Not Mr. Smith's Washington

Forget Jimmy Stewart as the noble Mr. Smith. In today’s D.C.–based shows – like House of Cards, Homeland, Scandal – the capital is teeming with ruthless people.

Tatiana Siegel
  • Damian Lewis of Showtime drama Homeland

    Kent Smith

Hours after the Primetime Emmy nominations were announced in July, House of Cards star Kevin Spacey tweeted to Homeland's Damian Lewis:

"Congrats to @lewis_damian — can you believe what lucky guys we are? We should find a way to have Francis & Brody meet!"

The gesture marked more than one actor's amusing kudos to a competitor. The tweet illustrated just how crowded Washington, D.C., has become for fictitious TV characters.

In fact, the nation's capital has become ground zero for a wave of critically acclaimed and popular series, including HBO's Veep, Showtime's Homeland, Netflix's House of Cards, FX's The Americans and ABC's Scandal. CBS's newer fall 2013 entry Hostages, which centers on a doctor taken hostage by a rogue FBI agent while performing surgery on the president, continues the trend.

Though these series range from satire to soap, they share a penchant for exposing the less-than-virtuous side of the federal government. "We're a long way from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," quips Homeland co-creator and executive producer Alex Gansa.

Nowadays, the Lincoln Memorial is getting more screen time than the Kardashian clan. But it's a Washington light-years away from Aaron Sorkin's The West Wing. Inside the Beltway never looked quite so Machiavellian.

Homeland — which won the Primetime Emmy last year for outstanding drama series — became the first of this recent crop when it bowed two years ago. The series features a bipolar CIA agent (Claire Danes) and an ex–P.O.W. (Lewis) who is secretly aligned with terrorists.

Scandal — with its hard-drinking, philandering president (Tony Goldwyn) — followed in spring 2012, as did Veep's foul-mouthed Vice-President Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus). And this year ushered in both the spies-living-among-us drama The Americans and House of Cards, the most unflattering look at Washington denizens since The Real Housewives of D.C.

So, when did TV Washington become so tawdry and inept?

Veep creator–executive producer Armando Iannucci, who envisioned his second-in-command as a divorced narcissist with a dearth of scruples, says the current portrayals of warts-and-all D.C. dovetails with the American public's lack of faith in the system.

"In the past, there was a hesitation to portray [Washington] too negatively," says Iannucci, who was approached by HBO to tackle a D.C.–themed project coming off the success of his British film In the Loop.

"If it was negative, it would be fantastically negative, like aliens invading the White House lawn or the president being a mass murderer," he says. "It was so over the top that you weren't meant to believe it.

"Now," he continued, "there's a recognition that the respect is gone, and it would be accurate to portray Washington with a certain amount of disrespect."

Shonda Rhimes's Scandal lives up to its title with an administration so prone to shameful antics that it takes the collective efforts of a PR crisis management firm to keep it from imploding on a weekly basis.

The series has proved to be both a ratings hit and a buzzy showcase for its star Kerry Washington. It also boasts White House insider credentials via Judy Smith, a former George H. W. Bush administration press aide who serves as a co-executive producer.

Similarly, The Americans enjoys a knowledgeable creator–executive producer, former CIA staffer Joe Weisberg. His story follows a pair of KGB officers (Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys) posing as an American married couple in the 1980s D.C. suburbs and their neighbor (Noah Emmerich), an FBI counter-intelligence agent. But Weisberg cites a sea change in what television is willing to explore and how it's willing to explore it, particularly as it relates to government.

"There was a little bit of a concern about doing a show where the heroes were the enemy," Weisberg recalls of pitching to the broadcast networks. "But FX was not at all put off by that idea. We're at this great place in time where the general audience is large enough — and the distribution system is broad enough — that these shows can find the audience that's right for them."

Americans executive producer Joel Fields echoes that sentiment and credits an evolving TV model that is less advertiser-dependent. "For the longest time, the one thing everybody knew for sure is, you can't do a show that deals with politics negatively," he notes. "But there are all these new complicated characters, wicked characters, and those are much more realistic [than portrayals of the past]."

"It was the advertisers who held it back," Fields says. "Yet I think it's something that audiences have always craved."

Like pay-cable offerings Veep and Homeland, Netflix's House of Cards enjoys the luxury of operating without any concern over alienating advertisers. Though the series revolves around an ambitious congressman (Spacey) and his wife (Robin Wright) who connive, manipulate and break laws with abandon, creator–executive producer Beau Willimon says the Beltway backdrop simply provides a construct for a more universal story.

"I really don't think the show is about politics or D.C.," he says of the series, which is based on a British hit. "It's about something deeper — the way power infuses itself into our lives, whether that's political power or the power plays that happen at home among our friends, peers or in any workplace."

"I think we were trying to grapple with something larger," Willimon continues, "and D.C. happens to be the world in which we grapple with it."

Still, the series and its brethren are likely to be held to the bar set by predecessors West Wing and HBO's short-lived K Street when it comes to accuracy. Jim Kennedy, a Sony public-relations representative who previously served as a spokesman for Bill and Hillary Clinton, takes issue with some of the dramatic license taken.

"Several shows, like Homeland and House of Cards, tend to show members of Congress in more dramatic, isolated circumstances, acting alone or in one-on-one confrontations, when in fact they are almost always surrounded by staff," he says.

As for Veep's potty-mouthed politicians and staffers, Kennedy scoffs: "In my experience, the f-word really wasn't heard that often, unless [former Chief of Staff] Rahm [Emanuel] was in the room."

Quibbles aside, Kennedy recognizes that the nation's power grid, with its daily digest of corruption and impropriety, provides ample fodder for plotlines — a point punctuated by Homeland's Gansa."D.C. is an exciting place right now," he says. "It is rife with intrigue. The real world is exploding all around us, and that benefits the shows that are set there. It's just a natural place to set a show these days."

Perhaps Veep's still-single heroine might want an introduction to Homeland's lothario terror suspect Brody. In today's TV Washington, anything is possible.