The 25 Best Political TV Shows of All Time (and Where to Stream Them)

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The 25 Best Political TV Shows of All Time (and Where to Stream Them)

When the former Mayor of New York held a press conference for the former host of The Apprentice about mounting legal challenges to the latter’s election loss in Pennsylvania, and the venue for the event was, inexplicably, a warehouse at Four Seasons Total Landscaping, one could be forgiven for thinking one had accidentally turned on HBO’s Veep. When you elect a reality star to the highest office in the land, you can expect reality to reflect even the most ridiculous fictional TV shows.

Political satire is as old as politics, and the well of inspiration for political TV shows runs maddeningly deep, resulting in some incredible TV. Over the years, producers and writers have mined the political playing fields of both the past and present to bring viewers hilarious comedy and heart-breaking tragedy.

For our list, we stuck to fictional narrative shows, rather than political satire. Which means The Daily Show, Saturday Night Live and our current favorite, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver didn’t qualify, but there were plenty of others to consider.

If we’ve learned anything from politics, it’s that you can’t make all of the people happy, all of the time. So feel free to share your own list—or to angrily declare that we’ve failed you entirely, and that you alone know enough about political TV to make Paste great again—on our Facebook page.

Below are our picks for the 25 greatest political TV shows of all time.

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25. Tanner ’88

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Created by: Garry Trudeau
Stars: Michael Murphy, Pamela Reed, Cynthia Nixon, Kevin J. O’Connor, Daniel Jenkins, Jim Fyfe, Matt Malloy, Ilana Levineh, Veronica Cartwright
Original Network: HBO

Watch on HBO Max

An 11-episode, political mockumentary miniseries written by Doonesbury’s Garry Trudeau and directed by Robert Altman sounds too good to be true, but HBO found a way to make it happen on the eve of the 1988 Presidential election. Michael Murphy plays presidential candidate Jack Tanner to sublime perfection, and the show’s fascination with the absurdity of daily campaign minutiae would have far-reaching comedy influence. (Veep, I’m looking at you.) Altman would go on to describe making Tanner ’88 as pure joy: “two-thirds scripted, and one-third found art.” Now released by the Criterion Collection, Tanner ’88 is as astounding and prescient a piece of political television as we’ve ever seen. Robert Altman would go on to make a feature film sequel, Tanner on Tanner in 2004. —Chris White


24. Wolf Hall

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Created by: Peter Straughan
Stars: Mark Rylance, Damian Lewis, Claire Foy, Bernard Hill, Anton Lesser, Mark Gatiss
Original Network: BBC Two (UK) / PBS (US)

Watch on PBS Passport

Based on the best-selling historical novel series by Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall stars Mark Rylance (everyone’s favorite award-winning, poetry-spouting thespian) as Thomas Cromwell, the lawyer and statesman who ended up rising through the ranks (via a combination of sheer intelligence and Machiavellian manipulation) to become the right-hand man of King Henry VIII. Fans of sumptuous costume dramas will find plenty to love in the series’ lavish production design, while those seeking the images of esteemed European actors bouncing off each other will also have a lot to savor. Wolf Hall’s primary strength, however, lies in depicting the fascinating machinations of 16th century politics, the importance of religious freedom and reform, and how a few choice whispers can so drastically influence the progression of history. —Mark Rozeman and Allison Keene


23. Yes, Minister/Yes, Prime Minister

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Watch on BritBox

Created by: Antony Jay, Jonathan Lynn
Stars: Paul Eddington, Nigel Hawthorne, Derek Fowlds
Original Network: BBC Two

A precursor to The Thick of It and, by proxy, Veep, this beloved BBC series finds humor in the strangest of places. Turns out there are a surprising amount of laughs to be found in series subjects like the sale of arms to foreign countries, arts funding and counter surveillance. The key element is the huge egos that most politicians carry, and how that is often their undoing. That idea floats through every episode of these series—one naturally followed the other as cabinet minister Jim Hacker is elected as Prime Minister in the final two series of the show’s run—and is brought to life beautifully by veteran actors Paul Eddington (as Hacker), Nigel Hawthorne (as Hacker’s Permanent Secretary Humphrey Appleby), and Derek Fowlds (as Principal Private Secretary Bernard Woolley). —Robert Ham


