The truth about Washington is a figment of Hollywood's imagination.
- By David RothkopfDavid Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017.
I moved to Washington, D.C., a generation ago. It was 1993, and I had come to town to join Bill Clinton’s administration, or, as it has since become known, the out-of-town tryout for The West Wing. Since then, I have gradually kissed enough ass, written enough memos, attended enough meetings, and hobnobbed at enough cocktail parties to have been accused on the Internet of being a D.C. insider. I don’t think this was a compliment. But 22 years later, I can, unlike famed former D.C. insider Sydney Ellen Wade, find my way around Dupont Circle.
Of course, Sydney Ellen Wade is a fictional character played by Annette Bening in The American President. Like most people, much of what I know about D.C. I’ve learned from fiction — either movies, television, or the form that is the stock in trade of most other D.C. insiders. In fact, Hollywood and Washington are the two cities in America that depend the most on fantasy, storytelling, and deception. That’s why it perhaps makes sense that one of the biggest trends for beautiful people in Hollywood is to star in television shows about the Hollywood for ugly people. That’s layers upon layers of, well, fiction is still the most polite word I can think of for it. And given the sheer number of such shows today and the limited amount of time you may have, we think it is our duty here at Foreign Policy to provide you with an insider’s guide to those shows.
Read more from FP on politics and TV
- Netflix’s Marco Polo: Chinese and Mongolian viewers see it as a cross-cultural clunker.
- The CIA’s misogynists?: Why Homeland, Zero Dark Thirty, and Hollywood’s sexed-up spies are bad for women.
- Their ears are burning: Chinese netizens love the new season of House of Cards — even though it makes their country look terrible.
Because I have been here so long and because like most foreign-policy specialists I spent the better part of my 20s working in show business (all photos of me in tights have thankfully been destroyed), I have been appointed to be your guide on this journey and to share my assessment of the best and the worst of the current bumper crop of D.C.-based TV shows. (Just as importantly, Rebecca Frankel, our great special projects editor and the author of the New York Times bestseller War Dogs, available at bookstores everywhere, has taken the time to lace this article with links to some of the best bits and pieces of some of these shows — and some other at least tenuously related funny stuff. So, for the full experience, click around a bit.)
Note: Each show has been rated on four criteria — each on a scale of 1 to 10. The first is accuracy (do they get the acronyms, the job titles and responsibilities, the procedures right?). The next is authenticity (facts aside, do they capture the feel of Washington, the U.S. government, or the agency or function they depict?) The third is entertainment value (not only do they make time spent with the show gripping or moving or fun, but do they do it consistently?) And the fourth is quality (do the actors, writers, producers, and directors do a good job relative to the best of what is out there in this golden age of the medium?) Thus, the highest possible score is 40.
- The Blacklist, Bones, and NCIS (NBC, Fox, CBS)
In true Washington fashion, I’m going to start with a lie — this one told by me. I’m not actually going to rate every single show based in Washington. I’m going to focus on the ones that actually make an effort to deal with the business of Washington and in particular with the areas we focus on here at Foreign Policy — the White House, Congress, national security, intelligence, and foreign affairs. There are a bunch of other shows that are essentially cop shows — police procedurals — that use D.C. as a setting but don’t care that much about what actually happens here. I’m going to lump these all together here, and I’m not going to rate them as I will all the others.
It should be acknowledged, however, that some of these shows are pretty diverting — like The Blacklist with James Spader, a guy so deeply weird he makes anything he does watchable — and some are harmless, silly, if-occasionally-really-pretty-gross fluff, like Bones. One of these shows stands out, however, because it reminds me of a whole class of people I know in D.C. who have risen to extraordinary heights for reasons that are invisible to the naked eye or that are, at least, utterly incomprehensible to me. I can’t reveal the names of every such person here (or ever), but the TV show like that is NCIS, by some measures the most popular program in the world right now. Like so many D.C. highfliers, it has turned being unobjectionable into a kind of superpower.
My only comment — and I know I will get a ton of crap for saying this — is that among members of the military, intelligence, and law enforcement communities I have spoken with, treating the folks of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service as though they were members of an especially elite unit is somewhat bewildering. In fact, the one thing the show has in common with the real life NCIS is that it inadvertently captures its solid, workaday averageness.
