From Veep to Scandal, How TV Foreshadowed the Presidential Election

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Photo: NBC, HBO and ABC/Getty Images

During the many long — so, so long — months of this presidential election, the world of televised entertainment and the race for the White House have often seemed intertwined. The 2016 Trump vs. Clinton showdown has been dubbed, among other things, the reality-show election, a presidency potentially predicted by The Simpsons, and the one whose debates were best digested as an episode of Arrested Development. Apparently this is what happens when one of the major candidates is the former host of an NBC competition series.

But what’s even more fascinating — nay, kind of alarming? — is the degree to which several recent or semi-recent scripted television shows foreshadowed the dynamics in this campaign. Some of these examples have been discussed online previously, in isolation. But when you put them all together in one place, as I will do in this article, it makes you realize that politics this year has not just been as cuckoo-banana-crazy as an outlandish story line in a Shonda Rhimes show or satirical premium cable comedy. It has been cuckoo-bananas-crazy in almost the exact same ways. Which is funny, bizarre, and thought-provoking. Oh, and also, terrifying as hell.

So come with me now into the TV/Election Twilight Zone, where we’ll consider six shows that captured key elements of Trump vs. Clinton well before the conventions, the debates, or the forthcoming Election Day.

Veep
By making Selina Meyer the first female POTUS in season four, then forcing her to actually run for the office in season five, Veep couldn’t avoid comparisons to Hillary Clinton. (For more on this, see BuzzFeed’s thorough examination of the parallels between Hillary’s emails and Selina’s communication style.) On top of that, though, a couple of season-five episodes spoke especially loudly to things that later happened in the 2016 election.

There’s “Nev-AD-a,” an episode that, as its title suggests, contains a running gag about how to correctly pronounce the name of the state. It aired on HBO on May 1, 2016; five months later, Donald Trump appeared at a rally in Nevada and informed everyone that it should be pronounced “Nev-AAH-duh,” prompting Nev-AD-a Senator Harry Reid to correct the candidate on Twitter. Relative to other issues raised during this election, this was an admittedly minor one. But the Veep parallel was eerie.

Even more eerie and relevant is episode six of season five, the one called “C***-gate.” Yes, just as it did in the actual election, a crude nickname for female private parts took center stage in an election scandal, although in the case of Veep, no one talked about grabbing any pussies. The C-word was linked to Selina because members of her own staff were using it to describe her, a fact that leaked out via a damaging Politico article. Nevertheless, it still led to this extraordinary monologue, delivered with generous dashes of arsenic, by Julia Louis-Dreyfus: “I am the first female president of the United States and this is an affront. I’ll tell you something, Amy. A lot of people don’t want me to be president. And you know why. Because fundamentally people hate women. Right? They’ll just stop at nothing to get me out of here. Everybody’s trying to get me. But I’m not going to let them.”

I’m not saying that late at night, while smoking a cigarette and wearing a silky nightgown, Hillary Clinton actually said this. But I’m not not saying that either. Anyway, the point is, it makes total sense that Louis-Dreyfus apologized for the current political climate in her Emmy acceptance speech this year. “Our show started out as political satire,” she said, “but it now feels like a sobering documentary.”

Parks and Recreation
Back in the olden days, when President Obama was still in his first term and Parks and Recreation’s fourth season was being broadcast on NBC, Leslie Knope ran for city council against a privileged, rich, inarticulate daddy’s boy named Bobby Newport. This was before the 2016 election was even a gleam in Nate Silver’s eye; still, many writers have cited the Knope vs. Newport face-off as a sneak preview of what was to come when Clinton met Trump in 2016.

The Washington Post is the most recent outlet to explore the synchronicities between Pawnee, Indiana, circa 2012, and what’s happening today, although Parks and Rec creator Mike Schur tries to downplay the foreshadowing. “I really am wary of claiming any kind of prescience or anything in terms of the way this election has played out,” he tells the Post, later adding: “Bobby Newport was much more benign than Trump is.”

This is true. Bobby wasn’t racist or misogynistic or even mean. He was just an entitled, underqualified idiot, which, at the time, made him seem like more of a riff on George W. Bush than anyone else. (Since he was played by Paul Rudd, he was also cute and sort of charming, so you could understand why voters might be taken with him.)

Still: Report to your Netflix queue and rewatch the episode “The Debate,” which was written and directed by star Amy Poehler, and you’ll definitely hear echoes of the now in that old half-hour of TV. Among them: Newport campaign manager Jennifer Barkley (Kathryn Hahn) saying of her candidate: “Expectations are crazy low. If he puts two sentences together without crying, the press is going to say he's doing surprisingly well”; multiple references to Mexico, including Leslie’s assertion that she wants to close a Borders book store, not the border between the U.S. and the country to our south; Bobby’s assertion that he wants to “run this town like a business”; and Leslie's asking Ben during a debate break, “How is he winning? Everything he’s saying is nonsense.” Which may or may not be something I said after some commentators announced that Trump had won the second presidential debate.

One thing that doesn’t line up at all with the recent Clinton/Trump debates: When Bobby says “Holy shit, Leslie, that was awesome!” after Knope nails her closing statement. Trump would never say that.

Scandal
Hey, you know who was racist and misogynistic and mean in ways that were deliberately Trumpesque? That would be Hollis Doyle, a recurring character on Scandal who reemerged in its latest fifth season as a Republican presidential candidate running against Susan Ross, Fitz’s vice-president, and Mellie Grant, the former senator (!) and First Lady (!!) whose Oval Office–occupying husband cheated on her (!!!).

These parallels weren’t examples of foresight so much as details ripped right from the headlines, as is much of what Doyle stands for during his campaign. For example, his slogan, “Dare to be great again,” is an obvious modification of “Make America great again.” (Honestly? It also sounds like something Lloyd Dobler might have suggested.)

But it’s still pretty remarkable how much the candidate debate depicted in “The Miseducation of Susan Ross” dovetails with what would ultimately go down in the real debates, right down to Trump … er, I mean, Doyle … bringing up Mellie’s husband’s infidelity to fend off her assertions that he’s a “misogynist playboy.” And in the not-at-all-subtly titled “Trump Card,” when Olivia, who’s running Mellie’s campaign, and Abby, who’s orchestrating Susan’s, join forces to eliminate Doyle from the race, they run through a laundry list of horrifying knocks against Doyle’s character, including the fact that he stole taxpayer money, may be a rapist, and runs with the KKK.

To be clear: All of these things were murmured about Trump at the time. But it’s amazing how every one of those allegations continued to find new traction after that Scandal season ended, right down to Trump’s KKK newspaper endorsement earlier this week. The key difference: On Scandal, all of those controversies forced Doyle out of the race, suggesting, for once, that Shondaland might make more sense than the real United States.

BrainDead
This CBS oddity, whose first and only season aired over the summer, didn’t address Trump or Clinton in the much more direct way that Scandal did. But co-creators Robert and Michelle King did use their alien-screwworms narrative to underline the idea that our politicians are turning into extreme, irrational, highly partisan beings, which feels pretty in line with how many Americans feel as observers of this election cycle. Add in references to Syria and a theory about a Republican creating internment camps and this short-lived series felt even more relevant.

House of Cards
The most recent season of Underwood madness pointedly positioned two women — a secretary of State (Cathy Dunbar) and a First Lady (Claire Underwood) — as potential seekers of the second highest office in the land and showed us a Democratic convention where things turned unexpectedly chaotic. (Well, “unexpectedly” to everyone but the scheming Underwoods.)

But the most prescient House of Cards detail may have been the drama’s focus on a Google-esque site called Pollyhop, whose search results could be manipulated to give Frank Underwood a media and voter perception advantage. “That seems crazy,” I thought back in March when I watched season four. Then, similar accusations were lobbed at the actual Google and I was like: “Oh. Well. Maybe it’s not so crazy.” (The name Pollyhop, though? Sorry, that’s definitely still crazy.)

Black Mirror
To be fair, no one in this election has been forced to have sex with a pig on live television. (To be even more fair: The election isn't over yet, so technically, there’s still time.) But both “The National Anthem,” the very first episode of Black Mirror, in which the British prime minister is compelled to perform unspeakable porcine acts, and season two’s “The Waldo Moment,” in which a foul-mouthed cartoon bear makes a legitimate run for office, reflect the idea that politics and the public’s engagement with it has sunk lower than anyone could have dreamed possible.

Personally, though, I think the Black Mirror episode that comes closest to nailing the tense vibe surrounding this election is season two’s “White Bear.” That’s the one in which a woman of color is victimized and threatened for the amusement of others, for reasons she doesn’t understand, on a nonstop, repetitive loop. In a lot of ways, that mirrors what it has felt like to monitor this seemingly never-ending, torturous election, which, one way or another, will at least finally be over in just a few short days.