Political dramas reveal life’s private side

Posted April 30, 2014


Life in Washington, D.C., has often been the source of speculation and pop culture appreciation.

The hill serves as the meeting grounds for presumably the most powerful people in the U.S., and possibly even the world. So, it comes as no surprise that a substantial amount of television dramas are dedicated to portraying life on the hill.

With the recent success of shows like “House of Cards” and “Scandal,” political dramas have taken center stage as thrilling stories are told through the perspectives of not only the first family, but the chiefs of staff, the White House press and Congress.

The plotlines of these shows are rife with intrigue, betrayal, crime, cover ups and bribery that may cause viewers to question what is really happening behind the closed doors of the White House and the Capitol building.

“Scandal,” “House of Cards,” and the popular political drama from the early 2000s, “The West Wing,” can all be commended for their captivating portrayal of the legislative and executive branches of government, as well as the personal lives of all those involved.

One of the biggest surprises I had when watching these shows is the complexity of the romantic relationships between those in power. Often times, although couples may have been in love at one point, the characters on these shows prove over and over again that they are willing to put their job and the welfare of the American people before their spouses and their marriages.

Furthermore, the couples appear smiling for the camera, but in reality cannot stand each other behind closed doors. The state of these political marital relationships does the opposite of enticing audiences to marry politicians or even aspiring politicians.

For example, the entire basis of “Scandal” is that Olivia Pope, played by Kerry Washington, is in an illicit affair with the president of the United States, Fitzgerald Grant, referred to as Fitz on the show.

In a somewhat strange conflict of interest, Pope also serves as the White House communications director, as well as head of Fitz’s election campaign, meaning in one scene she is in bed with the president and in the next scene she is advising Fitz and First Lady Mellie Grant to wear matching clothes on television in order to appear like a happy couple.

President Fitz and Olivia Pope embrace in the Oval Office. Photo credit: Kelsey McNeal/Abc

President Fitz and Olivia Pope embrace in the Oval Office (Photo courtesy of Kelsey McNeal/ABC).

At one point, Olivia advises the first couple to have a baby, in order to drum up support for the Republican couple from voters and to show that they are still in love and having sex.

In this instance and in the other shows, the audience can see all of the sacrifices that wives make in order for their husbands to advance politically. Mellie, for example, was a successful lawyer when she first married her husband, and when he decided to run for president, she gave that up to completely dedicate herself to his cause.

However, after years of making sure he succeeds while he only pays attention to Olivia Pope, Mellie is drained emotionally and mentally, and during Fitz’s reelection campaign, she gives up on trying to be a model wife and First Lady. Mellie eventually has an affair of her own with a man who loves and appreciates her, while she is still married to the president.

In “House of Cards,” Frank Underwood’s relationship with his wife Claire is also strained. During the show, Frank has an affair with the journalist Zoe, in order to leak political events to the media so that he can benefit and it is implied that Frank has entertained many affairs in the past so as to advance politically.

Frank and Clair Underwood pose in their home. Photo credit: Melinda Sue Gordon/Netflix

Frank and Clair Underwood pose in their home (Photo courtesy of Melinda Sue Gordon/Netflix).

While Claire seems to be okay with it, it is revealed that she has made some major sacrifices for Frank to succeed. Claire tells herself and other people that she never wanted to have children, but to the audience it is implied that she gave up on being a mom because Frank was extremely adamant about not building a family.

In one episode, Claire gives an interview on television where the TV anchor implies that her relationship with Frank was not based on love but the ways in which Claire and Frank could benefit socially and politically from each other. Frank was a poor kid from the south who had his sights set on the Capitol building, while Claire was a rich country girl with connections to help Frank reach his goals.

Finally, we have “The West Wing.” While this show is a bit older (it was on the air from 1999 to 2006 and can be viewed on Amazon Prime, Netflix, and iTunes), it also portrays the marital relationships of the higher-ups in politics as toxic and unhappy. Early in the first season, Leo McGarry, who serves as the president’s chief of staff, stays late at work one day (which I’m sure is one of many), and this day happens to be his anniversary. When he arrives home the next day, he is startled to find his wife Jenny has packed her bags and is taking a break from him.

Although Leo seems distraught over the idea of her leaving, he even states to her that his job is more important than his marriage at that moment. That seems to be the final straw for Jenny, who then says that she isn’t happy, and that she hasn’t been happy for a while.

While these three shows are certainly not the extent of political dramas on television, they do have many common threads, one of which is the portrayal of political marriages.

Often times, when the men hold high-ranking positions, their wives and marriages take a backseat, and the wife’s happiness and goals become secondary. From watching “Scandal,” “House of Cards,” and “The West Wing,” it seems as though getting married while aspiring for public political office can only mean bad things for one’s marriage.

On the one hand, many of the politicians in these couples are spouting about the importance of family values and the sanctity of marriage to gain votes and support from the American people, but behind closed doors, they are actually neglecting their marriage and consciously choosing to engage in extramarital affairs.

Hopefully, this is not at all an accurate portrayal of the real people in the White House, because President Obama and Michelle are a beautiful couple and I would be devastated if their smiles and interactions in the media were all for show.

“House of Cards” (U.S.)

  • Availability: Netflix (Seasons 1 and 2)
  • Next airing: Season 3 expected to be available on Netflix in February 2015
  • Major actors and actresses: Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright, Kristen Connolly
  • Run time: 46-59 minutes
  • Category: Drama
  • Summary: A clever politician and his equally conniving wife move up the ranks of the U.S. government.


  • Station: ABC
  • Air time: 10 p.m., Thursdays
  • Next airing: Season 3 has completed, reruns show on B.E.T. 10 p.m. on Fridays
  • Season 4 yet to be renewed
  • Major actors and actresses: Kerry Washington, Columbus Short, Tony Goldwyn, Bellamy Young
  • Runtime: approximately 43 minutes
  • Category: Drama
  • Summary: Olivia Pope runs a crisis management firm in Washington, D.C., while trying to leave certain people in her romantic past in the past.

“The West Wing”

  • Station: NBC
  • Air time: no longer shown on television
  • Can be viewed on Netflix ($7.99/month), iTunes ($49.99/season), Amazon Prime ($99/year)
  • Seasons: 7
  • Major actors and actresses: Rob Lowe, Alan Alda, Martin Sheen, Kristen Chenoweth, Allison Janney
  • Runtime: approximately 42 minutes
  • Category: Drama
  • Summary: The personal and professional lives of President Bartlett and his White House staff are explored over seven seasons.