- State Of Affairs (NBC)
Entertainment value: 1
Total score: 4
Katherine Heigl was once a movie star. Before that she was the star of a very successful television show, Grey’s Anatomy. Now, after alienating much of Hollywood and starring in a series of box-office duds, she has attempted a comeback in a star vehicle in which she portrays a CIA agent who has the job of presenting the president (the great Alfre Woodard, trapped in the Oval Office much like its current resident appears to feel about the job) with her daily brief. Also, she is a close confidante of the president and periodically does important fieldwork, regularly saving the day for America. While it is certainly true that there is a president of the United States and that this president does get daily intelligence briefings that typically occur within the White House, which is a large white building at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, it is once we get beyond these points that everything in the show goes to hell. Not only does no single person do all the things that Heigl’s character, Charlie Whitney Tucker, is purported to do, but the actual people who do those things have different titles and roles, work for different agencies, and couldn’t carry out the tasks the audience is asked to believe Heigl’s character regularly does on the show.
But, look, plenty of shows strain our credulity. We wouldn’t nitpick if the show were entertaining or Heigl were compelling. But she seems to have equated looking intelligent or serious with appearing to be in severe gastric distress. The result is a show that scores at the bottom of all those ranked, managing just a 1 on every criteria for a total of 4 out of a possible 40. It’s roughly as plausible or appealing as a Mike Huckabee presidency.
- Madam Secretary (CBS)
Entertainment value: 5
Total score: 14
I’m afraid they lost me the first time a close staffer of this show’s secretary of state, played by Téa Leoni, referred to her as “madam secretary” to another close staffer in a casual conversation. That may seem petty, but it’s a warning sign that the folks involved with producing this show just don’t give much of a damn about verisimilitude. That an apparently midlevel CIA analyst would be picked to be secretary of state as is Leoni’s character, Elizabeth Faulkner McCord, is also ludicrous (though the recent appointments of soap opera producers and others with no diplomatic or government experience at all has made such story lines more credible). So too are most of the diplomatic scrapes the secretary gets into, many of the situations she wanders into without staff or security, and the tenor of many of the exchanges within the show. And it’s not easy to be as wrong as the producers of this show consistently are. For example, the contempt and thuggishness the show’s White House chief of staff displays toward the secretary is thoroughly unbelievable despite the fact that we live at a moment when the White House regularly shows more contempt and disregard for its secretary of state than at any time in recent history. Again, this would all be more tolerable if the story lines were more engaging (or plausible), but hey, what do I know? The show was renewed for a second season, and there is a better-than-even-money possibility that Leoni, who admittedly is an appealing actress who seems constitutionally unable to find roles worthy of her talent, will serve as secretary of state longer than John Kerry.
- Covert Affairs (USA Network; canceled)
Entertainment value: 6
Total score: 15
In January, the USA Network decided not to renew Covert Affairs for a sixth season, but it is included here because episodes are still airing and the show has done such yeoman work for the past few years, being one of the early trailblazers in the current generation of D.C.-centric fare. The lead characters include Piper Perabo as Annie Walker, a CIA operative who regularly defeats bad guys despite a compulsion to wear heels no human being could run in and despite being aided in many of her toughest situations by her sidekick, played by Christopher Gorham, who’s a former special operator who was blinded but nonetheless finds himself not only on active duty but in action around the world. Both of these two, naturally, have the hormones of James Bond and spend a considerable amount of time sleeping with the wrong people or, when they want to mix things up, with seemingly right people who might turn out to be wrong people. While their missions take them to real places, and while there are certainly rivalries and intrigues within the intelligence community that approach some of those within the show, it is readily apparent that no one involved with Covert Affairs really gives a hoot. The objective is entertainment, the spycraft is roughly three levels above Get Smart, and the result is junk food for the brain that has for the past half-decade been dependably better than episodes of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives (no evil villain on this show is quite as smarmy or unappetizing as Guy Fieri) or Keeping Up With the Kardashians (ditto).
- Allegiance (NBC)
Entertainment value: 6
Total score: 18
Unfortunately, for reasons of unoriginality and because it’s too early to offer a strong case for this recently debuted show, Allegiance shows up on this list before the much, much better The Americans. That’s a pity because Allegiance is such a direct knockoff of The Americans’ plot about a family of undercover Russian spies in America that to understand it and its relative merits you have to view the two side by side. Actually, you don’t. You can just watch The Americans and imagine what another show with the exact same premise but set today rather than in the Cold War years in which The Americans takes place would be like, thus saving yourself valuable time to watch better stuff. (See below.) Interestingly, the origins of Allegiance are linked to another show of much higher quality, Homeland, as both are based on Israeli television series. (In the case of Allegiance, the Israeli show is The Gordin Cell.) They are also both based on the 2010 case of Russians living in and spying on the United States. That case was notable as the launchpad to fame of Russian spy Anna Vasilyevna Kushchyenko, better known as Anna Chapman, whose good looks and unabashed love of the limelight (somewhat offbeat in a spy) have led to a lively career following her return to Russia. (The career has featured action figures based on her and a modeling assignment for Agent Provocateur lingerie.)
