A number of old series have delved into campaigning this fall, as has Kelsey Grammer's new drama. Only occasionally do they rise above broad parody, though.
Perhaps to brace us for what promises to be an exceptionally brutal 2012 presidential election, scripted television has taken on politics in a major way this fall. Campaigns are everywhere on TV, from established sitcoms (Glee, Modern Family, Parks and Recreation) to newcomer prestige dramas (Boss).
And while D.C. often gets dismissed as Hollywood's homely cross-continental cousin, in a way, it's not surprising when campaigning shows up in pop culture: The subject, with its sex scandals, brave stands, and backroom deals, is plenty entertaining. "Politics is sort of the mainstay of theatrical behavior in our contemporary culture," says Kelsey Grammer, who makes a break with his comedic past (Fraiser and Cheers) in a striking performance as Chicago Mayor Tom Kane in Starz's Boss. "You don't really need to blame that on any one person, or any one mayor, or any particular party. Both parties are capable of behaving nobly and dastardly."
But politics carries risks for those in Hollywood who take it on. This fall's shows do best when they mine the territory's inherent drama and ridiculousness, and worst when they try to summon grotesques from the shadows.
"There's a demonic quality that comes with anyone who stays in power for a long time," Grammer says.
In their own ways, each of these shows skewer the silly side of government and elections. But Glee seems to think that the skewer it's wielding—villainous gym coach Sue Sylvester's run for state legislature on the platform that the arts ruin students' lives—is sharper than it is. It's not that conservative opposition to public support for the arts and arts education isn't real. After all, Kansas's Governor Sam Brownback shut down his state's arts agency this year, sacrificing federal funding for the arts in the process. But as is often the case, Glee seems to think that it needs to venture into overwrought parody to be effective, when reality is often funny and horrifying enough on its own.
Both that show and Modern Family have tackled the idea that it would be good to have more women run for office, but they've framed that idea more as a source of self-esteem for individual candidates rather than as a vehicle for meaningful policy change. As Feministing editor Chloe Angyal pointed out in a Bloggingheads episode we taped together recently, Claire Dunphy's decision to run for city council is directly motivated by the encouragement of her stepmother Gloria, who tells her to overcome her fears of returning to work now that her children are school-aged. But rather than setting Gloria up as her campaign manager or exploring what Claire's platform might look like, the show immediately cut to an image of Gloria deploying her considerable physical assets to help her husband close a business sale.
Similarly, Brittany S. Pierce's run for student council president on Glee isn't really inspired by specific changes she wants to make at McKinley High. Rather, while managing another student's campaign, she becomes convinced of her own specialness. When she kicks off her election bid with a raunchy rendition of Beyonce's "Run the World," it's cute, but it's also a substitute for actual ideas. As The Onion joked in a 2003 article, this is "Women Now Empowered By Everything a Woman Does"-level feminism.
Parks and Recreation, by contrast, has been establishing Leslie Knope's resume and her campaign platform since its opening episode. In previous seasons, she's saved her department—and a beloved children's concert—from budget cuts, filled in an enormous pit, and pulled off an epic harvest festival. This year, she's handling a potential scandal about her birthplace with an aplomb that defied President Obama and founding the best scout troop ever. And the show's made a point of demonstrating how her abilities and persistent cheerfulness have won over even her dedicated libertarian colleague, Ron Swanson, who can't help himself. His small-government convictions shrink in the face of what Leslie's able to accomplish. The notion of swaying someone like Swanson through mere competence may amount to liberal fantasy, but it's a nicely small-scale one, rooted in the modest hope that local government can make life just a little bit better. It's certainly better than bigger, more harmful flights of fictional-political fantasy: Say, to imagine that a single speech by the president will turn the country around, as it does in Aaron Sorkin's painfully sincere romantic comedy The American President.