The 44 Best Political TV Shows of All Time

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The 44 Best Political TV Shows of All Time

It has become abundantly clear that the best political TV shows aren’t just the stuff made of fiction, dreamt up by your favorite TV writer and showrunners. By some measure, the best political shows—as in, most outrageous and entertaining—are like the ones that played out last week in Cleveland, and those currently unfolding in Philadelphia. Plagiarized speeches. Failed endorsements. Divided factions amidst cries for “unity.” As the saying goes, you can’t make this stuff up.

Of course, many have taken inspiration from our real political systems, and made up aplenty, 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 shows, rather than political satire. Which means Saturday Night Live and delicious gems like the 2015 Hillary Meets 2007 Hillary sketch weren’t considered. Nor were any of the wonderful shows that use current political events for their nightly fodder, like The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, which recently delivered this beauty. These great shows will have to wait for another list.

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 below, or to angrily declare in the comments that we’ve failed you entirely, and that you alone know enough about political TV to make Paste great again.

As we prepare to bid farewell to Barack Obama, the 44th President of the United States, we present the following.

Here are our picks for the 44 greatest political TV shows of all time.

BEST-POLITICAL-SHOWS-newsroom.jpg 44. The Newsroom
Original Run: 2012-2014
Is there a modern day show that utilized current events and the politics that surrounded them better than Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom? From the BP oil spill, to the Arab Spring, we watched Jeff Daniels’ acerbic news anchor Will McAvoy deliver the news in what he hoped was the most objective, least-hyped way possible. The pilot’s opening scene, where Will McAvoy berates a college student for asking why America is the greatest country in the world, probably pops up on your newsfeed at least once a year. In just a few short minutes, the show’s writers take us through what’s wrong with this country (i.e., we are far behind other countries in literacy, math, science, life expectancy and more), yet Will’s speech somehow leaves us a little hopeful that something better is out there and within our grasp. The series had the same romantic notion of a newsroom that The West Wing had about the White House. And while we can’t deny that The Newsroom could be bombastic, self-satisfied and preachy at its worst, when it was good, it was very, very good. And damn if we didn’t watch every single episode.—Deirdre Kaye

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BEST-POLITICAL-SHOWS-thatsmybush.jpg 43. That’s My Bush!
Original Run: 2001
Although the series was created by the ever-opinionated duo behind South Park, That’s My Bush is not political satire. It’s important to note that this show was going to exist no matter who won the 2000 Presidential election. (We could have had Everybody Loves Al.) It wasn’t inherently about George W. Bush (Timothy Bottoms), which, in retrospect, feels weird to say, given his legacy in the world. But it’s much more a show that satirizes, or at least plays around with, the classic, multi-cam sitcom. That’s My Bush decided to stick arguably the most important American figure, the sitting President, into a very broad, hacky sitcom. There’s definitely iconoclasm in that, but if anybody went back to watch the show without knowing this, they may be jarred to find out how little Bush’s personality, and politics, play into the show. However, for television fanatics, and those who devoured old sitcoms, there’s something especially clever and fun about this series.—Chris Morgan

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BEST-POLITICAL-SHOWS-rome.jpg 42. Rome
Original Run: 2005-2007
HBO’s Rome covers one of the most politically tense moments in the world’s history: the rise and fall of Julius Caesar (Ciaran Hinds). The general was wildly popular with the people, but much less so with his fellow politicians. The first season follows Caesar’s leadership, which took Rome from a republic to an empire. Unfortunately, this did not sit so well with many of his countrymen, and Caesar, as anyone who read Shakespeare knows, met a tragic end. Although set thousands of years ago, the fight for what kind of country you want to live in resonates to this day. The drama had a rise and fall similar to Caesar’s. Although incredibly popular when it premiered in 2005, at 9 million dollars an episode, it broke HBO’s budget and was canceled after only two season. The show is typical of HBO—superb acting, historically accurate costumes and sets, and oodles of nudity.—Madina Papadopoulos

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BEST-POLITICAL-SHOWS-partyanimals.jpg 41. Party Animals
Original Run: 2007
While primarily known today as being the first major television role for future Doctor Who star Matt Smith, as well as an early starring role for Bloodline and Birdman’s Andrea Riseborough, Party Animals explodes with youthful vigor, depicting the fast-paced, often unsavory world of Parliament politicians, their researchers and the lobbyists that are forever wheeling and dealing. Working as a somewhat less comedic offshoot of programs like The Thick of It, the show explores how, in the world of politics, the devil is in the details and the slightest faux pas, unchecked source or misplaced bit of intel can spell disaster. Canceled after a single eight-episode season, the series never caught on with British audiences in any meaningful way. That said, the show works as much more than a mere “Before They Were Stars” footnote in BBC history. It’s a fun, breezy exploration of the emerging class of the British political system and how they balance being young and impulsive while helping aid (or exploit) the country’s leaders. And, yes—to be fair—any program that opens with The Doctor saying “fuck” is bound to have some appeal.—Mark Rozeman

