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10 Fantastic Political TV Shows You Can Stream Right Now

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With the frenzy of the 2016 election on full display, it’s an ideal time to take a break from cable news and revisit some of the great fictional political TV shows instead. Historically, during the network era, broadcasters tended to shy away from controversial political material, but in recent decades—thanks in part to cable and streaming video—we’ve seen TV shows featuring captivating political content flourish. But political TV shows can do more than entertain us; they can also provide us with powerful insights about our political culture—about the daily functioning of local and national governments. Here are 10 political TV shows you can watch after you’ve had your fill of cable news.

1. TANNER '88 (1988)

Where to watch it: HBO Now, Hulu

Created by director Robert Altman and Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau, Tanner ’88 is a mockumentary that follows a fictional Michigan Congressman, Jack Tanner (Michael Murphy), as he pursues the Democratic nomination for President. Altman and Trudeau filmed on location in Iowa and New Hampshire, leading to cameos by real-life politicians including Bob Dole, Pat Robertson, Jesse Jackson, and Gary Hart, but the short-lived series endures because of its satirical insight into the ways in which TV was making elections even more artificial and stage-managed. With Tanner’s ironic campaign slogan, “For Real,” a fake presidential candidate became a powerful vehicle for showing us how politics itself has become a highly scripted spectacle.

2. THE WEST WING (1999-2006)

Where to watch it: Amazon, Netflix

Aaron Sorkin’s White House drama offers audiences a romanticized vision of the president (Martin Sheen) and his staff. Unlike the power-hungry careerists seen in most political shows, The West Wing depicted Washington insiders as having good intentions for improving the lives of the citizens they served. Tackling subjects from Supreme Court nominations to the war on terrorism and government shutdowns, The West Wing continues to be a prescient show that speaks to current issues. It also used bold storytelling techniques, including a largely unscripted episode that featured a debate between Democrat Matthew Santos (Jimmy Smits) and Republican Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda) that served as a powerful articulation of two competing visions for how government should work.

3. THE WIRE (2002-2008)

Where to watch it: Amazon, HBO Now

David Simon’s brilliant drama about the narcotics scene in Baltimore, Maryland depicted that world not just from the perspective of law enforcement but also from the point of view of the dealers and users who were affected by legal and institutional forces that have contributed to the neglect of the black underclass. The Wire also serves as a powerful reminder of the failures of local politicians, bureaucrats, and even the news media in contributing to the collapse of many urban centers like Baltimore. But the show is also passionately acted and sharply scripted, making it a powerfully complex drama—one that teaches us about the importance of not just local but national politics in shaping our daily lives.

4. PARKS AND RECREATION (2009-2015)

Where to watch it: Hulu, Netflix

In the first season of the classic NBC mockumentary-style sitcom, Amy Poeher’s Leslie Knope is depicted as a pushy and naive small-town bureaucrat lacking in self-awareness. But as the show evolved, it turned Knope into a canny, likeable character who stood up for the value of local government in making a difference in people’s lives. It also gave Knope a perfect foil in Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman), a libertarian who believed the government should do as little as possible but who still managed to be a supportive friend. Parks and Recreation also satirized current political events—most notably Michael Bloomberg’s infamous soda tax and the recall of Wisconsin governor Scott Walker—and featured cameos by politicians including Vice President Joe Biden, First Lady Michelle Obama, and Secretary of State Madeline Albright.

5. VEEP (2012-PRESENT)

Where to watch it: Amazon, HBO Now

Created by Armando Iannucci, who was also the driving force behind the British political comedy The Thick of It, Veep features Julia Louis-Dreyfus as the charismatic, but mostly ineffectual, Vice President Selina Meyer. The show brutally satirizes Washington bureaucracy and ambition, as Selina’s staff members compete to gain favor with their superiors. Unlike the utopian presidency of The West Wing, the characters in Veep are driven completely by self-interest and more interested in the appearance of success than in actually making things happen. Add a highly talented cast headlined by Louis-Dreyfus, Tony Hale, and Anna Chlumsky, and you get one of the most biting commentaries on American politics ever made.

