Americans hate politics, right? The disingenuousness, the backstabbing, the sycophancy, the preening and posturing, the empowered elite, the way wealth buys influence, the dynastic nature of it, the sense that good people get torn apart, the way it feels disconnected from the concerns of The People.
But we love to watch all that on TV.
Story Continued Below
When “Game of Thrones” airs its final episode on Sunday, it will end the last water-cooler show currently on television—ubiquitous, inescapable and era-defining. And it also marks the end of an astonishing run of political TV. For all the medieval froofery and baroque violence, GoT was fundamentally a political drama—a show built around the quest for power, the conflict between idealism and pragmatism, and the uncomfortably blurred lines between “hero” or “villain” when it comes to exercising real power.
Its counterpart on the comedy side was “Veep,” the sitcom that also ended last week, known for its acidic, rapid dialogue, venal characters and inside-Washington jokes. For all its slapstick, people who work in politics tend to see it as cutting painfully close to reality, far more so than high-toned power dramas like “West Wing” or “House of Cards.”
Tomorrow morning, political obsessives will woke up bereft of both shows, with no destination for the next gutwrenching turns of the wheel of power; nothing to click on for crisp mockery of their day jobs. So what to watch next?
Here’s POLITICO’s guide to filling that hole, with shows new and old:
If you miss: The dark arts of political maneuvering
Imagine that there’s a velvet-glove invasion of your country, where the democratically government is overthrown in a Russian plot you don’t see until it’s already happened. Your nation’s allies are quiet because they value global stability. The government-in-exile still has some power, and needs to choose carefully how to use it; they don’t know exactly who they answer to—The voters? Their new Russian overlords? Even so, partisan wrangling continues, and the public splits deeply.
That, broadly, is “Occupied,” a Norwegian TV show that was a smash hit in Europe and has flown under the radar in the U.S., where it is available on Netflix. The series imagines a scenario in the near future, where the U.S. has withdrawn from NATO and instability in the Middle East has choked off oil production. Norway elects an environmentalist prime minister promising to end oil and gas production in the country—but the European Union really needs that energy, and so the EU doesn’t bat an eye when Russia quietly takes Norway under its control. Welcome to the first episode.
From there, it’s a rollicking, complicated journey, as the prime minister strains between his idealistic vision of politics and what he needs to do to stay in power. As Russia’s authority in the country tightens, the threat of military conflict escalates, the plunges further into the kind of murky moral territory that makes the best political dramas truly compelling.
“The Americans” (FX/Amazon Prime)
The premise of “The Americans” is pretty straightforward: During the 1980s, a pair of Soviet spies (Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys) are deep undercover in the Washington, D.C. suburbs. Based loosely on the arrests of a real set of sleeper agents in 2010, they’ve lived and worked in the U.S. for decades while posing as Americans; not even their children, natural-born citizens, know the truth. While the Cold War rages, their marital relationship struggles as they balance their obligations to country, family and each other—all while an unsuspecting FBI agent moves in across the street.
Tense, sometimes heartbreaking, and always immaculately executed, “The Americans” is one of the few shows that can match GoT in its richness and complexity. As on “Thrones,” there’s a mix of family drama and geopolitical strategy, the threat of violence and the constant worry of exposure. (And unlike GoT, it’s also a very intimate portrait of a marriage.) Characters are deeply drawn, with beliefs, anxieties and ambitions that shift over the seasons and shape their stories accordingly. And when they must “do vile things for the good of the realm,” to borrow Lord Varys’ phrase, it has consequences—for their marriage, their friendships, their family, their homeland and adopted nation and their own consciences.
If you miss: That tug-of-war between idealism and power
“Game of Thrones” fans were apoplectic after the penultimate episode of the series, protesting that one of their favorite characters took a sudden, out-of-character pivot to being a genocidal maniac. In political terms, you might say her arc from political idealist to fire-breathing, Kissinger-style realist was too abrupt, lacking the nuance for which the series was previously known — something its Sunday night programming companion, “Barry,” has in spades.
If you’re looking for a more thorough portrait of how the preternaturally gifted among us tend to conveniently forget their better angels in the face of a potential threat, look no further than “Saturday Night Live” alum Bill Hader’s pitch-black satire about a hitman (and Afghanistan veteran) trying to make it as an actor in Hollywood. Hader’s Barry repeatedly tells himself that he’ll forsake his violent ways and honor his inner creative type “starting… now,” and it’s not much of a spoiler to reveal that it frequently doesn’t go as intended. The realpolitik of “Game of Thrones” has long lent itself to a real-life political comparison, and Barry’s inability to stop himself from cracking a few eggs for the sake of self-preservation is surely familiar to D.C.’s political class.