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BEST-POLITICAL-SHOWS-politicians-husband.jpg 40. The Politician’s Husband
Original Run: 2013
A companion series of sorts to the 1995 series The Politician’s Wife, this three-episode arc brings us into the lives and careers of Aiden Hoynes (former Doctor Who David Tennant) and Freya Gardner (the always amazing Emily Watson), a political power couple in the U.K. with eyes toward taking over 10 Downing Street. Nothing goes according to plan, though, as they face opposition from other politicians in their own party and scandals that threaten their livelihoods. The most potent struggles come from within, as Freya knowingly pushes her husband aside for the sake of her own political ascendency. It’s as brutal as anything we’re seeing in the ‘16 Presidential election, but with the added stakes of a marriage and family in play.—Robert Ham

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BEST-POLITICAL-SHOWS-manhattan.jpg 39. Manhattan
Original Run: 2014-2015
Few shows offer as deep a look into the outcomes of American politics as Manhattan did. In 1943, at the height of World War II, in the middle of nowhere, at a made-up address, an entire Army base was built for the housing and employing of America’s leading scientists and their families. Their task: Keep America safe by building the bomb to beat all bombs—the nuclear bomb. Even our Vice President wasn’t aware of the Manhattan Project, which meant that base authorities answered to no law and no higher power. The outcome of which was often diabolical, on both personal and political levels. Many of those who lived in Los Alamos or worked on the Manhattan Project died early due to illness caused from exposure to radiation. Their work may have ended the war, but at what cost? Manhattan is the story of what happens when an unmonitored search for national security goes horrifically wrong.—Deirdre Kaye

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best-sitcoms-murphy-brown.jpg 38. Murphy Brown
Original Run: 1988-1998
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 (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. 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.—Amy Amatangelo

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BEST-POLITICAL-SHOWS-john-adams.jpg 37. John Adams
Original Run: 2008
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

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BEST-POLITICAL-SHOWS-Get_Smart.jpg 36. Get Smart
Original Run: 1965-1970
The Cold War was red hot in the ‘60s. Dr. No, the first James Bond movie, debuted in 1962 and secret agents and their espionage world made for fascinating material for American audiences. Then Mel Brooks and Buck Henry got a hold of the spy genre and twisted it into Get Smart. The show was about CONTROL, an American counter-intelligence organization, and their battle with KAOS, who weren’t explicitly Russian, but were certainly the show’s facsimile of America’s enemy. Of course, since it was a Mel Brooks show, both sides were populated by bumbling fools, led by Maxwell Smart, played fabulously by Don Adams. Every week, Max and 99 (Barbara Feldon), under the watchful eye of the exasperated Chief (Edward Platt), would do battle with evil foreign entities, with everything skewed just enough to create a smart, but silly, spy parody. The show could be dark, but flippantly so, as if every death in the battle between CONTROL and KAOS was just a bump in the road. Get Smart, with its great cast and sharp writing, is the best sitcom about espionage to date.—Chris Morgan

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BEST-POLITICAL-SHOWS-political-animals.jpg 35. Political Animals
Original Run: 2012
A former First Lady (Sigourney Weaver) who ran for President and lost the nomination only to be appointed Secretary of State by her political rival. Sound familiar? But in this 2012 miniseries Elaine Barrish (Weaver) had divorced her philandering husband. During the six-episode run, Elaine balanced international crises with familial strife involving her two sons (James Wolk and Sebastian Stan), ex-husband (Ciarán Hinds) and liberal mother (Ellen Burstyn). There was hope that the limited run would launch a full-fledged series, but it was not to be, as USA decided against moving forward with the show. Like Jack & Bobby, another gem from executive producer Greg Berlanti (The Flash), Political Animals was far too short-lived. Although Berlanti is now enmeshed in the world of superheroes, we hope he turns his eye back to politics soon. As this year has shown us, the truth can be far stranger than fiction and it’s exciting to think about what Berlanti could do with the 2016 election.—Amy Amatangelo