22. Scandal

Created by: Shonda Rhimes
Stars: Kerry Washington, Guillermo Díaz, Joe Morton
Original Network: ABC

Watch on Hulu Watch on Disney+

When so much of a show’s plot is made up of infuriatingly dramatic cliffhangers, it can be deeply satisfying to experience a series, like Scandal, as a binge. If you haven’t jumped on the bandwagon yet, have no clue what a Gladiator in a suit is, and don’t know whether you’re Team Jake or Team Fitz, there’s no time like the present. Kerry Washington plays Olivia Pope, a lawyer and crisis management expert who represents high-profile politicians and other clientele in Washington D.C. AKA the people running this great nation, who always seem to find themselves in the midst of a scandal.

Based on real-life D.C. fixer Judy Smith (the former Bush Administration aide who has represented folks like Monica Lewinsky, Kobe Bryant, and former Senator Larry Craig), Pope is a formidable character, often as much of a scandalous megalomaniac as her clientele. Sure, Rhimes (also the Created by of Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice) draws on many-a-cliche for this series—endless love triangles, characters killed off at a moment’s notice, etc. But Scandal is, simultaneously, a refreshing and forward-thinking experience, with a black woman at the head of a very bizarre Scooby gang (brought to us by Weeds actor Guillermo Díaz, along with Darby Stanchfield, Katie Lowes, and Columbus Short), one of the first gay villains on television, and a stark quality that seeks to peel the mask off of American politics. Funny, sexy, downright frightening at times, and complete with an amazing ‘70s soundtrack for every episode, Scandal is the stuff binge-watching dreams made of. —Shannon M. Houston


21. Murphy Brown

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Created by: Diane English
Stars: Candice Bergen, Faith Ford, Charles Kimbrough, Robert Pastorelli, Joe Regalbuto, Grant Shaud, Pat Corley, Lily Tomlin
Original Network: CBS

[Not officially streaming, and more or less erased from the internet for now.]

How many television shows become part of the national conversation? Even today, very few—but that’s exactly what happened on May 19,1992 when Vice President Dan Quayle called out Murphy Brown (Candice Bergen) for being a single mom. Today it’s hard to even imagine the scandal the show caused by allowing its title character to have a baby out of wedlock. But Murphy Brown was much more than its most known zeitgeist moment.

As a newswoman with a penchant for firing her secretaries, Brown was her generation’s Mary Richards: A hardened newshound and recovering alcoholic with no time for pleasantries or for addressing her workplace superiors with courtesy titles. Hers was a newsroom that was less of a hate-watch (like HBO’s The Newsroom) or a fear-mongering reality (like Showtime’s biographical The Loudest Voice). Surrounded by her naïve and nervous executive producer Miles Silverberg (Grant Shaud), best friend Frank (Joe Regalbuto), stuffy newsman Jim (Charles Kimbrough) and way-too-cheery Corky (Faith Ford), the series was consistently topical and political, but most importantly always made us laugh. Even the attempted revival, which ran for a season on CBS, brought up topical issues like the Me Too movement and included noteworthy guest stars (Hillary Clinton!). —Amy Amatangelo and Whitney Friedlander


20. John Adams

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Created by: Kirk Ellis
Stars: Paul Giamatti, Laura Linney, Stephen Dillane, David Morse, Tom Wilkinson, Danny Huston, Rufus Sewell
Original Network: HBO

Watch on HBO Max

Long before Hamilton captured the cultural consciousness, this eight-part miniseries tackled the same subject matter of the founding of the U.S., but through the eyes of future President John Adams (Paul Giamati). Based on a best-selling biography by David McCullough, the show went deep into this fractious period of our history, covering a lot of ground starting with the Boston Massacre in 1770, and ending with the deaths of Adams and Thomas Jefferson 56 years later. The breadth of the story is astounding enough, bringing to richly detailed life the key moments that built this messy democracy that we find ourselves in today. But it’s the powerhouse acting by the entire, huge ensemble that drives this sprawling narrative home, and might make you proud to be an American.—Robert Ham


