Game of Thrones (HBO)
No, HBO’s hugely popular fantasy series doesn’t interrogate pressing political controversies à la Newsroom, but like (and, in many more ways, unlike) Veep, this exhaustively constructed fantasy narrative does examine the power struggles and special interests that arise in the process of governing. What separates Game of Thrones from other fantasy series is its reluctance to put major characters in the position of being wholly good or definitively evil (except Joffrey – what an asshole). Each character and storyline manifests some tension between the burden of tradition and the everyday politics of governing as well as the interest of the immediate few in conflict with the greater interest of the masses. Most importantly, Game of Thrones illustrates the arbitrary nature of who achieves power and who is granted the status of greatness.
The families and houses vying for the Iron Throne may paint one another as sworn enemies depending on where the winds of governance may blow, but seeing every character up close makes clear that such stark distinctions are difficult to come by. Most characters have their share of legitimate and selfish reasons for doing what they do, a character’s actions in public and private do not always make their intent transparent. And in painting one’s political opponent as a mortal enemy, the real threats become obfuscated. The Baratheons, Lannisters, Targaryens and Starks might as well be modern-day political parties.
Parks and Recreation (NBC)
The most potent fictional reflection of our current political moment is not on premium cable. This past season of NBC’s Parks and Recreation, depicting Leslie Knope’s (Amy Poehler) run for city council against incumbent Bobby Newport (Paul Rudd), offered a satire of grassroots campaigning and relentless political gamesmanship that was sincere, hilarious and never ham-fisted.
Amazingly, Parks, which takes place in a fictional Indiana town, managed to depict a largely informed, easily swayed electorate without reducing its townspeople to regional stereotypes for easy laughs. With the show’s depiction of Newport’s cutthroat but apolitical campaign manager Jennifer Barkley (Kathryn Hahn), Parks and Recreation illustrated that even the smallest of elections are potentially compromised by big money, special interests, and negative campaigning. Knope plays the game to win it, but without losing her soul. Season 4 argued that democracy and merit-based elections can still reign triumphant in the end, but the show depicts this process without a hint of sentimental naïvete.
Perhaps most importantly, Parks and Recreation shows common ground across political differences and ideologies. Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman), a staunch libertarian working to obstruct government interference by making the Parks Dept. accomplish as little as possible, has nothing but the utmost admiration and respect for Knope and her effective use of government to serve public needs. The show never pronounces this friendship as somehow transcendent across potentially insurmountable difference, but instead depicts this friendship as natural, layered, thoughtful, and human. In the world of Parks and Recreation, the democratic process may often seem like a joke, but the escalation of political differences that have supposedly created the greatest partisan divide since the Civil War on the macro scale may not be so evident on the micro scale.