out to be a rather rich and fertile world to explore." The explosion of D.C.-set shows has even caused a run on Oval Office props. The White House sets of both Political Animals and 1600 Penn include elements once used on The West Wing.
Fox 21 president Bert Salke, whose studio produces Homeland, believes part of the interest in D.C. life comes from the celebrity-like status of Barack and Michelle Obama. "You have a compelling family in the White House that you're just as likely to read about in People as the Wall Street Journal or New York Times," Salke says. (The same could be said of the other party with Sarah Palin's family.)
Even TMZ covers elected officials as if they're celebrities, and that kind of exposure may have actually helped make shows set in the political world more accessible to viewers. "Any reasonable person can look at our politicians and say that they're held to an almost impossible standard in terms of their personal lives," says 1600 Penn exec producer Jason Winer. "They have to present themselves as unrealistically perfect in order to do what they do. That's a really juicy conundrum. I find the conflict between a public persona and a private life to be a really great basis for a comedy or drama."
"Historically people have shied away from political shows because they're divisive," Winer says. But he explains that 1600 Penn is ultimately a family comedy, just as McGoldrick and Mark say Political Animals is a family soap that happens to be set in D.C. "We have many more scenes in bedrooms, kitchens and dining rooms than we have in boardrooms and offices," Mark says. "Every politician has a public persona, a mask that they put on. It's what goes on when they take the mask off — that's the most interesting."
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