LittleBigPicture politics special: 10 political TV powerhouses


12th May 2010

Spin City (ABC, 1996-2002 )

If Alan B'Stard is the nastiest politician ever, then Mike Flaherty is the nicest, and Spin City is the most harmless and amiable show on our list.

Set in New York, this traditional sitcom follows hapless Mayor Randall Winston (Barry Bostwick) and the staff of Deputy Mayor Mike Flaherty (Michael J Fox), a smooth-talking spin machine whose career is in the ascent as his personal life circles the drain. Comically, of course. The plots came more from the staff's personal lives and professional mix ups than the world of politics, although having said that, former New York Mayors and councillors made small guest appearances throughout the show's six series run.

The cast are made up of a motley crew of goofily hilarious misfits and sexy ladies including Alan Ruck and Jennifer Esposito, but there's no doubt this was Fox's show. He's living proof that good things come in small packages and when he departed the show in 2000 due to his declining health the show went along with him.

Replaced by Charlie Sheen, Spin City took on a different feel; situations which used to be cheekily risqu' became smutty and crude, and Sheen just didn't have the charming screen presence to carry a show that Michael J Fox did. It lasted two more seasons before finally being axed. In its heyday, Spin City was one of the best sitcoms to come out of the States, with notable guest stars like Conan O'Brien, Michael Gross and unforgettably Christopher Lloyd as Mike's old mentor in an episode entitled "Back To The Future IV: Judgement Day".

When Fox left the show, it was written into the Spin City universe that he went to Washington DC as a lobbyist coming into contact with a rather unpleasant Republican by the name of Alex P. Keaton (Fox's role in Family Ties). Meta much?

Party Animals (BBC2, 2007)

With Party Animals, politics got the treatment we've come to expect from British "young adult" TV. Junior researchers and twenty-something lobbyists all get pissed and high, whilst shagging each other and living like students. If you put The West Wing and This Life in a blender, then pushed it through a BBC Three sieve, you would get this show; a sloppy mess on Whitehall where, somehow, the working day ends by 7pm so they can all get down the pub to further discuss whips and constituencies while taking "toot breaks". Thrilling.

Choppy editing and the frankly unentertaining morass of British Politics meant Party Animals had next to no audience (its highest rated episode came in at under 1 million, and for primetime BBC, that is shoddy). Only eight episodes were made, which is a bit of a shame, considering the cast included the always marvellous Andrea Riseborough as scheming intern Kirsty (good name) and future Time Lord Matt Smith whose charming turn as Danny, a bumbling yet intelligent Northern Home Office researcher, surely got his foot in the door of the T.A.R.D.I.S.

Whilst the lifestyle the Party Animals lead may be somewhat true to life for ambitious young politico, it's not necessarily entertaining or gripping viewing. I can't be alone in finding the majority of this type of city boy and girl intensely tedious. Given the lacklustre viewing figures, I guess I wasn't.

Parks And Recreation (NBC, 2009 ' )

I think we can draw a line under the 'mockumentary' style TV shows now thank you very much. Since Operation Good Guys in 1997, we've been blessed with many excellent and funny mock-docs, including the very good Pawnee, Indiana-based Parks And Recreation. However, it's safe to say that we've wrung all we can out of this genre and I'd be happy not to see another knowing gurn to camera, or an incredibly awkward "real" moment between colleagues again.

In Parks And Recreation, we follow the working days of a ' it's not rocket science people' Parks And Recreation department. Headed up by Amy Poehler's perpetually optimistic deputy director Leslie Knope, the P&R department are a collection of weirdos and bums who cling to their jobs by the skin of their teeth. Of course they are, it's a mockumentary. Some of the creative team here worked on the US version of The Office, and it shows in the style; talking heads and those damned looks to camera. The link is not completely to the detriment of this programme, but it does give the series a real spin-off feeling, despite not being connected to its more successful stablemate at all, storywise.

Similarly to The Thick Of It, much of Parks And Recreation's comedy comes from the seemingly endless red tape of government, and how a simple misspeak can cause unending drama. There's a lot less swearing in this one though.

Edge Of Darkness (BBC1, 1985)

While technically a crime drama, the classic 1985 thriller Edge Of Darkness should be included on any list of political shows. Taking the underlying threat of nuclear war, which in the early '80s was still a very strong common fear, and tying it in with the public's suspicions of the secrecy of government, Edge Of Darkness is an engrossing and intriguing mini-series which is regularly cited as one of the best British dramas ever broadcast.

So critically acclaimed was the first showing on BBC2, that within days, the mini-series was given a repeat on BBC1 and BAFTA awarded it accolades in six categories that year. Earlier this year, a movie remake was directed and adapted by original series director Martin Campbell, starring Mel Gibson.

The plot revolves around police officer Ronald Craven (Bob Peck) attempting to unravel the mystery behind the very brutal murder of his daughter Emma, an investigation which leads him into a world of cover-ups and espionage. The surfacing indications that his daughter may have been an internationally-wanted terrorist takes him from Yorkshire to the House of Commons to America, courtesy of the CIA. It is a masterpiece of television, intelligently written, paced perfectly and with just the right amount of "Ohmygod!" moments and revelations that keep you perched on the edge of your seat without blinking. The word 'engrossing' was coined for shows like this, and I more than recommend you watch it ' I insist.

Plus the opening credits have Eric Clapton's haunting guitar wailing over them. Bonus.

The West Wing (NBC, 1999-2006)

Let's not kid ourselves, The West Wing is the Holy Grail of televisual politics, and anyone who says otherwise is lying to you and you should smack them with a picture of President Jed Bartlet. The first two series of The West Wing are what I think Philo Farnsworth and co had in mind when they first begun tinkering with electronic tubes. Keep your Sopranos and your Wires; this show didn't need guns and swearing to be gripping.

Over the course of this engaging and intelligent series which took in the two presidential terms of Jed Bartlett and his merry men, we grew to love the staff of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and learned more about the structure of US government than we would have in an A-Level in US politics.

The dream team behind its creation were writer Aaron Sorkin and director Thomas Schlamme (whose debut series Sportsnight should make any good top 10 sitcoms list). Together they gave the world a view of what an idealised Liberal America would be like at a time when they needed it the most, and invented the pedeconference, or "Walk and Talk". Seriously, I don't think people ever spoke and walked at the same time before 1999.

While the quality of the writing and storylines dipped during seasons four-six, the strong seventh season (so closely reflected in real life in 2009) meant that when it was time to say farewell to the show, it ended on a well-deserved high. God Bless (this particular fictional) America.

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