When the Fox network celebrated its 25th anniversary Sunday night, one show that didn't get a shoutout was "Mr. President." It debuted in 1987 alongside "Married . . . With Children" and starred a particularly grumpy George C. Scott. The show lasted less than a year, furthering the notion that politics and prime-time entertainment usually make disastrous bedfellows.
"Scandal," a drama about a D.C. power broker (Kerry Washington) who has a very intimate relationship with the president, premiered on ABC to respectable ratings this month. "Political Animals," a six-hour miniseries starring Sigourney Weaver as the secretary of state, will launch this summer on USA. "The First Family," a sitcom about African-Americans in the White House, is expected to go into syndication this fall.
Even established shows are getting in on the act. Both "Modern Family" and "Parks and Recreation" featured arcs this season in which major characters ran for city council.
But there's something cynical about most of these new prime-time players. Past shows about politics, such as "Spin City" and "The West Wing," painted bureaucratic offices as hubs of energy and ideology, brimming over with good intentions. President Jed Bartlet's administration wasn't perfect, but it almost always put good intentions ahead of pandering for votes. Every episode included at least one patriotic-laced speech that made you want to snap to attention and salute the screen.
You'd be hard-pressed to find an idealist in this new crop of shows. The main characters in "Scandal" are too busy having tawdry affairs and skimming money from taxpayers. In "Veep," Louis-Dreyfus' second banana shows some compassion toward constituents, but most of her time is spent trying to improve her poll numbers and asking whether the president has called. (He hasn't.)
"I loved 'The West Wing,' but at this particular point, I think that portrayal of Washington as a clean and noble heartland just wouldn't wash with the public," said "Veep" creator Armando Iannucci, who previously wrote and directed the political farce "In the Loop." "We've seen too much now."
Iannucci was referring to the 24-hour news channels and Internet chatter that allow Americans to follow political dramas thousands of miles from home.
"Whether you're part of the younger generation or the older generation, there's no question that social media is transforming American politics," said Judy Woodruff, a senior correspondent for "PBS NewsHour." But does that translate into viewers wanting fictionalized stories when they can get a political fix from cable news anytime they want?
"Boss," starring Kelsey Grammer as a corrupt Chicago mayor, will start its second season in August, but ratings took a nosedive last year after the Starz network renewed it. Fewer than 300,000 viewers were tuning in by season's end.
Though it's ostensibly a legal drama, CBS' "The Good Wife" has focused more on politics, adding the wily Alan Cumming as a campaign manager trying to elect the title character's estranged husband to higher office. Co-creator Robert King promises to continue upping the ante -- but he's wary of overdoing it.
"You have to be worried that people get so much politics in real life, they want to escape into a bit of a fantasy world where things get settled," he said. "In real politics, things are never settled."
Signs seem to indicate, however, that today's viewers crave "unsettled" drama. This winter's Republican presidential debate drew record ratings. According to Nielsen, the debates before the Iowa caucuses averaged 5.6 million viewers, making them the most popular non-sports programs on cable.
TV executives are taking their cue from those ratings, focusing story lines on the inherent conflict of campaign races rather than the day-to-day grind of governing.
"People hate politics, but they love elections," said Marc Webb, executive producer for "Battleground," a Hulu-backed Web series about a campaign team in Wisconsin. "There's an inherent drama that you see during elections -- the showdown that's incredibly compelling, simple human drama."
All politics, all the time
The political climate is so compelling that Current TV reinvented itself earlier this year as an all-politics network, hammering the competition along the way for not digging deeper.
"We're going to punch the establishment in the mouth," said Cenk Uygur, host of Current's "Young Turks," a new nightly news commentary program. "I would like to declare war on the establishment media like CNN because they have their plastic fake robot anchors on there that do not deliver the news. What they do is standard 'he said, she said' drivel, and they don't actually get you the information that you need to make a decision on important matters in this country."
Gee, sounds like there could be a series about the battle between the all-news networks -- and HBO agrees. Coming later this summer: Jeff Daniels stars in "The Newsroom," created by none other than Aaron Sorkin, guiding light of "The West Wing."