By Emily Goodin - 01/16/13 11:42 PM EST
Politics became riveting television this past year, with the presidential debates receiving high ratings and the debt talks dominating C-SPAN.
Plus, several politically themed movies — “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Lincoln” and “Argo” — have become the talk of Hollywood’s awards season.
Some of the must-see political TV includes HBO’s “Veep,” NBC’s “Parks and Recreation,” CBS’s “The Good Wife,” Showtime’s “Homeland” and ABC’s “Scandal.”
Joining them are a couple of new shows: NBC’s “1600 Penn,” a comedy about a fictional first family; “The Americans,” a Cold War-era drama airing on FX; and “House of Cards,” an original show airing on Netflix and starring Kevin Spacey as the House majority whip.
“One of the reasons the number has grown is it’s not an overdone genre,” said Robert Thompson, a professor of TV and popular culture at Syracuse University, of political television shows.
He points out that there have plenty of shows about cops, lawyers and doctors, but very few about presidents or members of Congress.
He credits “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” for changing that, noting they have turned politics into “the stuff of dramatic narrative.”
Take Showtime’s “Homeland,” which features actress Claire Danes as a CIA analyst hunting terrorists and Damian Lewis as an American Marine who was captured, turned and turned back. Both actors won Golden Globes and Emmys for their work.
The program has a lot of fans in high places.
President Obama has called it his favorite show — Lewis was invited to a state dinner at the White House — and former President Clinton is also a fan, asking to meet Danes at the Golden Globes this past weekend.
Season two just concluded, in December; fans will have to wait till September to find out what happens next.
The Showtime thriller follows in the format of another of Washington’s favorite TV shows: Fox’s “24,” which starred Kiefer Sutherland as an agent at a fictional counterterrorism agency.
It aired for eight seasons, won several awards and was a favorite of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and then-Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.
Chertoff even visited the set when the show filmed in Washington in 2007.
But other politicians-turned-fans have gone further, making appearances on their favorite shows.
McCain and Vice President Biden recently appeared on NBC’s “Park and Recreation.” Both men played themselves and interacted with Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope, a mid-level bureaucrat in the Parks Department of Pawnee, a fictional town in Indiana.
McCain told NBC he did it because “It’s one of my favorite shows ... I’m a fan. It’s hilarious.”
He also spoke of another brief cameo he did, on “24”: “I did a walk-on on ‘24’ with Jack Bauer. That was kind of fun. I bragged about it for years, even though I wasn’t even on the full screen ... You know how they divide the screen? I was up in the right-hand corner.”
Biden made his debut on “Parks and Recreation” in November (after the election). The fiance of Poehler’s character had arranged for her to meet him (Knope’s love of the vice president has been an ongoing gag on the show).
In the program, Poehler’s Knope told Biden he’s “very handsome” and warned a Secret Service agent, “Don’t let anything happen to him, you understand me? He is precious cargo.”
Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) also appeared on the show.
And former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) is scheduled to appear on Thursday night’s episode.
House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) will join the political guests later this month, when she appears with Tina Fey on NBC’s “30 Rock” on Thursday, Jan. 31, when the program airs its final episode.
Pelosi told The Washington Post she made the appearance because “I would do almost anything Tina Fey asks me to do.”
Jennifer Lawless, associate professor of government at American University, points out that “all of these of politicians tend to be cast in quite likable positions” when they appear on fictional TV programs.
“The benefits outweigh the cost,” she notes, pointing out it humanizes the politicians and shows they have a sense of humor.
Another favorite stopping place for politicians in NBC’s “Saturday Night Live,” which is known for its mocking of Washington’s elite.
McCain hosted the show in October 2002 and appeared on it shortly before the 2008 election, when he was the GOP nominee. Then-Democratic nominee Barack Obama also appeared on the show in 2008, while McCain’s running mate, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, appeared on it before the election. Hillary Clinton stopped by in March 2008, during the Democratic primary process.
“1600 Penn” and “Veep” are likewise mining the political world for laughs.
“1600 Penn” follows the troubles of a fictional first family residing in the White House.
Jon Lovett, a former speechwriter for President Obama, is one of the producers.
“It’s an ordinary family in an extraordinary place.”
“Veep,” which returns to HBO in April, stars Julia Louis-Dreyfus as vice president of the United States.
At the Golden Globes on Sunday, Louis-Dreyfus said of the show’s influence on her: “I watch a lot of C-SPAN now.”
And, speaking of C-SPAN, a recent White House petition asked for the cable network to film a reality TV show around Biden.
Howard Mortman, a spokesman for the network, pointed out, “Actually, C-SPAN already has a long-running Vice President Biden reality series — over 1,200 appearances in the C-SPAN video library since 1986.”
But, despite all the political shows and cameos out there, no program has quite captured D.C.’s hearts like NBC’s “The West Wing.”
“It was just so beautifully written, so elegantly structured and the main character of the president was a wish-fulfillment of grand proportions,” Thompson said in describing the appeal of the show. “ ‘The West Wing’ presented so beautifully this utopian idea, what it would be like to have a president who was operating … in a way we always hoped.”
What to watch when
Time: Returns in April
“Parks and Recreation”
Time: Thursdays, 8:30 p.m.
“The Good Wife”
Time: Sundays, 9 p.m
Time: Returns in September
Time: Sundays, 10 p.m.
Time: Thursdays, 9:30 p.m.
Time: Premieres Wednesday, Jan. 30
“House of Cards”
Time: Premieres Feb. 1