Ok, bear with us. Parliamentary dynamics don’t get everyone jumping out of their seats, especially those of us raised in the winner-take-all showmanship of American presidential politics, but a parliamentary government—where coalitions are necessary, require elected leaders to compromise on the issues most important to them and the results don’t always have widespread public support—makes for compelling drama. That’s especially true when, as happens to Birgette Nyborg on “Borgen,” you quickly and unexpectedly go from being a minor politician to the prime minister of Denmark, where the show was produced. Her hold on power is tenuous, and the abrupt nature of her ascension means that it is all quite new—for her as well as her advisers and family.
It’s a less-Sorkin-ish version of “The West Wing,” set in a country tiny enough that the head of the government goes home to her family’s small apartment at the end of the workday and cooks dinner. We see Nyborg struggle to bend without breaking, and while we root for her, we’re also mindful of how she owes some of her successes to her conniving and unethical communications strategist, who “Thrones” fans will recognize as Pilou Asbæk, the actor who played Euron Greyjoy. (Here, he’s given a role that asks more of him than cartoonish moustache-twirling villainy.) He has a hot-and-cold relationship with a TV journalist (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen, who had a major role as a wildling in season five of “Game of Thrones”). Everyone compromises their ethics all the time, the show seems to say, asking the question: Is what they get worth it?
If you miss: Powerful women battling societal expectations
“Halt and Catch Fire” (AMC/Netflix)
Being a woman in public life has always come with its own, uniquely irritating double standards, whether one is attempting to conquer territory as a real-life or fictional presidential candidate. “Game of Thrones” was driven by powerful women for much of its eight-season run, and “Veep”’s whole central half-joke is watching Selina Meyer manipulate the male-dominated landscape that also genuinely hems her in. AMC’s cult not-quite-a-hit “Halt and Catch Fire” provided one of the most nuanced, 360-degree portrayals of two women attempting to traverse an even more bloodthirsty world than a Democratic primary — the 1980s tech industry.
After a charming first season that mainly won fans among the tech-obsessed and ‘80s-culture geeks, showrunners Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers broke the mold by refocusing the series around its two female leads, portrayed by Mackenzie Davis and Kerry Bishé. Cantwell, Rogers, and their team of writers and designers built their show into a peerless dramedy that captured its leads’ anxieties, performances, and triumphs as women in a decidedly male-dominated milieu of gamers and hackers. The four-season series is now available in its entirety on Netflix.
“Big Little Lies” (HBO)
If you were to cut Cersei Lannister from Westeros and paste her among the monied Monterey Bay elite, she’d fit right in. She would sip wine with Madeline Mackenzie (Reese Witherspoon) while scheming up a plan to exact revenge on the parent of her daughter’s classmate for a trivial slight anyone else would let slide. She’d quietly judge Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley) for being a single parent of a different economic class. She’d roll her eyes at the hippy-dippy yoga instructor Bonnie Carlson (Zoë Kravitz) married to a much-older man. And she’d envy Celeste Wright (Nicole Kidman) for the picture-perfect life she appears to have, never knowing what’s happening behind the oceanfront façade.
“Big Little Lies” is a show about many things, but foremost among them is its interest in the societal assumptions placed upon women. It’s a theme that will resonate with any “Thrones” viewer who has noticed the way that characters on the show treat Dany or Cersei or Sansa differently than they would a similarly minded male character. Season Two of “Big Little Lies” debuts on HBO on June 9, giving newcomers plenty of time to catch up beforehand.
If you miss: The relentless pursuit of power, with wit
The medieval chessboard George R.R. Martin constructed for “Game of Thrones” was, in many ways, a meritocracy so pure it had to be fictional — as long as one’s standard of merit is the ability to stab competitors and allies alike in the back toward no greater end than the accumulation of more power. Swap “money” for power, and you have the hedge-fund world depicted in Showtime’s “Billions.”
