Primetime Politics

This spring, I’ll be teaching our department’s junior seminar, which I’ll be structuring around the theme of “Primetime Politics.” I’ve written quite a bit in the past about citizen-generated political mashups, online parody videos, and image macros that mix popular culture with political commentary. To some extent, this grew out of a fascination with the debates about how social media tools were opening new forms of political engagement. But more recently, these interests have led me to think about how Washington, D.C. has been depicted in television and film. Washington culture has certainly become the subject of fascination for many TV viewers with shows like Scandal, House of Cards, and Homeland currently attracting enormous attention, while parodies of DC politics (SNL, The Daily Show, and Colbert) also continue to play a vital role in how we think about politics, even to the point that Daily Show appearances can lead to political operatives getting fired.

With that in mind, I’m planning to structure the course around popular culture depictions of Washington, D.C., both past and present. For now, I expect to bracket off most documentaries, like Fahrenheit 9/11, and instead focus on scripted entertainment and will likely focus to some extent on contemporary media, although I’d like to take a look at a few past texts. I’ve generated a longish list of TV and film texts that I’m considering, knowing that I likely won’t be able to show all of them in a 16-week course. I’d welcome suggestions of texts that I might be missing and with the TV series suggestions about specific episodes that you believe might resonate the most. For Scandal, for example, I am strongly considering showing season one, episodes six and seven, which traces a major portion of the “Amanda Tanner affair” plot, while also introducing quite a bit of backstory to the president’s campaign. For The West Wing, I’m considering showing the debate episode (between Matt Santos and Arnold Vinick) and one early episode. Below the break, I’ve listed some of the movies and TV shows that I’m considering and some (very) loose themes to organize them.

Obviously it’s somewhat inaccurate to suggest that we have evolved from a naive faith in Washington to a more skeptical or cynical view (one could hardly be more cynical than Kubrick in Strangelove), and the 1990s introduced a number of polarizing views on (sexual) scandal and the role of media in shaping political perception. K Street and The War Room potentially help to turn DC insiders such as James Carville into “stars,” a situation that eventually inspires Stewart and Colbert’s satirical response to these media narratives. I’m turning over writing an article or even a longer text on some of these issues, so suggestions about both readings and texts (movies, TV shows, and even novels or short stories) would be much appreciated.


Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Manchurian Candidate

Advise & Consent

Fail Safe

Dr. Strangelove

1970s: Watergate/Paranoia:

All the President’s Men

Medium Cool

The Candidate

1990s: Clinton era-War on Terror:

West Wing

Wag the Dog


K Street

Primary Colors


Bob Roberts

The War Room

The Contender

Arlington Road


2000s-present: Procedurals, cynicism:


House of Cards


The Daily Show

The Colbert Report


The Butler

Thank You for Smoking


  1. Nels P. Highberg (@drnels) Said,

    November 3, 2013 @ 2:58 pm

    No Veep? Maybe the episode where she’s working with the Speaker of the House on budget negotiations? Or anyone where she’s battling with Chung over becoming the party’s next candidate. Or, in general, how the show goes to great and effective lengths to make sure no politician is identified with a specific political party. We just know the Veep and the Speaker are in different parties.

    I also think of at leas some scenes from St. Elmo’s Fire about the importance of internships and entry-level jobs with congressional members. I’m thinking of the scene where Ally Sheedy criticizes Judd Nelson for taking a job with a Republican, and Nelson argues that the party of the person is not relevant. That’s a very 1980s idea that would not be said today.

    I wish that TV show where Sally Field worked on the Supreme Court was available somewhere. It might be. And I loved Political Animals. They both praised and skewered the Clintons deeply. And the second Legally Blonde movie, of course (more Sally Field!).

    A few years ago (or months), there were all those articles about how the race and gender of the president has changed more dramatically since Obama’s election. I’m thinking of that quiz on Vulture after those two movies this year with black male presidents that was about connecting the black male president to the movie (White House Down, 2012, Olympus Has Fallen, Deep Impact, Head of State).

    Oh, and Dave. And The American President.

  2. Dylan Said,

    November 4, 2013 @ 2:48 pm

    For the West Wing debate episode, it might be worthwhile to see if you can get both east and west coast versions of the live broadcast. I am pretty sure that the DVD/Netflix version is the west coast broadcast.

    I say that because I remember watching the east coast version live, and thinking that Vinick wiped the floor with Santos, even though the story was clearly set up to make it look like Santos gained the momentum. But watching the west coast version on Netflix years later, my feelings were not that strong about it. In fact, I mostly felt like the episode fell flat.

    Issac and Ismael, the 9/11 episode, might be a good one. Also, the two part 40 hours in America were two of the strongest episodes, to me, that covers a lot of legislative and social issues (farm subsidies, biofuels, college education costs, gun violence) as well as showing more process than normal (Sam stepping in for Josh as the president’s right hand aide as he goes through the day to day). It does all of this while advancing the characters quite a bit too.

    Plus it’s got the “the streets of heaven are too full of angels tonight” speech.

  3. Chuck Said,

    November 6, 2013 @ 4:23 pm

    These are all great suggestions. I’d like to do Veep, but I’m guessing most of my students don’t have HBO, and I won’t be able to schedule screenings for them, so I’m going to try to do things available on Netflix or Hulu, which constrains me somewhat, although I might be able to show things in class that I couldn’t do elsewhere. I did consider Legally Blonde 2 because of the gender in politics issues (though Scandal gets at some of those from a MUCH different perspective).

    I’ve considered doing something with images of black presidents–Head of State is available on NFX, so that’s an option. I’m considering Dave. I’m ambivalent about The American President, if only because I’ll already have some Sorkin with West Wing.

    The specific WW episodes are helpful, and I’ll see what I can do about getting the “east coast” debate episode. Isaac and Ishmael was the episode I was trying to remember, but the “40 Hours” suggestion is also quite good–and crucial to the overall arc of the show.

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