Watching television is like taking our social temperature, or so they say. If you’ve been watching TV lately, you might think that America has a fever – the Kardashians’ stilted monologues and the cyclical arguments of CNN talking heads seem like fruit from the same sick tree. More interesting, though, is the way that Hollywood harvests our political imagination. The entertainment industry profits from speculation, and a number of recent shows all picture a woman-led America. In Madam Secretary – which last week was renewed for a third season – the allusion is so transparent it’s practically propaganda: Téa Leoni, who could be Hillary Clinton’s younger sister, plays Elizabeth McCord, a former CIA analyst who deftly handles terrorist threats and trigger-happy dictators as Secretary of State. Like Clinton, the politically moderate McCord is celebrated for her pragmatism rather than her principles, with the show’s writers even acknowledging that Clinton’s resistance to partisan pressure during the Benghazi hearings inspired the character’s steeliness.
Not all speculation is as flattering. In Beau Willimon’s brilliant reboot of the 1990 BBC mini-series House of Cards, which returned last month with a salacious sizzle, Kevin Spacey plays Frank Underwood, a ruthless Democrat who disarms with his Southern drawl while tracking blood all over the steps of the US Capitol. A modern-day Macbeth, Underwood espouses a self-serving Realpolitik that shocks less than it conforms to our jaded expectations of contemporary politicians. (The allusions to Bill Clinton are clear enough. According to Spacey, the former President told him that ‘99 percent of what you do on that show is real.’) Voters who complain they ‘can’t trust Hillary’ see their paranoia reflected in Underwood’s wife, Claire, a coldly elegant First Lady, played by Robin Wright, who harbours political ambitions as keen as her husband's. If House of Cards started three years ago as a Beltway potboiler, it has come to embody the public’s mistrust in the political class, and the reason why progressives have turned in droves to the populism of Bernie Sanders.
The political comedy Veep is no more complimentary towards a hypothetical female President. Julia Louis-Dreyfus plays the feckless Vice President Selina Meyer, who (spoiler alert) is elected President in Season 5. Meyer can hardly disguise her megalomania and distaste for the general public. Janus-faced, she hurls expletives over her shoulder while shaking voters’ hands and kissing their babies. Of course, disingenuity isn’t a trait exclusive to Clinton, but of all politicians; even so, it echoes claims levied against the former Secretary of State and First Lady with a frequency that suggests misogynistic bias.
Up to this point, Hollywood has avoided speculating about the Republican presidential field. With a reality television star as frontrunner, sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction.