If you could create the perfect TV drama for the pending Biden era, what would it look like? Let’s agree that it would have to steer clear of the White House itself — neither the we’ve-got-this confidence of The West Wing nor the acrid contempt of Veep seems quite right for early 2021. What if, instead, a show focused on the institution that’s preoccupying many of us at the moment, the United States Senate? Imagine a drama that takes governing seriously, that looks at the challenges and compromises of the legislative branch through the eyes of a newly elected junior senator, progressive but pragmatic, beset on his right flank by cynical, favor-trading institutionalists and on his left by advocates and activists who want profound change and want it now — and, not without reason, doubt his ability to get much done. The tone would have to strike an uneasy balance between resignation and hope, and most episodes would end with our essentially decent protagonist doing part of the right thing while wondering if his incrementalism was an exercise in futility or the only way forward.
It turns out this show exists, and it’s fantastic. It’s also 50 years old.
To stumble upon NBC’s series The Senator today is to discover a thrilling, perfect for its time but also eerily ours artifact from a moment when the medium was beginning to awaken to possibilities it hadn’t previously considered. The show’s history is almost as fascinating as its content. It began in 1969, when NBC ordered an hour-long drama called The Bold Ones, a new programming approach, now abandoned, that was known as the “wheel” series. The idea was that three or four separate dramas, each with its own cast and premise, would take turns in the same time slot, but share the same umbrella branding. By the early 1970s, there were about a half a dozen of these: The most famous was the NBC Mystery Movie, home to the long-running classic Columbo, which alternated with McCloud and McMillan and Wife. (It was the kind of programming premise you could probably only get away with when three major networks held total dominion over a nation’s eyeballs.)
In its first season, The Bold Ones consisted of three dramas: The Lawyers, The New Doctors, and The Protectors, the last of which explored the dynamic between a conservative white deputy police chief and a Black DA. The first two series survived to a second season; The Protectors did not, and by early 1970, the producers of The Bold Ones, who were starting to consider replacement concepts, had signed Hal Holbrook to star in a made-for-TV movie called A Clear and Present Danger about the son of a senator who decides to run for his retiring father’s office on an antipollution platform. The well-received film earned a series order: The Senator, starring Holbrook (whose character had now been elected), would join the Bold Ones rotation that fall.
Acclaim for the show was instant; the eight topical episodes that were produced took on everything from the government’s mistreatment of Native Americans to the incipient dementia of an elderly senator to Vietnam-era collusion between the Department of Defense and private contractors. At a time when most TV dramas looked like Ironside or Bonanza, The Senator was something new and jolting — a series unafraid to plunder the headlines and to prod the moral gray areas that other shows assiduously avoided. The FCC’s equal-time rules probably spooked NBC into making sure that Holbrook’s patrician, the Kennedy-esque character Hayes Stowe, was never explicitly identified as a Democrat, but there was no missing it; each episode felt like a rebuke of a new aspect of the reactionary domestic politics of the Nixon White House. One subplot in the first hour (which would not require much rewriting to be stingingly relevant today) depicted Stowe’s reluctance to sign onto an anti-crime bill because it contained a provision allowing cops to conduct no-knock raids. “Do you need that?” Stowe, who’s clearly skeptical, asks a veteran policeman. The cop starts talking about hard drugs and Black revolutionaries. They don’t find common ground, and at the end of the episode, the fate of the bill is unknown.
From there, The Senator’s politics only became more pointed. The third episode, “Power Play,” has Stowe in heated discussions with young activists who want him to oppose a political nominee, even though Stowe plans to support the candidate in exchange for another senator’s vote on an education bill he wants passed. The showdown is angry, emotional, and surprisingly specific — a young woman played by the folk singer Holly Near warns him, “We are the only element between peaceful change and the Weathermen, but you do something like this, and I have to think twice about where I want to be, because I’m sick and tired of being disenfranchised!” It’s no accident that the scene feels more like a documentary than a scripted drama; according to Holbrook, the episode’s director threw the actors in a room, put the camera on a turntable, and told them to start improvising an argument. That kind of thing just didn’t happen on network TV in 1970; it doesn’t happen now.