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mash-tv.jpg 34. M*A*S*H
Original Run: 1972-1983
Anyone who takes part in the American political system and votes should spend a little time with M*A*S*H and the staff of the 4077. After all, we’re voting for a person who, at any moment, could make the decision to send thousands of Americans to war. Shouldn’t we know what such war looks like, and what it does to a person? Hawkeye’s (Alan Alda) series-long transformation is worth an entire graduate thesis alone. No greater picture of war’s effects on a person’s morals exists than in the episode “Preventative Medicine.” Airing on February 19, 1979, Hawkeye performs an unneeded appendectomy in order to keep an officer from duties Hawkeye deemed unnecessary. During its eleven-season run, the doctors, nurses and patients offered up hard looks at racism, patriotism, love, death and even PTSD. We’d be remiss not to use it as an educational tool.—Deirdre Kaye

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BEST-POLITICAL-SHOWS-benson.jpg 33. Benson
Original Run: 1979-1986
During the heart of the Reagan Revolution, ABC found a huge comedy hit in Benson. In the series, a spin-off of Soap, African-American Benson DuBois (Robert Guillaume) is the butler in the Governor’s mansion—but he’s also much more than that. He becomes the Governor Gatling’s (James Noble) confidant and best friend. Later in the series Benson would become the lieutenant governor and ultimately run against his longtime friend for the top job. The Cosby Show is typically given credit for making African-American TV families as all-American (as in, educated, wealthy, wise) as white TV families, but we can’t forget that it was Guillaume’s Benson who rolled up his sleeves and earned his seat at the head of America’s diversifying socio-political table. Running seven seasons on ABC (1979-1986), Benson mainstreamed smart, subversive political comedy before it was cool. When Guillaume finally won an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series during the series’ penultimate season, it was a hugely important cultural moment.—Chris White

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BEST-POLITICAL-SHOWS-honorable_woman.jpg 32. The Honourable Woman
Original Run: 2014
On paper, a series about the implementation of optical fibre cables to the West Bank and the complications therein may sound like a certain type of show—the kind you know will offer intellectual enrichment, but which may also end up feeling like homework. And while certainly dense with ideas, The Honourable Woman still manages, above all else, to be a thrilling examination of what happens when the political intertwines itself with the intensely personal. Written and directed by Hugo Blick (who once portrayed a young Joker back in Tim Burton’s Batman), the eight-episode series brilliantly navigates the treacherous twists and turns inherent to the Israel-Palestine divide. Leading it all is Nessa Stein (Maggie Gyllenhaal, in one of the best performances of her career), the businesswoman whose attempt to fulfill her father’s dreams leads her down a rabbit hole ripe with betrayal, kidnaping, suicide and murder. Supremely confident in execution, The Honourable Woman is a masterpiece of political intrigue.—Mark Rozeman

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BEST-POLITICAL-SHOWS-cic.jpg 31. Commander In Chief
Original Run: 2005-2006
Created by filmmaker Rod Lurie, this single-season series put the microscope on Mackenzie Allen (Geena Davis), the Vice President who is unceremoniously moved into the top spot after the President dies of a brain aneurysm. The show was inspired by The West Wing, but put a new spin on the template by offering insight into the burden that being the most powerful person in the world had on the President’s children along with the tense international relations and domestic policy. The struggles behind the scenes of the show (the series had three showrunners during its short run) did it no favors as it dropped quickly in the ratings, making a complete waste of a brilliant cast, including Donald Sutherland as Allen’s chief political rival.—Robert Ham

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BEST-POLITICAL-SHOWS-underground.jpg 30. Underground
Original Run: 2016-present
With so many heavy, powerful themes, it’s easy to forget that Underground (starring Aldis Hodge and Jurnee Smollett-Bell) is also a powerful portrait of American politics, as they once were and, in many ways, still are. Throughout its first season the historical thriller, centered on a group of enslaved blacks attempting to escape from a Georgia plantation, deftly wove in the role politics played in the enforcement of the American slave industry. Slave owner Tom Macon (Reed Diamond) is running for Senate and throughout his campaigning we see how this country’s “safety” has historically been determined by whites in power, and it’s a safety that has come at the expense of black Americans. On Underground those whites in power are super-predators in politicians’ clothing, and like so many other legal systems, slavery was justified as a necessity. It was necessary for politicians (down South and up North) to continuously embrace it, and it was a necessary means of defining the very concept of “American” and American freedom. Creators Misha Green and Joe Pokaski set out to make a show about real-life superheros who rebelled against an entire system, and in doing so, they reminded 2016 audiences that real-life villains are still, often, white Americans in powerful political positions, who still sit around determining the fate of those they have, for centuries, deemed as inferior.—Shannon M. Houston