6. HOUSE OF CARDS (2013-PRESENT)

Where to watch it: Netflix

Based on a four-episode British TV show from 1990, House of Cards made a big splash as one of the first original series produced by Netflix. It features Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood, an ambitious politician who manipulates, cheats, and even kills his political opponents while embarking on an audacious effort to grab power. The show has drawn comparisons to Shakespeare’s Richard III with its depiction of Underwood’s elaborate pursuit of revenge against all of his personal and political rivals. You can also enjoy Spacey mugging for the camera, directly addressing viewers through asides in which he confides in the viewers about what he is doing, implicating us in the process.

7. SCANDAL (2012-PRESENT)

Where to watch it: ABC.com, Amazon, Hulu, Netflix

While many critics have dismissed Scandal as soapy melodrama, Shonda Rhimes’ primetime series offers an entertaining and stylish depiction of political ambition and greed. The show’s lead character, Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington), is a fixer—someone who works with her team of “Gladiators” to help her wealthy clients make scandals go away. Frequently, that involves coming to the aid of President Fitzgerald Grant, with whom she has an ongoing affair. But these emotional storylines can also speak to questions of political power. See, for example, “The Lawn Chair,” an episode from season four that tackles the issue of police brutality, and a long-running season one subplot about tampered voting machines.

8. THE AMERICANS (2013-PRESENT)

Where to watch it: Amazon

Set in the early 1980s at the peak of the Cold War, The Americans depicts Philip and Elizabeth Jennings as a pair of KGB agents living in an arranged marriage in suburban Washington, as they work to spy on the American government while raising two children who have no knowledge of their parents' true identities. The show is a powerful meditation on the psychic toll of living your life—working, vacationing, and having sex—while pretending to be someone else. It’s also a powerful commentary on today’s use of surveillance, spying, and torture in the fight against terrorism.

9. THE GOOD WIFE (2009-2016)

Where to watch it: Amazon, CBS All Access, Hulu

A complex legal drama, The Good Wife focuses on attorney Alicia Florrick (subtly played by Julianna Margulies) as the wife of a philandering politician who goes back to work in a law firm after her husband’s infidelities go public. During the course of the series, Florrick chooses to make a run for the office of State’s Attorney, forcing her to make a series of ethical choices about what principles she's willing to sacrifice in order to get elected. But the show is also one of the most insightful series ever about the nuances of the legal system and its ability to handle complicated cases. In particular, watch for the episode where Florrick represents a client who was wounded in a shooting range when a gun he built using a 3D printer explodes. Should the printer manufacturer be sued? The designer of the gun? The Good Wife has the foresight to tackle many of these complex issues.

10. SHOW ME A HERO (2015)

Where to watch it: HBO Now

This miniseries, produced by The Wire creator David Simon, is based on the true story of Yonkers mayor Nick Wasicsko (Oscar Isaac) and his efforts to comply with a federal order demanding that the city desegregate its public housing despite resistance from the city’s white, middle-class residents who feared the changes that integration would bring. Like The Wire and The Good Wife, Show Me a Hero captures the drama and intrigue of local politics, while serving as a brutal reminder about the dysfunctional nature of political institutions in many urban centers. Isaac powerfully inhabits the role of Wasicsko, one of the youngest mayors ever to hold office in a major U.S. city, and Catherine Keener also shines as Mary Dorman, a naive East Yonkers resident who initially fights against desegregation.

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Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images for PCA
12 Surprising Facts About Robin Williams
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images for PCA
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images for PCA

Robin Williams had a larger-than-life personality. On screen and on stage, he embodied what he referred to as “hyper-comedy.” Offscreen, he was involved in humanitarian causes and raised three children—Zak, Zelda, and Cody. On July 16, HBO debuts the documentary Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind, directed by Marina Zenovich. The film chronicles his rise on the L.A. and San Francisco stand-up comedy scenes during the 1970s, to his more dramatic roles in the 1980s and '90s in award-winning films like Dead Poets Society; Good Morning, Vietnam; Awakenings; The Fisher King; and Good Will Hunting. The film also focuses on August 11, 2014, the date of his untimely death. Here are 12 surprising facts about the beloved entertainer.