19. Mrs. America

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Created by: Dahvi Waller
Stars: Cate Blanchett, Rose Byrne, Uzo Aduba, Ari Graynor, Margo Martindale, John Slattery, Tracey Ullman
Original Network: Hulu/FX

Watch on Hulu

Equality is at the heart of Mrs. America. The series, which starts in 1971 and runs through 1979, examines the national debate taking place over the Equal Rights Amendment, meant to put women on the same legal footing as men. For some housewives across America, though, the amendment was concerning because it was ushered in by second-wave feminists who (they believed) threatened to dismantle traditional family values. And at the head of that anti-ERA movement was Illinois housewife and mother of six, Phyllis Schlafley (an elegant Cate Blanchett).

Phyllis is the nexus of everything happening in Mrs. America, but each episode also spends time with one or two other important women on the opposite side of the movement, from Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne) to Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman) to the first black woman to run for President, Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba). Where the limited series, created by Dahvi Waller, really excels (and manages to eschew the issues of other series dealing with similar topics) is that it’s not overly reverential to these real-life characters. It also, crucially, doesn’t treat them as caricatures—there is a deep, recognizable, and very true humanity to each of these women that is immediately authentic, as they move in and out of each other’s lives.

Mrs. America is juggling a lot, but it never feels like too much. Like the ever-present (worthless) question of “can a woman have it all?” Mrs. America does have it all, and more. It illuminates an essential part of the women’s liberation movement and the real women behind it (and against it) in ways that are engrossing, enlightening, and sometimes enraging. —Allison Keene


18. Homeland

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Created by: Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa
Stars: Claire Danes, Mandy Patinkin, Damian Lewis, Rupert Friend, F. Murray Abraham, Morena Baccarin, David Harewood, Navid Negahban, and Nazanin Boniadi
Original Network: Showtime

Watch on Showtime

After Homeland’s freshman season sank its hooks into viewers with an extraordinarily tense cat-and-mouse game involving a bipolar CIA analyst (Claire Danes) and a former POW (Damian Lewis), and two subsequent seasons in which the writers seemed to lose their grip on the intricacies of the plot, many wrote off Showtime’s counterterrorism drama for good. Too bad. Since then, Homeland didn’t simply recovered; it was been reborn, this time as a sharp, muscular reconsideration of America’s so-called “War on Terror,” alive to our own strategic flaws and moral compromises. In particular, the fourth season traces the outlines of the series’ new structure—a long, slow burn to expose the nerves, followed by two remarkable episodes, “There’s Something Else Going On” and “13 Hours in Islamabad,” that suggest the true terror at hand: war without end. —Matt Brennan


17. BrainDead

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Created by: Robert King, Michelle King
Stars: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Danny Pino, Aaron Tveit, Tony Shalhoub, Nikki M. James
Original Network: CBS

Watch on Paramount+

Airing for one glorious summer in 2016—where it, ironically, shifted schedules a lot to accommodate for coverage of the Republican and Democratic National Conventions—this attempt at a straight-up black comedy from The Good Wife and Fight husband-and-wife duo was just too pure and ahead of its time for this cold, hard world. The series starred Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Aaron Tveit as Laurel Healy and Gareth Ritter, rival Senate staffers from opposite ends of the political aisle who form an alliance (both romantic and otherwise) when they notice some Washington insiders are acting kind of buggy. Yes, buggy. Like their bodies have literally been invaded by alien bugs who entered their ears when they slept (key giveaways as to whether a body’s been invaded and snatched? A need for green juice drinks and an obsession with The Cars’ earworm “You Might Think”). In addition to regular mocking of Beltway buffoonery, there was the show’s A+ casting: Tony Shalhoub as a self-absorbed U.S. senator, Megan Hilty as a Fox News-like political commentator, and Michael Moore guest starring as himself in a sex scene. —Whitney Friedlander