That said, Allegiance is one of those rare derivatives that is not notably weakened by being a knockoff. It has one asset that would benefit any show on this list, and that is Hope Davis, one of the best actresses in America (she also deserves better), who plays the lead, Katya O’Connor. (See the name? It contains a hint about her origins.) It also is a little bit more willing to be wildly out there than The Americans, as in the case of another protagonist, the son of Davis’s undercover Russian-agent mom character, who inconveniently goes to work for the CIA (again, as an analyst, which, ever since Jack Ryan went from his analyst desk to save the world from communism, has been one of the most misunderstood, sedentary nerd jobs in the world). Gavin Stenhouse plays the son, Alex O’Connor, as if he were Alan Turing’s smarter, more socially adept grandson. He’s a genius, don’t you know, and is fluent in facts and ideas that only someone being fed lines by a writer with access to Google could possibly know. Again, nothing here is plausible, but, of course, James Bond would have been dead many times over if he behaved the way he does in the books and movies, and, heck, in the hard-to-believe department, it’s kind of amazing that Anna Chapman managed to succeed undercover for as long as she did.
- Scandal (ABC)
Entertainment value: 7
Total score: 20
If, as noted above, Washington is Hollywood for ugly people, Scandal, one of the most successful shows about Washington, is actually a Hollywood view of Washington as if it were occupied by beautiful Hollywood people who behaved precisely like they do in Hollywood.
Once again, other than the appropriation of the White House and a few other D.C. settings to dress up the goings-on, nothing in this show is remotely credible — unless you see it as a kind of drunken dream that might have occurred to producer Shonda Rhimes after too many margaritas as a guest at the celebrity-studded White House Correspondents’ Association dinner. If the president were like a big producer and he was having an affair with his press agent, who was a “D.C. fixer” — whatever that is — and her dad operated with the impunity of some behind-the-scenes Ari Emanuel type (wasn’t there an Emanuel in D.C. once?), and if we excuse that by making him part of a secret organization that is so secret even the president isn’t supposed to know about it, and if the president’s staff all behaved with the loyalty of a bunch of television programming executives (none), then wouldn’t that be a great show! Marvel’s Agent Carter is closer to reality (and she used to date Captain America) and, I might add, is regularly better. But for some reason, many of the D.C. insiders I know are addicted to Scandal. Could it be that it’s also their drunken post-correspondents’ dinner fantasy of what their lives could be like if they were less ethical (insert your own joke here) and better looking?
- Homeland (Showtime)
Entertainment value: 7
Total score: 28
From Scandal to Homeland we cross a great divide on this list, from guilty pleasures to the shows that are genuinely good and periodically great. Of these, Homeland is the most maddening. When it is at its best, it may actually be the best of these shows. But much like other great cable franchises (namely The Sopranos), it has been so often indulgent or twisted up in the undergarments of its plotlines that sometimes it is just insufferable. For the record, it started strong, but then began to come off the tracks at the end of season 1 after it came face to face with the moment Marine hero turned traitor Nicholas Brody had to either blow himself up and thus remain true to the spirit of the first season — or not. And then he didn’t in order to preserve his popular character and his romance with the show’s real lead, Claire Danes’s CIA agent, Carrie Mathison. What followed were two exceptionally uneven seasons in which Brody committed more acts of terror and then went on the lam with Carrie’s assistance while her bipolar disorder had her shifting between being a superspy and being the most irritating character on television.
Surprisingly, almost miraculously, the show’s recently completed fourth season, in which Brody was finally consigned to his grave and Carrie was able to leave her emotional baggage largely behind her (in the form of a pretty unfortunate-looking red-haired baby), actually rebounded. Carrie went to Pakistan and got back to being an operative (no analyst she) and taking care of business as CIA station chief against terrorist bad guys — and it was exciting, quality, smart television of the first order. Accurate? Well, of course, if any CIA agent were as fucked up as Carrie Mathison they would have been fired 1,000 times over. (In fact, I’m told a favorite drinking game among alcoholics is having a shot every time Carrie does something that would get her canned.) And honestly, if anyone cried as often as she does in an organization where so many people are armed, she would have been dead long ago. But it is a tribute to the great acting of Danes, Damian Lewis (as Brody), and Mandy Patinkin as on-again, off-again CIA Director Saul Berenson that we root for them to stop annoying us, and when they hit their stride, we’re riveted. Finally, it is also a show that has many insiders appreciating its serious (if uneven) efforts at getting its business right.
