7 TV Shows for the Political Reality You Want

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Photo: CBS, CW, USA

The world of politics — the real world, that is — looks increasingly like a rancorous, painful hellmouth, characterized by lies, cynicism, fear mongering, and disaster scenarios. It is mayhem. It is dramatic. It is every bit as scary as anything the writer of a fictional TV show could cook up. Meanwhile, the (loosely) non-fictional channels are full of doom and gloom. Let’s take a walk through the current options TV has to offer for a mirror-like fictional apocalypse, bleak humor, or happy escapist sincerity.

I’m looking for something a bit like reality, but if it were more practical and soothing.
Maybe what you’re looking for is Madam Secretary on CBS. It’s still set in the White House, still a group of grown-ups sitting in the Oval Office trying to solve the world’s problems, but there’s also a pleasant sense that order and reason run the day. You’re looking for throwback political TV, studded with crises, sure, but also populated with attractive people in smartly cut blazers who are capable of resilience, competence, and compassion. Madam Secretary is a show where Tea Leoni’s glorious wardrobe alone would be soothing and inspirational. But if that weren’t enough, you can also take comfort in her no-nonsense demeanor and encyclopedic knowledge of how to solve the world’s scariest problems. Episodes are available on CBS All Access, and the first season is on Netflix. 

I’d like optimistic politics as a small part of a bigger, twisty, character-driven story.
You’re not particularly interested in the White House, and your eyes glaze over when someone starts talking about all the details of pretend terrorist strongholds with suspiciously ISIS-like qualities. You’re more into domestic issues, anyhow, and while you like a nice jolt of political fervor, you prefer it as the side dish for love stories, mysteries, surprising twists, secret identities, and cute babies. You’re looking for Jane the Virgin. It is one of the most sneakily political shows on television, undergirding its telenovela dramatics with a rock-steady commitment to immigration reform, the needs of working parents, and women’s rights. Both of the CW show’s seasons are streaming on Netflix. 

It just seems like the world is actually about to fall apart, though.
You might be more of a Mr. Robot person. Sure, you like the way Jane the Virgin is political in an everyday sort of setting; you like the relatability and groundedness of a show that’s not set in the White House. But Jane the Virgin is too cheerful for you; its colors are too bright and saturated, and anyhow, you’re pretty sure the world could easily end tomorrow if someone sent out the right server-melting virus. Mr. Robot might be just the cynical through-the-looking-glass reality you’re seeking — a world whose end is less fiery, and more like an icy, jittery slide toward mass anarchy. Season one is on Amazon Prime, and you can find new episodes on Hulu. 

What if I want my dark political commentary to be funnier?
Check out Netflix’s BoJack Horseman. If you’re interested in strong political stances that are a palpable but not the dominant part of the bigger story, and telenovela dramatics don’t do it for you, BoJack Horseman is a great choice. There’s none of the directness of Jane’s “#vote #vote #vote” onscreen text, but BoJack’s latest season includes several moments of head-on, blackly funny political discourse, particularly when it comes to safe spaces and how we talk about abortion. All three seasons are on Netflix. 

I’d like something topical and serious, but not too pointed.
Check out HBO’s currently airing series The Night Of. Like a few other series on this list, The Night Of isn’t a straight take on political issues — there are no White House staffers as main characters, no invocations of left versus right policies, and there’s certainly no stirring effort to save the country or even promote specific changes. But The Night Of is a story about all kinds of issues currently at the center of the American political discussion, including race, religion, incarceration, and policing. In some ways, it is a very old-fashioned, straightforward take on some of these issues, chiefly where they intersect with gender. If you’re looking for something that feels relevant to the topics of the day, though, and will also be familiar and won’t push you to anxiously refresh the latest poll data on your phone, The Night Of  is a strong contender. You can watch it on HBO Go or HBO Now.

Can I get my politics with as much cynicism and corruption as possible, and preferably also some murder?
You already know this, but — Netflix’s House of Cards. You like White House settings. You like men and women in suits, engaged in tense negotiating scenes and surrounded by flunkies who do their nefarious bidding. You like phrases like “deputy secretary” and “do we have the votes” and “latest polling data.” And you’re pretty sure that Washington is a seriously screwy, corrupt place, no matter what side of the aisle you’re on. House of Cards could be for you! It would be an especially good option if you’re capable of laughing at it rather than taking it seriously, and if you’re looking for a show where the politician kills a few people but whose national policies are actually (comparatively, sort of) sane. You know where to watch it. 

I could really go for some absurdist, black, wry political allegory.
Take a look at CBS’s new summer show BrainDead, the next offering from The Good Wife’s Robert and Michelle King. You may think that it offers a particularly cynical, dark view of political life every bit as dire as House of Cards. But where House of Cards is often leaden and self-serious, BrainDead combines the certainty that our system is a disaster with a cheerful, buoyantly black sensibility. The premise is essentially that bugs from outer space are invading Earth, and if your brain gets infested, every vestige of political centrism is killed off and you’re left as a raging, spittle-spewing extremist — whether you’re on the left or the right. (Either that, or your head just explodes.) Only a handful of episodes in, the show hasn’t fully gelled yet, but at its best, BrainDead is wry, self-aware, and surprising. And if you’re looking for some explanation for why things are the way they are today, then, hey, maybe it’s comforting to blame it all on space bugs. Episodes are available on CBS All Access.