White House in Fall

3 TV Shows with Misconceptions About Bureaucracy

By School of Public Affairs

There are few genres America loves more than a good political drama. From the Manchurian Candidate to Frost/Nixon, society revels in the backroom dealings and power struggles inherent in political office. For years, TV shows pedaling these intriguing stories have kept viewers on edge and made the political profession appear thrilling. But how do the shows stack up to the realities of D.C.? We’ve taken a look at a few shows to see where they fall short.

House of Cards

Frank Underwood’s charming Machiavellianism is so irresistible it almost masks his absurdity. Perhaps in Rome his vicious ambition would have fit in, but in 21st century America, committing two murders in two years would be enough to move him from the Oval Office into a square cell. While House of Cards injects its plots with real political struggles like appeasing labor union concerns over a new education bill, they are more often than not resolved in some form of brazen criminality that simply does not occur in real politics. Even the labor dispute is resolved when Frank Underwood goads the head of the union into punching him in the face. Although politicians have their fair share of heated debate, the days of political fisticuffs are over.


Let’s ignore the impossible beauty of everyone on this show and head straight for the name: Scandal. Washington is fraught with political scandals: Hillary’s email server, The 2013 IRS debacle, the resignation of the Secretary of Veteran’s Affairs, these are only in the last few years. However, Scandal operates in a heightened universe where if Monica Lewinsky, Watergate, and the Bleeding Kansas election occurred in the same year, no one would blink an eye. The writers of Scandal take an issue of real concern and add in a heavy dose of conspiracy, romance and once again…murder. Many Americans believe political operators will do anything to get their guy or gal into office, even if it means breaking the law; Scandal plays on those beliefs. Like when Fitz is on the verge of losing the presidency but is saved by a surge of sympathy popularity stemming from his son’s death. Sympathy is sometimes used to bolster a candidate, but in this case, it was the result of a character named Rowan deciding that poisoning the president’s son was the only way to win the election. Washington may be rife with scandal at times, but it looks far different than this Hollywood adaptation.

The West Wing

Often viewed as the most accurate political program, The West Wing gave viewers a walking tour of the inner workings of the White House. True, compared to the other shows we touched on, this one is certainly more restrained. No crazy murder plots, not an egregious amount of affairs, but some faults remain. There’s not enough staff turnover, from 2000 to 2009 there were six press secretaries whereas C.J. held the position for seven years, and there are a ton more staffers in real life than the core group we see on the show. However, the biggest difference between The West Wing and reality is the idea that one good speech is all it takes to change opinion. President Josiah Bartlett solved the Israeli-Palestinian crisis with some military aid and a nice chat with Israel’s prime minister; if only things were so easy. Divisive issues like homophobia or gun control, are resolved in minutes. It works on TV because the audience likes the character and willingly laps up the Aaron Sorkin quips. In reality, politicians can be stubborn, ending up with gridlock and few legislative changes.

So maybe things happen slower in real life and tough problems aren’t solved through brief exchanges, but at least our politicians aren’t all unrepentant criminals.


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