The centerpiece of the series, a two-part episode called “A Continual Roar of Musketry” that, breaking with the Bold Ones format, ran in consecutive weeks, was so incendiary that NBC warned its creators during production that it might never air. The story was a virtually undisguised retelling of the aftermath of the Kent State killings in May 1970; it was written in their immediate wake and filmed that July. In the episodes, Stowe travels to a campus to lead a three-man commission of inquiry alongside a white journalist whose sympathies lie with the National Guard and a Black academic who is more allied with the protesters. It’s an investigation that Stowe is told in advance will come to nothing — and one that NBC told the show’s producers could not reach any conclusion that went beyond the actual Kent State investigation that was then taking place. The producers essentially ignored that order; the second hour ends with a flat, blunt statement condemning the National Guard for use of excessive force and demanding a grand jury investigation and a trial — and along the way, it also touches on the question of whether there can be political justification for vandalism and on the danger of putting troops among civilian populations.
When the Emmy nominations were announced at the end of the 1970 to 1971 season, The Senator led all shows, and at the ceremony in May, it virtually swept its categories, winning Best Drama Series, Best Actor for Holbrook, Best Writing (for which it had received two of the three nominations), and Best Directing (ditto). But by then, it was too late; the series, despite solid ratings, had been canceled. No explanation was ever offered, not even to Holbrook, a liberal firebrand who was eager to do a second season, but the rumor was that the Nixon administration wanted it gone and had pressured NBC.
“I asked this senator friend of mine, why do you think we were canceled?” said Holbrook, now 95, in a 2015 interview. “He said, ‘Hal, in this town, if you’re in power and you want something done, you don’t have to say what you want. The people who work for you know it.” An aide to Senator Ted Kennedy started a petition to get the cancellation reversed and circulated it in the Senate, where the show had fans on both sides of the aisle; even Barry Goldwater signed on. But to no avail. The Senator was gone and soon forgotten.
If political resentment was behind the show’s demise, it would not be a surprise. While The Senator clearly proceeded from the premise that an earnest, middle-age white man trying to thread the needle and find “reasonable” solutions could serve as a natural audience surrogate, it was never especially interested in middleway centrism; in the Kent State episodes, it is not the “angry Black man” who needs to learn a lesson but the white reporter who discovers his own unconscious bias. Who knows what the series could have become if it had lasted three or four more seasons, which would have taken it through the entire Watergate era? By the middle of its brief production, word was already getting out on the Universal lot, where The Senator was filmed, that it didn’t look or play like any other show on TV. Among the young directors who started visiting the soundstage to see what was going on were John Badham, who eventually got the assignment to direct what turned out to be the final episode, and Steven Spielberg, then just getting his first TV directing gigs with shows like Night Gallery and Marcus Welby, M.D.
There are, to be sure, ways in which The Senator reflects its era; although Black characters are more present throughout than they were in most series of the time, women are virtually nonexistent (not a shock, since in 1970, 99 of the country’s 100 Senators were men). But the show is almost never smug, and there are plenty of lines in old TV series that have aged far worse than Stowe’s anguished remark, “We’re piling up debts for our kids — poverty, pollution, overpopulation.” Even today, people at all points along the left-of-center spectrum could have spirited quarrels about The Senator’s animating principle, which is that it’s worth finding imperfect solutions that move things one step forward while acknowledging that the problems beneath them are going to rear up again and again in the absence of systemic change. Right now — insanely, given the profusion of current options — The Senator is not streaming anywhere, although you can find a used Shout! Factory DVD set that includes the pilot and all eight episodes for around $20. It’s more than worth unearthing, including by network development executives and writer-producers who are looking for something to reboot. Right now, it may be the show we need — and deserve.