16. Spin City

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Created by: Gary David Goldberg, Bill Lawrence
Stars: Michael J. Fox, Carla Gugino, Richard Kind, Alan Ruck, Michael Boatman, Connie Britton
Original Network: ABC

Watch Free on Pluto TV

Spin City represents that rare alchemy of a great premise, masterful sitcom writing, and pitch-perfect casting. The show centers on the chaotic behind-the-scenes of local New York politics—specifically, that of the fictional New York Mayor’s office. The series starred Michael J. Fox as Deputy Mayor Mike Flaherty, a hyper-competent employee whose mastery of political spin often bumps against the sloppiness of some of his less-then-qualified work colleagues, most notably the city’s dim-witted, gaffe-prone Mayor (played with great gusto by Barry Bostwick). Being a multicam sitcom, the show never truly delved into the nitty gritty inherent to its political setting, but what it did do brilliantly was thoroughly exploit this unorthodox workplace setting for all manner of storylines, whether it was regarding same sex marriages, HIV or merely the Mayor cheating at golf. Although the series never quite recovered from the well-publicized departure of Michael J. Fox (though pre-“winning” Charlie Sheen actually did a commendable job), it still stands as one of the great sitcoms to come out of the ‘90s.—Mark Rozeman


15. Show Me a Hero

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Created by: David Simon, William F. Zorzi
Stars: Oscar Isaac, Bob Balaban, Jim Belushi, Jon Bernthal, Dominique Fishback, Ilfenesh Hadera, LaTanya Richardson Jackson, Catherine Keener
Original Network: HBO

Watch on HBO Max

After Treme failed to provide the kind of cultural impact that David Simon’s previous series The Wire continues to do, his 2015 miniseries Show Me a Hero at the very least proved that there was still some fuel left in his storytelling tank. Based on a nonfiction book by journalist Lisa Belkin, the six-part story brought to unblinking life the racial tensions baked into New York in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s as one Yonkers City Council member and his team worked to bring affordable public housing into a mostly white section of the city. Viewed by Simon as an allegory for the continuing racial and class divides that are hurting many of America’s greatest cities, the series also goes deep on the pains that future Yonkers mayor Nick Wasicsko (played by the always reliable Oscar Isaac) went through to get this housing complex built against the wishes of his fellow councilmembers and various citizens groups worried about declining property values and an increase in crime. If that doesn’t sound horribly familiar, you’re not paying attention to the current news cycle. —Robert Ham


14. Borgen

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Created by: Adam Price
Stars: Sidse Babett Knudsen, Birgitte Hjort Sørensen, Pilou Asbæk, Søren Malling
Original Network: DR1

Watch on Netflix

One of television’s best political dramas, Borgen was historically hard to find in the U.S., but that changed in 2020 when Netflix picked up the streaming rights for the show’s first three seasons and even signed on to produce a fourth. Following Birgitte Nyborg (Sidse Babett Knudson), a minor centrist politician who, through a series of convenient circumstances, finds herself the first female prime minister of Denmark, the show is one of a handful of Danish series that helped redefine the global TV landscape in the early 2010s. Over the course of the 30 episodes that made up the show’s initial run, Birgitte struggles to hold onto power without compromising her principles and ideals, facing attacks not just from the left and the right, but from within her own cabinet and the dogged press as well.

But while the political intrigue is what ultimately keeps Borgen’s overarching narrative moving, one of the more interesting aspects of the show is its investigation of how Birgitte approaches her career and her home life, engaging with the double standard that women can’t have it all while seemingly also understanding how unfair it is that Birgitte must deal with these issues while men in her same position do not. Much like the political drama at its center, this remains messy and complicated throughout, but always makes you root for Birgitte to succeed. —Kaitlin Thomas


13. Battlestar Galactica

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Created by: Glen A. Larson (original), Ronald D. Moore, David Eick
Stars: Edward James Olmos, Mary McDonnell, Katee Sackhoff, Jamie Bamber, James Callis, Michael Hogan, Aaron Douglas, Tricia Heifer, Grace Park, Tahmoh Penikett
Original Network: SyFy