1. ROBIN WILLIAMS GOT HIS START AT A COMEDY WORKSHOP INSIDE A CHURCH.

A still from 'Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind' (2018)
HBO

After leaving Juilliard, Robin Williams found himself back in his hometown of San Francisco, but he couldn’t find work as an actor. Then he saw something for a comedy workshop in a church and decided to give it a shot. “So I went to this workshop in the basement of a Lutheran church, and it was stand-up comedy, so you don’t get to improvise with others, but I started off doing, ostensibly, it was just like improvising but solo," he told NPR. "And then I started to realize, ‘Oh.’ [I started] building an act from there."

2. HE FORMED A FRIENDSHIP WITH KOKO THE GORILLA.

In 2001, Williams visited Koko the gorilla, who passed away in June, at The Gorilla Foundation in Northern California. Her caregivers had shown her one of his movies, and she seemed to recognize him. Koko repeatedly signed for Williams to tickle her. “We shared something extraordinary: laughter,” Williams said of the encounter. On the day Williams died, The Foundation shared the news with Koko and reported that she fell into sadness.

3. FOR A TIME, HE WAS A MIME IN CENTRAL PARK.

In 1974, photographer Daniel Sorine captured photos of two mimes in New York's Central Park. As it turned out, one of the mimes was Williams, who was attending Juilliard at the time. “What attracted me to Robin Williams and his fellow mime, Todd Oppenheimer, was an unusual amount of intensity, personality, and physical fluidity,” Sorine said. In 1991, Williams revisited the craft by playing Mime Jerry in Bobcat Goldthwait’s film Shakes the Clown. In the movie, Williams hilariously leads a how-to class in mime.

4. HE TRIED TO GET LYDIA FROM MRS. DOUBTFIRE BACK IN SCHOOL.

As a teen, Lisa Jakub played Robin Williams’s daughter Lydia Hillard in Mrs. Doubtfire. “When I was 14 years old, I went on location to film Mrs. Doubtfire for five months, and my high school was not happy,” Jakub wrote on her blog. “My job meant an increased workload for teachers, and they were not equipped to handle a ‘non-traditional’ student. So, during filming, they kicked me out.”

Sensing Jakub’s distress over the situation, Williams typed a letter and sent it to her school. “A student of her caliber and talent should be encouraged to go out in the world and learn through her work,” he wrote. “She should also be encouraged to return to the classroom when she’s done to share those experiences and motivate her classmates to soar to their own higher achievements … she is an asset to any classroom.”

Apparently, the school framed the letter but didn’t allow Jakub to return. “But here’s what matters from that story—Robin stood up for me,” Jakub wrote. “I was only 14, but I had already seen that I was in an industry that was full of back-stabbing. And it was entirely clear that Robin had my back.”

5. HE WASN’T PRODUCERS' FIRST CHOICE TO PLAY MORK ON MORK & MINDY.

Anson Williams, Marion Ross, and Don Most told The Hallmark Channel that a different actor was originally hired to play Mork for the February 1978 Happy Days episode “My Favorite Orkan,” which introduced the alien character to the world. “Mork & Mindy was like the worst script in the history of Happy Days. It was unreadable, it was so bad,” Anson Williams said. “So they hire some guy for Mork—bad actor, bad part.” The actor quit, and producer Garry Marshall came to the set and asked: “Does anyone know a funny Martian?” They hired Williams to play Mork, and from September 1978 to May 1982, Williams co-headlined the spinoff Mork & Mindy for four seasons.

6. HE “RISKED” A ROLE IN AN OFF-BROADWAY PLAY.

Actor Robin Williams poses for a portrait during the 35th Annual People's Choice Awards held at the Shrine Auditorium on January 7, 2009 in Los Angeles, California
Michael Caulfield, Getty Images for PCA

In 1988, Williams made his professional stage debut as Estragon in the Mike Nichols-directed Waiting for Godot, which also starred Steve Martin and F. Murray Abraham. The play was held off-Broadway at Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center. The New York Times asked Williams if he felt the show was a career risk, and he responded with: “Risk! Of never working on the stage again! Oh, no! You’re ruined! It’s like you're ruined socially in Tustin,” a town in Orange County, California. “If there’s risk, you can’t think about it,” he said, “or you’ll never be able to do the play.”

Williams had to restrain himself and not improvise during his performance. “You can do physical things,” he said, “but you don’t ad lib [Samuel] Beckett, just like you don’t riff Beethoven.” In 1996, Nichols and Williams once again worked together, this time in the movie The Birdcage.

