With the frenzy of the 2016 election on full display, it’s an ideal time to take a break from cable news and revisit some of the great fictional political TV shows instead. Historically, during the network era, broadcasters tended to shy away from controversial political material, but in recent decades—thanks in part to cable and streaming video—we’ve seen TV shows featuring captivating political content flourish. But political TV shows can do more than entertain us; they can also provide us with powerful insights about our political culture—about the daily functioning of local and national governments. Here are 10 political TV shows you can watch after you’ve had your fill of cable news.
1. TANNER '88 (1988)
Where to watch it: HBO Now, Hulu
Created by director Robert Altman and Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau, Tanner ’88 is a mockumentary that follows a fictional Michigan Congressman, Jack Tanner (Michael Murphy), as he pursues the Democratic nomination for President. Altman and Trudeau filmed on location in Iowa and New Hampshire, leading to cameos by real-life politicians including Bob Dole, Pat Robertson, Jesse Jackson, and Gary Hart, but the short-lived series endures because of its satirical insight into the ways in which TV was making elections even more artificial and stage-managed. With Tanner’s ironic campaign slogan, “For Real,” a fake presidential candidate became a powerful vehicle for showing us how politics itself has become a highly scripted spectacle.
2. THE WEST WING (1999-2006)
Where to watch it: Amazon, Netflix
Aaron Sorkin’s White House drama offers audiences a romanticized vision of the president (Martin Sheen) and his staff. Unlike the power-hungry careerists seen in most political shows, The West Wing depicted Washington insiders as having good intentions for improving the lives of the citizens they served. Tackling subjects from Supreme Court nominations to the war on terrorism and government shutdowns, The West Wing continues to be a prescient show that speaks to current issues. It also used bold storytelling techniques, including a largely unscripted episode that featured a debate between Democrat Matthew Santos (Jimmy Smits) and Republican Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda) that served as a powerful articulation of two competing visions for how government should work.
3. THE WIRE (2002-2008)
Where to watch it: Amazon, HBO Now
David Simon’s brilliant drama about the narcotics scene in Baltimore, Maryland depicted that world not just from the perspective of law enforcement but also from the point of view of the dealers and users who were affected by legal and institutional forces that have contributed to the neglect of the black underclass. The Wire also serves as a powerful reminder of the failures of local politicians, bureaucrats, and even the news media in contributing to the collapse of many urban centers like Baltimore. But the show is also passionately acted and sharply scripted, making it a powerfully complex drama—one that teaches us about the importance of not just local but national politics in shaping our daily lives.
4. PARKS AND RECREATION (2009-2015)
Where to watch it: Hulu, Netflix
In the first season of the classic NBC mockumentary-style sitcom, Amy Poeher’s Leslie Knope is depicted as a pushy and naive small-town bureaucrat lacking in self-awareness. But as the show evolved, it turned Knope into a canny, likeable character who stood up for the value of local government in making a difference in people’s lives. It also gave Knope a perfect foil in Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman), a libertarian who believed the government should do as little as possible but who still managed to be a supportive friend. Parks and Recreation also satirized current political events—most notably Michael Bloomberg’s infamous soda tax and the recall of Wisconsin governor Scott Walker—and featured cameos by politicians including Vice President Joe Biden, First Lady Michelle Obama, and Secretary of State Madeline Albright.
5. VEEP (2012-PRESENT)
Where to watch it: Amazon, HBO Now
Created by Armando Iannucci, who was also the driving force behind the British political comedy The Thick of It, Veep features Julia Louis-Dreyfus as the charismatic, but mostly ineffectual, Vice President Selina Meyer. The show brutally satirizes Washington bureaucracy and ambition, as Selina’s staff members compete to gain favor with their superiors. Unlike the utopian presidency of The West Wing, the characters in Veep are driven completely by self-interest and more interested in the appearance of success than in actually making things happen. Add a highly talented cast headlined by Louis-Dreyfus, Tony Hale, and Anna Chlumsky, and you get one of the most biting commentaries on American politics ever made.
6. HOUSE OF CARDS (2013-PRESENT)
Where to watch it: Netflix
Based on a four-episode British TV show from 1990, House of Cards made a big splash as one of the first original series produced by Netflix. It features Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood, an ambitious politician who manipulates, cheats, and even kills his political opponents while embarking on an audacious effort to grab power. The show has drawn comparisons to Shakespeare’s Richard III with its depiction of Underwood’s elaborate pursuit of revenge against all of his personal and political rivals. You can also enjoy Spacey mugging for the camera, directly addressing viewers through asides in which he confides in the viewers about what he is doing, implicating us in the process.
7. SCANDAL (2012-PRESENT)
Where to watch it: ABC.com, Amazon, Hulu, Netflix
While many critics have dismissed Scandal as soapy melodrama, Shonda Rhimes’ primetime series offers an entertaining and stylish depiction of political ambition and greed. The show’s lead character, Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington), is a fixer—someone who works with her team of “Gladiators” to help her wealthy clients make scandals go away. Frequently, that involves coming to the aid of President Fitzgerald Grant, with whom she has an ongoing affair. But these emotional storylines can also speak to questions of political power. See, for example, “The Lawn Chair,” an episode from season four that tackles the issue of police brutality, and a long-running season one subplot about tampered voting machines.
8. THE AMERICANS (2013-PRESENT)
Where to watch it: Amazon
Set in the early 1980s at the peak of the Cold War, The Americans depicts Philip and Elizabeth Jennings as a pair of KGB agents living in an arranged marriage in suburban Washington, as they work to spy on the American government while raising two children who have no knowledge of their parents' true identities. The show is a powerful meditation on the psychic toll of living your life—working, vacationing, and having sex—while pretending to be someone else. It’s also a powerful commentary on today’s use of surveillance, spying, and torture in the fight against terrorism.
9. THE GOOD WIFE (2009-2016)
Where to watch it: Amazon, CBS All Access, Hulu
A complex legal drama, The Good Wife focuses on attorney Alicia Florrick (subtly played by Julianna Margulies) as the wife of a philandering politician who goes back to work in a law firm after her husband’s infidelities go public. During the course of the series, Florrick chooses to make a run for the office of State’s Attorney, forcing her to make a series of ethical choices about what principles she's willing to sacrifice in order to get elected. But the show is also one of the most insightful series ever about the nuances of the legal system and its ability to handle complicated cases. In particular, watch for the episode where Florrick represents a client who was wounded in a shooting range when a gun he built using a 3D printer explodes. Should the printer manufacturer be sued? The designer of the gun? The Good Wife has the foresight to tackle many of these complex issues.
10. SHOW ME A HERO (2015)
Where to watch it: HBO Now
This miniseries, produced by The Wire creator David Simon, is based on the true story of Yonkers mayor Nick Wasicsko (Oscar Isaac) and his efforts to comply with a federal order demanding that the city desegregate its public housing despite resistance from the city’s white, middle-class residents who feared the changes that integration would bring. Like The Wire and The Good Wife, Show Me a Hero captures the drama and intrigue of local politics, while serving as a brutal reminder about the dysfunctional nature of political institutions in many urban centers. Isaac powerfully inhabits the role of Wasicsko, one of the youngest mayors ever to hold office in a major U.S. city, and Catherine Keener also shines as Mary Dorman, a naive East Yonkers resident who initially fights against desegregation.