Watch on Peacock

There’s often a dichotomy in art between the epic and the personal. Smaller stories, those dealing with the kinds of challenges we regularly experience-family, romance, friendship, work, money-connect because they’re familiar. We watch epic films like Braveheart or Lord of the Rings to get caught up in struggles much greater than we face and vicariously inherit the satisfaction of seeing them overcome. But then we read novels with minimal plots to see people like ourselves make the same stupid mistakes we do and come out on the other side having changed. Science fiction is almost entirely the domain of epic stories-working through a relationship gets completely overshadowed with the fate of humanity on the line. This is one of the main things sci-fi fans love about the genre and also what many people hate about it. So when people say that Battlestar Galactica is a show with a broader appeal than sci-fi, this is partly what they’re getting at.

Creator Ronald D. Moore took the bare bones of a campy 1970s series and completely reimagined it, bringing a realism that sci-fi hadn’t quite seen before. The ship itself is aging and cramped. Quarters are claustrophobic, leading their inhabitants to live in a hyper-sensitive fishbowl-everyone is in everyone else’s business. But where Battlestar Galactica trumps other sci-fi stories in the minutia, it also beats them at their own epic game. Each season propels the main story arc along at light speed. A limited number of Cylon models are perfect human replicas—“skinjobs” who’ve infiltrated the human fleet. Their relationship with humanity grows more complex as disagreement arises within their ranks, and the political structures they’ve left behind have to be rebuilt. Humanity’s search for the mythical Earth is full of constant surprises.

Nearly every season is better than the last (even the misguided mess of a finale has its emotionally wrenching moments). With no alien civilizations to discover, Moore turns his lens inward on the species we know best. All the tensions in life are examined: religion vs. science, safety vs. freedom, the needs of the many vs. the needs of the few, conscience vs. loyalty, passion vs. commitment. And the show’s big question—”What does it mean to be human?”—is explored on every level, big and small. (Note for new viewers, make sure you watch the miniseries first).Josh Jackson


12. The Good Wife

Created by: Robert King, Michelle King
Stars: Julianna Margulies, Matt Czuchry, Archie Panjabi, Graham Phillips, Makenzie Vega, Josh Charles
Original Network: CBS

Watch on Paramount+

Are network dramas supposed to be this good? Julianna Margulies stars as the title character Alicia Florrick, who (in a storyline ripped from many, many headlines) is subjected to public humiliation when her husband, Peter (Chris Noth), the District Attorney of Chicago, is caught cheating with a prostitute. The scandal forces Alicia back into the workforce, and she takes a job with her (very sexy) old law school friend Will Gardner (Josh Charles). But Alicia is not your typical “stand by your man” woman and The Good Wife is not your typical show. The brilliance of the series is that it deftly blends multiple and equally engaging storylines that both embrace and defy genre conventions. Each episode is an exciting combination of political intrigue, inner-office jockeying, family strife, sizzling romance, and intriguing legal cases. The series features a fantastic array of guest stars, and creates a beguiling and believable world where familiar characters weave in and out of Alicia’s life just like they would in real life: You’ll be fascinated by Archie Panjabi’s mysterious Kalinda Sharma, delighted by Zach Grenier’s mischievous David Lee, marvel at Christine Baranski’s splendid Diane Lockhart. And, witness the transformative performance Alan Cummings gives as the cunning Eli Gold. But the real reason to stick with the series is to partake in the show’s game-changing fifth season. Many series start to fade as they age, but The Good Wife peaked late in its mostly glorious seven season run. —Amy Amatangelo


11. The Expanse

Created by: Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby
Stars: Thomas Jane, Steven Strait, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Paulo Costanzo
Original Network: Syfy / Amazon

Watch on Amazon Prime

In Syfy’s The Expanse, Mars and Earth are two superpowers racing to gain the technological upper hand, while those who live in the Asteroid Belt mine resources for the more privileged planets and become more and more prone to radicalization.

Sound familiar?

