TV prefers its political shows light on politics

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Katherine Heigl (l.) and Alfre Woodard in NBC’s new, studiously vague “State of Affairs”


Given America’s fondness for watching sporting events on television, it’s a mild puzzlement that TV producers don’t make more political dramas.

For a big chunk of America, nothing beats breaking out a bowl of wings, firing up the flat-screen and spending the next three hours yelling at the Giants to annihilate the Patriots.

Do we have any less passion for Republicans vs. Democrats?

No.

Which, when you think about it, may be exactly the reason we don’t see more red-and-blue showdowns in TV drama.

If a show has any element that seems even slightly favorable to one side, those who root for the other side might just tune out on the spot, much as some conservatives see National Public Radio as a stealth den of liberals.

Television producers don’t like the idea of skimming viewers off the top. Better to just make another doctor, lawyer or cop show.

So it’s something of a surprise to see a network roll out a drama like “State of Affairs,” which premieres Monday at 10 p.m. on NBC and features Katherine Heigl as Charleston Tucker, an ace CIA analyst.

“State of Affairs” isn’t a political show per se. Like Showtime’s acclaimed “Homeland,” with which it shares more than a few traits, it’s more about international intrigue that inevitably bleeds into politics.

In the opening episode, Tucker’s field team tells her it may have zeroed in on one of the world’s most wanted terrorists. It wants her OK to take him out.

She declines, for complicated reasons. She also decides not to include this sighting in the CIA’s daily briefing for President Constance Payton (Alfre Woodard).

Julia Louis-Dreyfus of Veep Lacey Terrell/ HBO

Julia Louis-Dreyfus of “Veep”

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Claire Danes in ‘Homeland.’

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The political implications are obvious, if the other party finds out the President’s team may have blown a shot at this terrorist.

We don’t see that, at least up front. We don’t even know which party this President belongs to.

For TV producers, that kind of ignorance is bliss.

The late, underappreciated Starz drama “Boss” had Kelsey Grammer’s ruthless mayor run a reelection campaign without ever specifying his political party.

“It’s much better that way,” Grammer said at the time. “The point is that he’s a politician, not a Republican or Democrat.”

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President Fitzgerald Grant (Tony Goldwyn) is a Republican, not that it matters a lot in “Scandal.”


Similarly, though with much lighter motives, we have no idea whether Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ Selina Meyer on HBO’s “Veep” is Republican or Democrat.

Her comic lurching clearly transcends partisan politics.

“Madam Secretary,” the new Tea Leoni drama this fall on CBS, also never mentions parties.

Instead, says Leoni, it takes the idealistic view that results are more satisfying than arguments.

Tim Daly, who plays Leoni’s husband on the series, recently told MSNBC that this may be the central appeal of political shows.

An exception: The West Wing's President Bartlet (Martin Sheen), a Democrat, could be pretty partisan.KEVIN FOLEY/AP
An exception: “The West Wing’s” President Bartlet (Martin Sheen), a Democrat, could be pretty partisan.


“You can tune in this show and see something getting done,” he said. “That doesn’t always happen in real-life politics.”

ABC’s “Scandal” does identify President Fitzgerald Grant as a Republican. But it buries him under so many soap-opera machinations that his party affiliation becomes almost incidental.

He also champions things like equal-pay legislation, so he’s tough to stereotype.

One of the most revered political shows ever, “The West Wing,” made Martin Sheen’s President Jed Barlet a Democrat and at times partisan. It also showed him compromising. He got a liberal justice onto the Supreme Court by simultaneously nominating a conservative.

Two current shows tackle both the comic absurdity of partisanship and its dark underside more directly.

Frank Underwood, the amoral protagonist in Netflix’s acclaimed “House of Cards,” is a Democrat.

The four main characters in Garry Trudeau’s Amazon satire “Alpha House” are Republicans. Unlike Frank Underwood, they have not been known to resolve disputes by killing the other guy.

Most of us still reserve that level of intensity for something more important. Like football.

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