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BEST-POLITICAL-SHOWS-Deutschland83.jpg 29. Deutschland 83
Original Run: 2015-present
Serving as Germany’s take on The Americans, Deutschland 83 offers up what’s simultaneously an engrossing coming-of-age story and a stylish dive into Cold War-era espionage. The series centers on a young East German border patrol guard tasked with going deep undercover as a personal assistant to a high-ranking West Germany General. From its opening moments, the show offers up a near Mad Men-esque adherence to detail in terms of production design, costuming and (most notably) killer soundtrack cuts. Besides a remarkable opening credits scene set to Peter Schilling’s “Major Tom,” the series also includes tracks by David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen, The Cure, New Order, Nena, 10cc and Duran Duran (among many others). And though the series’ relentless style occasionally risks overriding its core story, this style is simply so gripping that one can forgive the creative team for wanting to show off now and then.—Mark Rozeman

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BEST-POLITICAL-SHOWS-JACK.jpg 28. Jack & Bobby
Original Run: 2004-2005
When one talks about one-season wonders and/or shows canceled far too soon, chances are the more savvy, in-the-know TV viewers will inevitably get around to citing WB’s brilliant character drama Jack & Bobby. Set in small-town Missouri, the show, from Greg Berlanti (The Flash) focuses on the lives of two teen brothers, one of whom will grow up to be the future President of the United States, whereas the other will meet with a tragic early death. For the time being, however, track star Jack McCallister (Matt Long) and his geeky, asthmatic younger brother Bobby (Logan Lerman) first need to face down the typical perils of high school, whether it be grades, girls or bullies. Meanwhile, their pot-smoking, liberally minded mother Grace (Christine Lahti) must navigate single parenthood as well as the politics inherent in her job as a college professor. Interspersed with the central familial and high school narratives are flash-forwards in the form of a faux documentary from 2049, in which various talking heads (including some older versions of modern-day characters) act as a sort of Greek chorus, indirectly commenting on how the events of the show shaped the President they know today. Because the series takes place far away from the hustle and bustle of D.C., its relationship to politics may initially seem tenuous at best. What the series does achieve is something much more subtle and powerful—namely, exploring why people gravitate towards various political positions and how specific upbringings and experiences inform these views.—Mark Rozeman

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BEST-POLITICAL-SHOWS-Madam-Secretary.jpg 27. Madam Secretary
Original Run:2014-present
In an era when cable and streaming platforms regularly kick the broadcast networks collective asses up and down the field (HBO, FX and Netflix received 204 Emmy nods to 136 for NBC, ABC, CBS, FOX, PBS and the CW) it’s a nice surprise when quality programming shows up over the air. After a slow-ish start, CBS’ Madam Secretary had developed into a solid hour of political intrigue, delivering a heady mix of domestic and foreign politics with a soupçon of humor and an interesting portrayal of home life. While the show doesn’t name the president’s party affiliation, it does tackle both real world potentials like dirty bombs on US soil and a coup in Iran, as well as “ripped-from-the-headlines” bits like increased relations with Cuba and Boko Haram kidnappings. Tea Leoni is everything you’d want as a TV Secretary of State, and rather than simply using her family (including the always exceptional Tim Daly as husband Henry) and staff (I’d watch Bebe Neuwirth read a phone book) as occasional one-note props, creator Barbara Hall has developed well-rounded characters and given them all meaningful plotlines, something that’s often difficult to do with a large cast.—Mark Rabinowitz

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BEST-POLITICAL-SHOWS-spincity.jpg 26. Spin City
Original Run: 1996-2002
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

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6-90-of-the-90s-South-Park.jpg 25. South Park
Original Run: 1997-present
Due to its quick turnaround, South Park might be the first animated show to be consistently, timely with its political takedowns. With, at most, six days of thought put into most episodes, creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone often are able to pull from current headlines for their incredibly witty parodies. These socially relevant episodes have allowed the show to address Saddam Hussein’s capture less than a week after it happened, or brilliantly mock the economic crisis through a franchise of Margaritavilles. These political parodies can often be hit-or-miss—as they were in this past “PC Principal” season—but their best takedowns withstand the test of time. There’s the classic “Douche and Turd” episode, which could easily be reused during this election season, and “Chinpokomon” is now more relevant than ever. With so little time spent on each of its episodes, you’d think South Park would run the risk of giving its topics short shrift, or that there just wouldn’t be enough time to create a compelling metaphor for the politics of today. Yet somehow, the series almost always nails its topic in brilliant and hilarious fashion, with a biting satire that sustains each episode for years to come.—Ross Bonaime