In its relationship to our own age of authoritarianism, the series offers a kind of storytelling that seems essential: It manages to paint a portrait of a divided universe without vilifying one group and raising the other to god-like status, as evidenced by the complexities of hardboiled detective Joe Miller (Thomas Jane) or U.N. official Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo). The Expanse shows us a possible future, a future in which women can be leaders without the bat of an eye, in which racially diverse groups can unite in common cause, but it is also a warning about keeping institutions in check, about recognizing inequality wherever it might exist, in order to avoid past mistakes. In other words, it’s must-watch television for our time. —Elena Zhang


10. Game of Thrones

Created by: David Benioff, D. B. Weiss
Stars: Emilia Clarke, Peter Dinklage, Kit Harington, Maisie Williams, Lena Headey, Sophie Turner, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Aidan Gillen
Original Network: HBO

Watch on HBO Max

The geopolitical drama that unfolds in George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire book series is so epic in scope that it made the Lord of the Rings feel like Cliff’s Notes. Even after it’s been pared down for television, the hourlong episodes can only cover a portion of the stories from key characters. Highlighting its fantasy elements only sparingly, each of these are very human tales, as inhabitants of Westeros and Essos try to survive in a very cruel world and often, very often, fail. Heroes meet their end as often as villains; children as often as warriors. The show has garnered its fair share of criticism for its gratuitous nudity and its depiction of a couple of brutal rape scenes, but it also has featured some of the strongest female characters on TV. And it’s the characters, the quick wit of Tyrion and Varys, the master conniving of Littlefinger, the defiant spunk of Arya, the quick nobility of Jon Snow, the heartless villainy of Tywin Lannister, the complicated redemption of Jaime, that made this show an epic cultural juggernaut (even in its arguably faltering final seasons). —Josh Jackson


9. The Thick of It

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Created by: Armando Iannucci
Stars: Peter Capaldi, Chris Langham, Rebecca Front, Chris Addison, Joanna Scanlan, James Smith
Original Networks: BBC Four, BBC Two

Watch on Hulu

If you’re a fan of Veep, and find yourself jonesing for more TV from Armando Iannucci, then The Thick of It is definitely in your wheelhouse. A hilarious take on the British political system, it could be argued that it’s an even more biting take on politics than Veep. The show may have run from 2005 until 2012, but it was a sporadic run, as there are only 24 episodes. However, those 24 episodes are excellent. If you don’t know British politics, you might not fully understand every bit, but chances are you can still understand awful, stupid people saying awful, stupid things. Malcolm Tucker, as played by Peter Capaldi, remains Iannucci’s greatest creation. And if you’ve ever wanted to see the current Doctor saying the c-word a whole bunch, then this is the show for you. —Chris Morgan


8. Deadwood

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Created by: David Milch
Stars: Timothy Olyphant, Ian McShane, Molly Parker, John Hawkes, Jim Beaver, Brad Dourif, Paula Malcomson, William Sanderson, Kim Dickens, Keith Carradine
Original Network: HBO

Watch on HBO Max

Few shows sound as profanely inspired as Deadwood, which has also been referred to as “Shakespeare in the mud.” It deserves every kudos. The extraordinarily compelling Western is ultimately less concerned with its setting and historical accuracy (though it has plenty to spare) than it is about accurately portraying humans. Why do societies and allegiances form, why are close friends betrayed, and why does humanity’s best seem to always just barely edge out its worst? These are the real concerns that make Deadwood a masterpiece. David Milch created a sprawling, fastidiously detailed world in which to stage his gritty morality plays and with it has come as close as anyone to creating a novel on-screen. With assistance from some truly memorable acting by Ian McShane, Brad Dourif and Paula Malcomson, Deadwood’s sometimes over-the-top representations never veer far enough from reality for its inhabitants to become just characters. (A recent movie on HBO also helps sew things up in a satisfying way after the original series’ sudden ending). —Sean Gandert and Allison Keene


7. House of Cards (UK)

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Created by: Andrew Davies
Stars: Ian Richardson, Susannah Harker ,David Lyon, Diane Fletcher
Original Network: BBC

