Television has long had a reputation of hollowness, an empty entertainment for a zombified, couch-potato nation. But anyone who believes today's TV horizon is the same barren landscape of decades past has not been paying attention. Something changed.
What's on the screen now -- a TV is no longer required -- includes programming of quality and substance. Remarkably, that includes entertainment shows dealing with foreign policy issues.
Just in time for the 2016 election, which political pulse-takers predict
will focus more on foreign policy than U.S. elections have in many years
, is filled with plot lines involving national security and international relations. Coincidence?
When you watch the Netflix hit "House of Cards," you never forget it's all made-for-TV hyperbole, but the storylines are filled with a pleasing blend of truth and fiction.
The interactions between President Francis Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey, and Russian President Viktor Petrov
, played as a simultaneously chillingly and amusing parody of Vladimir Putin by lookalike Lars Mikkelsen, are a useful reminder of the tensions that complicate interpersonal relations between individual who make major decisions.
The U.S. and Russian leaders may feel no fondness for each other, but they have to work together. Just as President Barack Obama needs Putin's cooperation on issues such as sanctions on Iran, Underwood needs Petrov at the United Nations. And just as in real life, the major strategic objectives of the world's most powerful nations become greatly complicated
by the actions of individuals standing up for human rights.
A gay rights advocate held in a Russian jail becomes one of the pieces on a giant global chessboard, his fate traded along with elements of an ambitious plan for peace between Israelis and Palestinians and the placement of NATO missiles on Eastern European countries.
We're talking entertainment here, fiction, so credulity is stretched and characters are often caricatures. "House of Cards" features a power couple of Washington politicians who will do whatever it takes to achieve their aims. Their only ideology is power.
Curiously, that is also the driving ideology for the hilarious Selina Meyer, played to perfection by Julia Louis-Dreyfus in HBO's "Veep," the best comedy on television.
If "House of Cards" is all dark intrigue, "Veep" is light-hearted buffoonery. But it still manages to convey an insider's view of the workings of government and the absurdities that surround it.
Whether debating an opposing candidate whose sole claim to the presidency is that he served in Iraq, fending off the groping husband of a Nordic prime minister or trying to score folksiness points with the locals at a pub in London, what we see is a human being, a politician, navigating the challenges of a hypercritical public. And we see a reminder that everything an American president says or does is put under a microscope not only in the United States but all over the world.
If you want principles instead of naked ambition in foreign policy, the place to go is "Madam Secretary" on CBS. Unlike the former secretary of state and current presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, this Washington operator, played by Tea Leoni, is no foreign policy hawk. She came to office by accident, almost in spite of herself. A former CIA operative, she would rather spend her time on her horse farm with her husband, a religion scholar and sometime-spy played by Tim Daly. The two make the best-looking couple
in the history of any government, real or make-believe.
Secretary of State Elizabeth McCord fights off trigger-happy generals, peace-averse politicians and greedy financiers, persuading the president to try doing things her way. The president's odious chief of staff snarls at her, but she usually saves the day.
Secretary McCord is deeply committed to a nuclear deal with Iran. The bad guys in this show oppose the deal. And one of the clear good guys is her Iranian counterpart, the charming and good-hearted Foreign Minister Zahed Javani. The real foreign minister
is Mohammad Javad Zarif, also said to be a man of great charms, though possibly not as pure of intentions.
The show even took a stab at explaining the complicated Greek debt crisis, with an American rescue plan nearly derailed by a Wall Street hedge fund manager, always a useful villain, determined to be repaid for his Greek bonds. When the U.S. president traveled to Europe to push the plan, the German chancellor told him off, saying Europe can handle its problems without American help. Angela Merkel would never be that rude, but she might send the same message.
On Showtime's "Homeland," we get a sense of the friction between politicians in Washington and intelligence agents in the field, as well as the political impact of field operations gone tragically wrong. As long as America's counterintelligence weapon of choice is unmanned drones, the "collateral damage" storyline is sure to appear again and again, questioning the arithmetic of counterterrorism: whether a drone strike that kills civilians might create more terrorists than it eliminates. The show blurs the line between good guys and bad guys.
I've been told the best foreign policy show on television is HBO's hit from the fantasy realm, "Game of Thrones." I confess I have not watched despite much prodding.
My personal favorite is another drama that toys with our moral bearings, "The Americans." In my view, it's the best show on television. It almost makes us forget where our allegiance is supposed to lie. The show centers on a married couple of Soviet spies living as Americans in a Washington suburb during the 1980s, the final decade of the Cold War.
With the benefit of three decades, we have a new, less emotionally charged perspective. By now the ideological divide between the U.S. and the USSR has faded into history and what we see is a team of dazzlingly skilled professionals making unimaginable personal sacrifices for the sake of a patriotic ideal: trying to keep the United States from arming Afghan fighters killing Soviet soldiers, in a conflict that we know ultimately spawned the Taliban and 9/11.
Decades from now, there will be television programs looking back at the West's foreign conflicts of the current era. How will they look then?