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BEST-POLITICAL-SHOWS-outlander.jpg 24. Outlander
Original Run: 2014-present
At its core, Outlander is a a love story, but it’s also a story of great political intrigue. Season Two of the show centers on the intense political situation in Scotland in the 1700s. With Claire (Caitriona Balfe) being from the 1900s, she has intimate knowledge of the gruesome battles that will occur and ultimately destroy Scotland. The plan she comes up with, with her husband Jamie (Sam Heugan), to move to France so as to stop the war from happening by manipulating Bonnie Prince Charlie (Andrew Gower) seems like it will work because Jamie is a master politician. He excels at making people want to do things his way. However, even with his incredible skill, the English and the Scottish just cannot get along. You’d think that absolute knowledge of the future would be enough to stop an all-out war, but it just isn’t possible. Outlander’s political drama is a reminde that “there is nothing new under the sun.” No matter how diplomatic or informed people might be, if war is in their opponent’s heart, it’s almost impossible to stop it.—Keri Lumm

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BEST-POLITICAL-SHOWS-state-of-play.jpg 23. State of Play
Original Run: 2003
A stirring cocktail of conspiracy thriller, political drama and murder-mystery, Paul Abbott’s dynamite 2003 miniseries State of Play stars Life on Mars’s John Simm as Cal McCaffrey, a London journalist tasked with uncovering two (seemingly) unconnected deaths—an alleged drug dealer found shot to death and the young political researcher who appears to have fallen to her death on the London Underground. What begins as an engaging whodunit quickly expands into a potent examination of the corruptive influences that have intertwined themselves with the British government. Despite its vast thematic canvas, however, the series—helmed by future Harry Potter maestro David Yates—never feels bloated or convoluted. Helping matters is the fact that it boasts one of the best casts imaginable, with turns from Kelly Macdonald, Polly Walker, Philip Glenister, a pre-fame James McAvoy and—in typical scene-stealing fashion—Bill Nighy as Cal’s dogged editor. The miniseries was later remade and condensed into a serviceable standalone feature starring Russell Crowe, Ben Affleck and Rachel McAdams, but even contributions from some of Hollywood’s greatest scribes (the script credits Matthew Michael Carnahan, Billy Ray and Tony Gilroy with rewrites from Peter Morgan) cannot hold a candle to the complexity and emotional depth of Abbott’s original piece.—Mark Rozeman

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BEST-POLITICAL-SHOWS-boardwalkempire.jpg 22. Boardwalk Empire
Original Run: 2010-2014
Easily dismissed as just a Sopranos clone set in the 1920s, Boardwalk Empire wisely took many of the best elements of its predecessor and expanded its scope. It’s this wide-ranging spotlight, drifting from the highest levels of political office down to lowly bootleggers and prostitutes, that makes the show something special, offering up morality plays that hold the lives of millions at stake, while putting an actual face on those being affected. The show’s political commentary is apt without seeming preachy, while characters have maintained the balance between being archetypal ciphers and real people. Boardwalk Empire isn’t as energetic as other dramas, but its meticulous slow-burn has a depth and beauty to it that’s rarely been matched on the small screen. And it only improved over time, as it became less concerned with the minutiae of New Jersey politics in favor of featuring a much more compelling national landscape. As a result, both its characters and its stories became grander, more operatic and expressionistic. By its third season, Boardwalk Empire found its voice, finally living up to the promise of its Scorsese-directed premiere.—Sean Gandert

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BEST-POLITICAL-SHOWS-alpha_house.jpg 21. Alpha House
Original Run: 2013- present
Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau is no stranger to televised political satire thanks to his still-brilliant HBO series Tanner ‘88, which followed the campaign of a potential Democratic Presidential candidate and his staff. For his more recent effort, Trudeau turned his attention to the other side of the aisle with this Amazon comedy about four Republican senators that share a rented home in D.C. This simple premise lays a perfect foundation for not only personality clashes, but also a scathing look at the pandering and sniping that goes on among both major parties. Where the commentary lands hardest is on the scary amounts of money being poured into political campaigns thanks to the awful Citizens United court case. Trudeau and his writers present that with chilling exactitude in the form of a pair of wealthy brothers funding some re-election bids and an heiress who runs a Super PAC for Republican candidates. The laughs are there, but there’s a bite to them.—Robert Ham

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