Prestige drama will be short a great deal of its bloodthirstiness in the absence of “Thrones,” but the existential clash between anti-hero Bobby “Axe” Axelrod, the eccentric hedge fund conquistador played by Damian Lewis, and Paul Giamatti’s crusading prosecutor Chuck Rhoades is plenty ruthless and zero-sum. The flaws of either man would fill a novel, and the show’s barrage of insidey, highbrow references will scratch the itch of “Veep”-watchers who relish the game of figuring out just who’s based on whom, and how closely this tracks the actual world we get served up in our daily news coverage. As the series has progressed, the threads between New York-style and Washington-style ambitions have grown even tighter, and its winks at real-world events more deliberate. Its comedy is darker than “Veep”’s, but its view of human nature every bit as unrelievedly cynical.
If you miss: Slow-burn stories where power is won incrementally over time (or lost in an instant)
“Wolf Hall” (BBC/Amazon Prime)
Considering how heavily real medieval history influenced George R.R. Martin while he crafted his A Song of Ice and Fire book series, it should come as little surprise that a story about the real people surrounding King Henry VIII would make such for such easy viewing for “Thrones” fans.
Born to an abusive father, Thomas Cromwell rose from poverty to become a top adviser to Lord Chancellor Thomas Wolsey (played by Jonathan Pryce, familiar to GoT watchers as the High Sparrow), the Catholic cardinal who was perhaps the most powerful man in Henry VIII’s early reign as king. But after Wolsey is unable to get the pope to annul Henry’s first marriage, other advisers to Henry push Wolsey out of power—which begins Cromwell’s long and unassuming climb to power, with an assist by Anne Boleyn, and to exact revenge on all those who turned against Wolsey. For students of back-room operators—those “Thrones” fans who thrilled to watch Varys or Littlefinger or Tyrion Lannister expertly scheme and execute on a plan—Cromwell’s exquisite use of leverage is utter catnip. And unlike those characters, the man actually existed.
If you miss: Satire of the shallow people in power
“The Newsroom” (CBC)
Not to be confused with the wordy Aaron Sorkin-created HBO drama of the same name, CBC’s “The Newsroom” is a blistering sitcom from the late 90s and early 2000s that follows the producers of a major news show in Canada as they navigate the petty bureaucracy and egotism of the media industry.
George Findlay, the main character, could well be Selina Meyer’s Canadian cousin, a bright and ambitious man drunk on his own power, mindful of his own status symbols (e.g. making constant and ostentatious calls to his BMW dealer for his perpetually-being-repaired car) and paranoid about even the slightest criticism or suggestion that his own self-image doesn’t match what other people see.
If you miss: A cuttingly profane and sardonic look at politics
“The Thick of It” (BBC)
Before the writer and director Armando Iannucci created “Veep,” he was best known as the mind behind its abrasively funny British predecessor, “The Thick of It,” a wicked satire of the inner workings of the UK’s government, starring Peter Capaldi as Malcolm Tucker, the human buzzsaw who works as a spin doctor for the prime minister.
In many ways, the series will be instantly familiar to fans of “Veep.” It has the same scorched-earth insults and fast-paced rhythm, similar character archetypes and the naked aggression of people whose reach for power exceeds their grasp. And once you watch “The Thick of It,” try its spin-off film, “In the Loop,” where Capaldi reprises his role but the cast expands to include future “Veep” actors Anna Chlumsky and Zach Woods.
If you miss: Intra-family posturing
To get it out of the way: “Succession” is a very compelling series that is very clearly about a very thinly fictionalized Murdoch family. Yes, those Murdochs, of Fox News and phone-hacking fame. That alone should be enough of a hook to get political insiders on board with HBO’s byzantine family drama, but if the dynastic posturing and sniping of “Game of Thrones” and the virulent profanity of “Veep” kept you watching from week to week, “Succession” might be even more compelling, especially to the hybrid cable news-watchers and tabloid-junkies among us.
Though much of the action lies among its protagonists — a diffuse group of sparring, wayward definitely-not-Murdoch children — the series’ true power lies in the performance of legendary British character actor Brian Cox as their definitely-not-Murdoch patriarch Logan. Logan Roy is an addled figure so contemptuous and vain that his power plays register more as desperate efforts to puff up his own fading grandeur. And in 2019, it’s not hard to see the series as a long troll of the dynasty currently occupying the White House.
Of course, if that doesn’t appeal, patient GoT fans can always wait for one of the three “Game of Thrones” prequel series HBO is currently developing. The first of them, tentatively titled “Bloodmoon,” is rumored to be arriving on TV in 2020 or 2021. Until then, there are always reruns.