For example, not too long ago, I was having breakfast at D.C.’s Four Seasons Hotel — whose restaurant is kind of the school cafeteria of Washington — with Wendy Chamberlin, a former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, and I asked her whether she had seen the current season, which is set in her old embassy. I remarked that the ambassador on the show had some traits that reminded me of her (right down to her vocal inflection and likely choice of earrings), and she confirmed that the show had reached out to her for advice. (Note to other shows: Getting the facts right is actually that easy. Talk to some people who actually know what they are doing — and then listen to them.)
That said, Homeland is also a show that has regularly produced howls of outrage from groups portrayed as bad guys or sympathetic to bad guys during the show’s run. As it happens, any politician who has tried to address these issues will tell you that’s another sign of accuracy. It’s hard to capture the harsh realities of combating Pakistani terrorists without actually suggesting there are terrorists living in Pakistan. For all these reasons, Homeland is not just one of the best shows on television, but if it can put together a couple of more seasons as good as its first and its fourth, it may yet be seen as one of television’s best ever. It’s already almost certainly one of the best spy shows TV has ever produced.
- House of Cards (Netflix)
Entertainment value: 8
Total score: 29
For real Washingtonians, House of Cards is the ultimate fantasy, the story of a politician — Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood — who is actually able to get something done. What’s more, he does so with the help of a spouse who is every bit as capable as he is (and who also happens to look like a goddess). And, best of all, when he, er, cuts a corner here or there, he doesn’t get caught. That’s why this Netflix favorite was for many D.C. denizens their introduction to the idea of binge viewing. My wife and I, to pick two examples with which I am familiar, watched the last season in a weekend of bleary-eyed excess.
And when the next season premières in a few days, on Feb. 27, I feel absolutely confident predicting that nothing will get done in the nation’s capital. More than any of the other shows on this list, House of Cards (itself based on a British series of the same name), is above all a star turn. Spacey’s Underwood is such a combination of charm and corruption, of sleaze and pragmatism, that he makes us see the reality of our political class by simultaneously being much better and only just a little worse than they are. His asides to the camera provide us with the vital subtext that is essential to letting us know how politicians work (because they seldom say what they really are thinking — see Veep below for more on this). And of course, Robin Wright is his Lady Macbeth for the 21 century, constantly whispering in his ear the essential mantra of the good wife, or, as the original Lady M says, “Things without all remedy should be without regard; what’s done is done.” Yes, our modern Thane, like his forebears, has found it necessary to kill, and some argue that this makes the show implausible. But there’s a term for people like that: hopelessly naive. Politics still ain’t beanbag. Sure, there are idealistic reporters in House of Cards and there are a few honest pols, but frankly you have to grant the producers some artistic license. It hurts their authenticity score but gives them a bump on the entertainment side.
- The Americans (FX)
Entertainment value: 9
Total score: 30
As noted above, The Americans is, as they say, ripped from the headlines. But the truth is that with the stealth of a good spy, this is one that really snuck up on us. Debuting in 2013 on FX, the show simply, quietly, without much initial fanfare, went about the business of being exceptionally good, week in and week out. Written by a former CIA officer, Joe Weisberg (brother of our great colleague, Slate Group CEO Jacob Weisberg), the show comes by its authenticity naturally. It helps that it is set in the 1980s and therefore benefits from the patina of history as well as the inherent drama found in the high-stakes cat-and-mouse games of Cold War spycraft. But it not only gets the period right and uses it to great effect, but its careful development of the world within the Soviet Embassy, the team within the FBI tasked with counter-espionage, and the tangled relationships between the two ensures that the show never hits the kinds of self-indulgent slogs of introversion and scenery-chewing that regularly plagues Homeland. (The scenes featuring America’s Cold War enemies include extensive exchanges in Russian with subtitles, and they offer a welcome, and sometimes surprising, degree of empathy for the perspectives of the diplomats and KGB agents as citizens of a struggling state, as strangers in a strange land, and as patriotic supporters of a different system.)