7. HE USHERED IN THE ERA OF CELEBRITY VOICE ACTING.

The 1992 success of Aladdin, in which Williams voiced Genie, led to more celebrities voicing animated characters. According to a 2011 article in The Atlantic, “Less than 20 years ago, voice acting was almost exclusively the realm of voice actors—people specifically trained to provide voices for animated characters. As it turns out, the rise of the celebrity voice actor can be traced to a single film: Disney’s 1992 breakout animated hit Aladdin.” Since then, big names have attached themselves to animated films, from The Lion King to Toy Story to Shrek. Williams continued to do voice acting in animated films, including Aladdin and the King of Thieves, Happy Feet, and Happy Feet 2.

8. HE FORGOT TO THANK HIS MOTHER DURING HIS 1998 OSCAR SPEECH.

In March 1998, Williams won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance as Sean Maguire in Good Will Hunting. In 2011, Williams appeared on The Graham Norton Show, and Norton asked him what it was like to win the award. “For a week it was like, ‘Hey congratulations! Good Will Hunting, way to go,'” Williams said. “Two weeks later: ‘Hey, Mork.’”

Then Williams mentioned how his speech accidentally left out one of the most important people in his life. “I forgot to thank my mother and she was in the audience,” he said. “Even the therapist went, ‘Get out!’ That was rough for the next few years. [Mom voice] ‘You came through here [points to his pants]! How’s the award?’”

9. HE COMFORTED STEVEN SPIELBERG DURING THE FILMING OF SCHINDLER’S LIST.

At this year’s 25th anniversary screening of Schindler’s List, held at the Tribeca Film Festival, director Steven Spielberg shared that Williams—who played Peter Pan in Spielberg’s Hook—would call him and make him laugh. “Robin knew what I was going through, and once a week, Robin would call me on schedule and he would do 15 minutes of stand-up on the phone,” Spielberg said. “I would laugh hysterically, because I had to release so much.”

10. HE HELPED ETHAN HAWKE GET HIS AGENT.

During a June 2018 appearance on The Graham Norton Show, Ethan Hawke recalled how, while working on Dead Poets Society, Williams was hard on him. “I really wanted to be a serious actor,” Hawke said. “I really wanted to be in character, and I really didn’t want to laugh. The more I didn’t laugh, the more insane [Williams] got. He would make fun of me. ‘Oh this one doesn't want to laugh.’ And the more smoke would come out of my ears. He didn’t understand I was trying to do a good job.” Hawke had assumed Williams hated him during filming.

After filming ended, Hawke went back to school, but he received a surprising phone call. It was from Williams’s agent, who—at Williams's suggestion—wanted to sign Hawke. Hawke said he still has the same agent today.

11. HE WAS ALMOST CAST IN MIDNIGHT RUN.

In February 1988, Williams told Rolling Stone how he sometimes still had to audition for roles. “I read for a movie with [Robert] De Niro, [Midnight Run], to be directed by Marty Brest,” Williams said. “I met with them three or four times, and it got real close, it was almost there, and then they went with somebody else. The character was supposed to be an accountant for the Mafia. Charles Grodin got the part. I was craving it. I thought, ‘I can be as funny,’ but they wanted someone obviously more in type. And in the end, he was better for it. But it was rough for me. I had to remind myself, ‘Okay, come on, you’ve got other things.’”

In July 1988, Universal released Midnight Run. Just two years later, Williams finally worked with De Niro, on Awakenings.

12. BILLY CRYSTAL AND WILLIAMS USED TO TALK ON THE PHONE FOR HOURS.

Actors Robin Williams (L) and Billy Crystal pose at the afterparty for the premiere of Columbia Picture's 'RV' on April 23, 2006 in Los Angeles, California
Kevin Winter, Getty Images

Starting in 1986, Williams, Billy Crystal, and Whoopi Goldberg co-hosted HBO’s Comic Relief to raise money for the homeless. Soon after Williams’s death, Crystal went on The View and spoke with Goldberg about his friendship with Williams. “We were like two jazz musicians,” Crystal said. “Late at night I get these calls and we’d go for hours. And we never spoke as ourselves. When it was announced I was coming to Broadway, I had 50 phone messages, in one day, from somebody named Gary, who wanted to be my backstage dresser.”