Watch on BritBox

While Netflix’s House of Cards was a streaming sensation and the origin of binge-watching, this tale of Machiavellian intrigue in Washington’s halls of power wasn’t even the best version of the story. Beau Willimon’s series is actually an adaptation of a BBC mini-series (originally three four-episode minis: House of Cards, To Play the King and The Final Cut, themselves adaptations of novels by Michael Dobbs) starring the late, great Ian Richardson as Francis Urquhart, chief whip of the conservative party. While retaining the main character’s wink-wink initials “F.U.,” Netflix’s choice to move the series from the UK to the US weakened the material. For one, the kind of wheeling and dealing that can take one from the back benches to the top job is simply more believable in a parliamentary system, and the more overt presence of class politics in the UK makes for more interesting drama. The US version also gets too tied up in political minutiae. More importantly, Richardson’s Urquhart is a significantly more delicious character than Spacey’s Frank Underwood. The UK version, at under 12 hours for the entire series, is easily binge-able. —Mark Rabinowitz


6. The Good Fight

Created by: Robert and Michelle King, Phil Alden Robinson
Stars: Christine Baranski, Rose Leslie, Erica Tazel, Cush Jumbo
Original Network: CBS All Access

Watch on Paramount+

With “The One Where Diane and Liz Topple Democracy,” The Good Fight achieved the holy grail of the TV spinoff: It’s taken the animating question of The Good Wife—How far can you push the law?—and reinterpreted it for our own moment: Does the law even matter? As Diane (Christine Baranski) and Liz’s (Audra McDonald) “book club” debates whether or not to hack voting machines to right the disenfranchisement of voters in the 2016 presidential elections, or as Gary Carr (playing himself) shadows Roland (Michael Sheen) and Lucca (Cush Jumbo) to prepare for a role, The Good Fight is reminiscent of The Good Wife on a molecular level. And yet its characterization, aesthetic, tone and plot are utterly without nostalgia for it. “What isn’t a lie these days, though?” Gary asks Lucca when she explains why she doesn’t like TV. “Politics, art, science: Everything is TV.” The Good Fight would know: It’s one of the best shows on television. —Matt Brennan


5. The Americans

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Created by: Joseph Weisberg
Stars: Keri Russell, Matthew Rhys, Holly Taylor
Original Network: FX

Watch on Amazon Prime

Over the course its six-season run, The Americans completed a remarkable evolution, beginning and ending as a blisteringly suspenseful spy drama. Of course, by the time Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields’ masterwork reaches its devastating conclusion, with deep-cover KGB agents Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (the magnificent Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) surveying what they’ve lost, and gained, in the process, The Americans is about so much more than safe houses and dead drops. It is at once a parable of family, faith, and nation; a pitch-dark examination of the Cold War’s moral calculus; a coming-of-age tale (twice over); a wrenching depiction of friendships formed and betrayed; and an indelible portrait of an American marriage. FX’s pet project was worth every ounce of patience it demanded: We may well remember it as the last great drama of the Golden Age of Television. —Matt Brennan


4. Parks and Recreation

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Created by: Greg Daniels, Michael Schur
Stars: Amy Poehler, Nick Offerman, Aziz Ansari, Adam Scott, Rob Lowe, Chris Pratt, Aubrey Plaza, Rashida Jones
Original Network: NBC

Watch on Peacock

Parks and Recreation started its run as a fairly typical mirror of The Office, but in its third season, the student became the master as one of the best sitcoms of all time. As it’s fleshed out with oddballs and unusual city quirks, Pawnee became the greatest television town since Springfield. And when you talk about the classic sitcom casts, where every actor was perfect for the role, and every role was equally important, Parks & Rec has to be near the top of the list. The show flourished this year with some of the most unique and interesting characters in comedy today. With one of the greatest writing staffs of any show, Parks and Recreation is only got better with time over the course of its six year run. — Garrett Martin and Ross Bonaime


3. The Wire

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Created by: David Simon
Stars: Dominic West, Lance Reddick, Sonja Sohn, Idris Elba, Domenick Lombardozzi, Ellis Carver, Andre Royo, Wendell Pierce, Rhonda Pearlman
Original Network: HBO