That does not mean this show does not focus on its human components. To the contrary, as Weisberg himself has said, the core of the show is about the marriage and family of the two undercover Soviet agents passing as average suburban Americans who are its stars. He gets exceptionally fine work from Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings — she is the heart and soul and backbone of the show. But her husband, played by Matthew Rhys; their rather dimwitted FBI next-door neighbor, well played by Noah Emmerich; and a great cast of supporting players who give the show real depth (including standouts like Margo Martindale, Richard Thomas, Annet Mahendru, and, more recently, Frank Langella) ensure that almost every scene in every episode has great humanity to go along with the well-choreographed suspense of the Jenningses’ missions. In particular, the tension between the Jenningses’ needs and wants as a family and their obligations to their motherland offer the kind of emotional authenticity (without melodrama) that grounds the show in reality. Do they accomplish things no two people could possibly achieve? Of course — it’s television. But the show’s fundamentals are so sound and its stories and performance so good that The Americans is the clear winner among all the Washington-based dramas of the moment. (Rotten Tomatoes agrees. Starting with a very solid first season score of 90, the show’s third season achieved a perfect 100 from the critique aggregator.) While watching it does not exactly trigger nostalgia for the Cold War, you do finish every episode wanting to spend more time with these people in this strange world in which they live, America’s capital in the Age of Reagan.
- Veep (HBO)
Entertainment value: 9
Total score: 34
Veep is a comedy. It is profane. It is driven forward in each episode by the buffoonery and the egos and the unbridled ambitions of its characters. For all these reasons it captures the reality of life in the nation’s capital better than any of the other shows on this list. Don’t get me wrong — there is plenty to look at in the way the U.S. government works at the highest level that is cause for grave concern, many issues that are deeply serious, and many people doing important work, sometimes at great personal sacrifice. But it does not diminish them to note that, especially in this day and age, Washington is also a profoundly ridiculous place.
Veep captures the asinine essence of the mad scramble for power; the regular, utter, and complete disregard for higher purpose; and the pettiness in which most politicians and their staffs engage for so much of the time. House of Cards depicts this with a knowing wink. Veep skewers it by depicting it more or less as it really is. Whenever you think the show is at its most absurd, trust me, Washington insiders are thinking it rings true. The West Wing at its best did not capture the inner workings of a White House office as accurately as Veep does (and at its best, The West Wing was very good). Whereas Madam Secretary depicts dopey formality and Scandal offers a telenovela about beautiful people in cool clothes, the office in Veep seethes with the infighting, randomness, chaos, obscenity, desperation, and hilarity that is the daily life of the overworked, underpaid, insanely ambitious staffers you’ll find in the White House. Is it possible that a vice president of the United States could be as goofy as Selina Meyer sometimes is? If you have to ask, you’re not paying attention. Are some of the situations silly? Does she make boneheaded gaffes? Does she handle assignments well beneath anyone’s dignity? Could any vice president be so ignored by her boss (whom she replaces as president in the coming season) as to strain credulity? Can you imagine a vice president so needy that she regularly asks her assistant, “Did the president call?” and is always disappointed? Of course, you can. All that is more real than what you read in the newspaper (in the sense that so much of that is spun and framed and built on a foundation of bullshit and slathered in layers of whitewash that you can’t actually believe the news you read anyway). And the show is made a constant pleasure to watch thanks to the brilliant, multiple Emmy– and SAG Award-winning performances of Julia Louis-Dreyfus, a certifiable American national treasure who attended high school just inside the Beltway at Holton-Arms, and her great cast mates.
Like any great series, it is the seamless greatness of the cast, the fact that so many of the cast members are so good, that would buoy the show even if it did not hit its satirical target so regularly. The members of this truly great ensemble regularly take their turns elevating the show in their roles as the staffers haphazardly orbiting Selina. They include the wonderful Anna Chlumsky as Meyer’s whipsawed-yet-resilient chief of staff, Tony Hale (forever Buster to Arrested Development fans) as her devoted bagman, Matt Walsh as a not terribly competent communications director battered by the press corps but still drawn to the spotlight, Reid Scott as the prototypical smarmy, striving aide, Sufe Bradshaw as a personal assistant so tough and competent that she would be the most in-demand person in the real Washington, and Timothy Simons as a self-important doofus so convincing I could swear he actually works in the current White House. Armando Iannucci created the show, and if you saw his prior work, like In the Loop and The Thick of It, two other dead-on comic eviscerations of government antics, you might well have expected this excellent result.
Perhaps best of all is that each episode you see illustrates in new and hilarious ways the stark contrast between the public and private faces of a Washington leader, her team, and her rivals — a surefire source of great comedy, whether on Veep or, alternatively, as it happens daily right here inside the Beltway.
FOX via Getty Images; Brandon Hickman/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images; Nicole Rivelli/CBS via Getty Images; Steve Wilkie/USA Network/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images; Craig Blankenhorn/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images; Tony Rivetti/ABC via Getty Images; Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images; Jesse Grant/Getty Images for Netflix; FX Networks; Kris Connor/Getty Images; Courtesy HBO