“Gary” turned out to be Williams.

Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind premieres on Monday, July 16 at 8 p.m. ET on HBO.

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Walt Disney Pictures
10 Facts About Hocus Pocus
Walt Disney Pictures
Walt Disney Pictures

In a 2014 Reddit AMA, Bette Midler said she'd be interested in doing a Hocus Pocus sequel. "You have to go to send in your cards to the Walt Disney company," she said. "The ball's in their court." While you get those cards ready, here are some facts about the original, which arrived in theaters 25 years ago today.

1. THE STORY ORIGINATED AS A BEDTIME STORY.

The story for Hocus Pocus came about after writer David Kirschner invented a bedtime story for his kids. He later wrote the story up and submitted it to Muppet Magazine (why does this not still exist?), where it gained recognition.

2. THE WRITERS USED PROPS TO PITCH IT TO STUDIO EXECUTIVES.

Bette Midler in 'Hocus Pocus' (1993)
Walt Disney Pictures

To pitch the story to Disney, the writers had execs enter a dark room with broomsticks and a vacuum cleaner hanging from the ceiling. They also scattered 15 pounds of candy corn throughout the room in an effort to invoke Halloween nostalgia. It obviously worked!

3. IT WAS NOT AN IMMEDIATE HIT.

Though it’s a cult classic now, Hocus Pocus didn’t do that well when it first came out in 1993, perhaps because it was released in July instead of September or October. Though it didn’t have a terrible opening—$8,125,471, putting it in fourth place at the box office that weekend—it fell to $2,017,688 a few weeks later, and bad reviews from the critics didn’t help matters.

Entertainment Weekly was particularly put off by the movie, calling it a “piece of corny slapstick trash” and saying that “It’s acceptable scary-silly kid fodder that adults will find only mildly insulting. Unless they’re Bette Midler fans. In which case it’s depressing as hell.”

4. BETTE MIDLER LOVES IT.

Bette Midler, by the way, has said that Hocus Pocus is her favorite film out of all of the films she’s ever done. (At least as of 2008.) Thora Birch agreed, recently saying, “The most fun I ever had on a film was Hocus Pocus.”

5. KATHY NAJIMY LOVES IT, TOO.

Midler isn't the only star of the film who isn't immune to its allure: Kathy Najimy has said she watches the movie with her family every year on August 15.

6. IT COULD HAVE STARRED LEONARDO DICAPRIO.

The role of Max was originally offered to Leonardo DiCaprio. He turned it down to do What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.

7. SARAH JESSICA PARKER IS RELATED TO A WOMAN FAMOUSLY ACCUSED OF BEING A WITCH.

Had Sarah Jessica Parker known then what she knows now, she might have approached the role of Sarah Sanderson a little differently. When the actress went on the show Who Do You Think You Are to trace her family history, Parker discovered that one of her ancestors was Esther Elwell, one of the women accused of being a witch during the Salem Witch Trials. After a young girl said she saw Esther’s “spectre” strangling neighbor Mary Fitch, Elwell was arrested, but escaped going to trial.

8. THORA BIRCH REVISITED THE NEIGHBORHOOD IN AMERICAN BEAUTY.

While the kids are prematurely celebrating victory against the Sanderson sisters after locking them in the kiln, they’re shown talking in front of a house as they walk to a park. The house was later used as the house Thora Birch’s character lived in for American Beauty.

9. THE KIDS WEREN'T HUGE FANS OF THE CATS.

The kids all hated working with the cats. Many different cats were used to represent Binx, and each one served a different purpose—one was good at cuddling with the kids, one would jump on command, etc. Every time a new cat was used, the children would have to coerce the kitty to trust them by using treats and a clicker. They got sick of it.

10. MUCH OF THE ORIGINAL CAST REUNITED FOR A 20TH REUNION.

Most of the cast participated in a 20th anniversary event for D23 (the Disney fan club) members. Sarah Jessica Parker and Bette Midler were not in attendance, but pretty much everyone else was, including Kathy Najimy (Mary Sanderson), Vinessa Shaw (Allison), Omri Katz (Max), Thora Birch (Dani), and Doug Jones (Billy Butcherson). You can watch some of that reunion above.

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