Watch on HBO Max

The great achievement of David Simon’s stellar HBO series lies in the sheer clarity with which it articulates its despairing vision of the oppressive forces that keep American cities down. Each season is like a brick in an ever-expanding social canvas, starting from the ground up—police officers in Season 2 and dock workers in Season 2—and eventually broadening to include politicians (Season 3), schoolteachers (Season 4) and journalists (Season 5). All of these institutions are locked in a vicious cycle of high-minded ideals beaten down by harsh realities. The Wire, by focusing on the human figures trapped in this broken system, shows us, with often heartbreaking lucidity, how and why this happens, and may keep on happening even as hard as some bold visionaries—like Season 3’s “Bunny” Colvin (Robert Wisdom) with his daring “Hamsterdam” experiment—try to enact change. If it is true that the personal is always political, then The Wire stands as one of the great political works of art: one that paints a deeply pessimistic big picture, while never forsaking the personal stories within.—Kenji Fujishima


2. The West Wing

Created by: Aaron Sorkin
Stars: Allison Janney, John Spencer, Bradley Whitford, Martin Sheen, Janel Moloney, Richard Schiff, Dulé Hill, NiCole Robinson, Melissa Fitzgerald, Rob Lowe, Joshua Malina, Stockard Channing, Kim Webster, Kris Murphy, Timothy Davis-Reed
Original Network: NBC

Watch on HBO Max

The West Wing is everything current American politics is not: polite, empathetic and wise. So you can imagine how my 2020 re-watch put my weary, liberal soul at ease. For starters, the president around which the show centers—Josiah “Jed” Bartlet has the folksiness of Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton’s wide grin and the politics of an Episcopal priest (which is funny considering the frequent references to Bartlet’s devotion to Catholicism throughout the show). He’s overflowing with wisdom and grace and is always quick to forgive his staff members should they make any blunders. He draws applause and laughter at every speech, but he knows when to spit fire, too (he tells off a televangelist who opposes gay marriage in front of dozens of people at a state dinner in Season 1). His values are strong. He’s a proud Democrat who practices what he preaches, but he’s always willing to listen intently to opposing views. His idealist version of president would appear attractive at almost any time during modern American politics (and almost certainly did when the show premiered in 1999, a year after Clinton’s impeachment). But compared to a certain recent POTUS, Jed Bartlet is like something out of a fairytale.

Not only do the Democrats stay cool as cucumbers, but the Republicans also appear as good-natured public servants who genuinely want what’s best for Americans (Can you imagine?!). In Season 2, a rising Republican star named Ainsley Hayes even joins the staff in Bartlet’s White House (Again, in 2020? Never!), after he became very intrigued by her sharp performance on a political roundtable program. “The president likes smart people who disagree with him,” explains Leo McGarry, Bartlet’s Chief of Staff as well as right-hand-man and old friend. There are few statements that better sum up Bartlet’s character and the ensuing lively discussions that define the show.

So whenever reality’s politics go awry, there’s always The West Wing waiting for us, a special reminder of the noble dream of what American politics could be if everyone was a little nicer to each other—and if Sorkin had written the Constitution. —Ellen Johnson


1. Veep

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Created by: Armando Iannucci
Stars: Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Anna Chlumsky, Tony Hale, Reid Scott, Timothy Simons, Matt Walsh, Kevin Dunn, Gary Cole
Original Network: HBO

Watch on HBO Max

2019 was the right time for HBO’s long-running political satire to have come to a close. The art of the series imitated life, but of concern was that life sometimes imitated the art. It was difficult to keep the hilarious, foul-mouthed Veep from careening too far off into the cartoonish when American politics had become so fully entrenched there. But the series wrapped things up with a worthy, if uneven, final stretch of episodes. The pièce-de-résistance, though, was its finale—titled “Veep”—where Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) makes a final desperate play for power, one that came at an enormous cost both personally and for the country as a whole. The final moments also transported us to a future that felt particularly hopeful for a series that typically trades in darkly acerbic witticisms and the bleakest of humor. Ultimately, showrunner David Mandel finished out the series by letting us know things might be alright. Not right now … but one day. Maybe. We live in hope. —Allison Keene



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