Election as Entertainment

primary colorsAs we head into the final days of the 2016 presidential campaign, election ennui has become a problem. Regardless of how you’re casting your ballot, chances are good that words like “rigged,” “pantsuit,” “orange,” and, of course, “Skittles” long ago lost their appeal. (Who knew candy could prove so controversial outside of dentistry conventions?) To take the edge off this malaise, I’ve nominated some political novels, television shows, plays, and films to put the entertainment back into the election.


“Primary Colors” (1998)
The gold standard of modern election entertainment, this thinly disguised account of Bill Clinton’s first run for U.S. President is adapted from a Joe Klein novel. Directed by Mike Nichols from a screenplay by his old comedy buddy Elaine May (swoon), in a genius bit of casting, it stars John Travolta as Governor Jack Stanton (aka Bill) and Emma Freaking Thompson as Susan Stanton (aka Hillary).

“Election” (1999)
You can argue this sly-eyed Alexander Payne film adapted from Tom Perrotta’s equally sly-eyed novel doesn’t belong on this list because it’s about a high school election. But isn’t all of life basically high school anyway?

“House of Cards” (2013- )
This multilayered catalogue of political machinations is brilliant as Michael Dobbs’s novel, brilliant as a BBC series, and frighteningly brilliant as a Netflix series starring Kevin Spacey as Iago, er, Frank Underwood, that ever-aspiring, ever-conspiring U.S. state representative.


seeing-front_-cover_Seeing by José Saramago
Nobel Prize-winning José Saramago’s second novel, published in 2004, is set in an unnamed country in which the majority of its citizens cast blank ballots in a parliamentary election. How far are the citizens of this country from doing the same?

All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren
Given that the 1949 adaptation of this tale about a Southern governor scored an Oscar (ignore the 2006 remake), I’m in the minority for deeming the Pulitzer Prize-winning, hauntingly smart antecedent 1946 novel your best bet. What can I say? As the governor says: “It’s always something.”

Why Not Me? by Al Franken
Al Franken’s 1999 satirical novel about his unlikely (and fictional) campaign for U.S. president included such winning platforms as eliminating ATM fees and the deregulation of banking laws, as well as some seriously dirty politics. It’s no wonder he went on to become an actual U.S. Senator.


November by David Mamet
In this profile of an American commander-in-chief whose reelection campaign is going to hell in a handbasket, turkeys figure highly both literally and metaphorically. You gotta love playwright “Rat-A-Tat-Tat” Mamet.

Cornelia by Mark Olsen
HBO series “Big Love” co-creator Mark Olsen’s take on 1970s Alabama politics focuses on a Machiavellian beauty queen and a Southern governor’s ill-fated presidential campaign: eye-waggling, layered, fascinating.

The God Game by Suzanne Bradbeer
Suzanne Bradbeer tackles the intersection of religion and politics head-on in this take-no-prisoners portrait of a presidential candidate’s possible running mate who (gasp) does not believe in God.


candidate“The Candidate” (1972)
The poster for this 1972 Oscar-winning movie about a California U.S. senator’s campaign says it all: Robert Redford at the apex of his golden-haired beauty, decked out in a dark suit and pink bubble gum.

“Bulworth” (1998)
Warren Beatty’s 1998 political comedy about a Democratic U.S. Senator whose reelection campaign is going so badly that he takes a contract out on himself and starts to rap is so strange, so edgy, and so true that it’s still largely, undeservingly overlooked.

“Bob Roberts” (1992)
Tim Robbins’s 1990 labor of love about a folk-singing conservative’s campaign for U.S. senator (he wrote, directed, starred, and composed the music) takes no prisoners. It spearheads the smugness of the Left right along with a predatory Right. Sadly, its takedown of our assimilation nation has proven stunningly prescient.


“Veep” (2012- )
There’s a reason Julia Louis-Dreyfus keeps nabbing awards for her portrayal of U.S. vice president Selina Meyer: She is so infectiously goofy that it’s almost dangerous. Season four, which focuses on her presidential campaign, is both prescient and hilarious.

“Scandal” (2012- )
Viewers can be forgiven for being so distracted by Kerry Washington’s white cashmere coats and bottomless glasses of red wine knope we canthat they forget this show is an unrepentant takedown of American politics. But a takedown it is – and a Shonda Rhimes-spawned one at that, one which raises a big eyebrow at the wheelings and dealings behind Republican Fitzgerald Grant’s presidential campaigns.

“Parks and Recreation” (2009-2015)
I make no bones about loving this now-canceled NBC series with a passion almost beyond reason. But no one can deny that its portrayal of small-town politics, especially when our girl Leslie Knope runs for City Council, is impressively accurate in its critique on the American voting public.

This was originally published at Signature.

"All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love."
― Leo Tolstoy