1-3. British parliament, The Thick Of It (2005-2012)
British parliament and U.S. State Department, In The Loop (2009)
Selina Meyer’s vice presidential administration, Veep (2012-present)
Beneath their roiling pace and steady stream of profanity, Armando Iannucci’s trilogy of political satires—the BBC Four series The Thick Of It; its transatlantic follow-up film, In The Loop; and HBO’s Veep—are largely comedies of stasis. The big joke within Iannucci’s corridors of power involves crises nearly rising to the boiling point, before a hotter-yet-somehow-cooler head—usually belonging to Peter Capaldi—keeps everything from spinning out of control. Sure, parliamentary majorities tumble from power and international relations break down, but Iannuci’s is a world where self-preservation rules and typically leads to gridlock. Political sharks like Capaldi’s Malcolm Tucker and Reid Scott’s Veep wunderkind Dan Egan use this constant confusion to their advantage, but they’re not immune to the gears of their own political machinations. Ultimately, even Iannucci’s most dangerous figures are ground up before they can do any legitimate damage.
4. The City of Pawnee, Indiana, Parks And Recreation (2009-present)
On a micro level, the political workings of Parks And Recreation’s Pawnee, Indiana act as a sunny antidote to the Iannucci-verse. Leslie Knope has a tendency to overstep her bounds, but under her guidance, Pawnee’s parks and recreation department responds to citizens’ needs and concerns (no matter how insane) and provides the fictional Southwestern Indiana burg with quality programming like outdoor film screenings and the immensely popular Pawnee Harvest Festival. The rest of Pawnee’s municipal government, however, is in shambles, the formerly bankrupt province of shysters like Councilman Jeremy Jamm. Leslie’s own tenure on the city council has largely been an exercise in optimism overcoming cynicism, but given Jamm’s dunderheaded scheme to get his fellow councilors to sign off on a fast-food franchise from which his orthodontic practice will profit, it wouldn’t take someone of Councilwoman Knope’s considerable pluck and intelligence to grind down the bastard.
5. Joe Quimby’s mayoral administration, The Simpsons (1989-present)
The man they call “Diamond Joe” may possess the bluster, the New England accent, and the allegedly voracious sexual appetites of President John F. Kennedy, but make no mistake: Joe Quimby, sir, is no Jack Kennedy. Nor is he Ted Kennedy, or even former MTV VJ Kennedy, because the political fortitude and persuasiveness of a Kennedy would lend a legitimate edge of menace to the many misdeeds of the Quimby administration. After all, the long-serving mayor of Springfield has dipped into the city coffer to rub out his enemies, and yet he routinely finds himself under the thumb of no less a pushover than Police Chief Clancy Wiggum. It’s big business and organized crime (and the occasional unruly mob) that wield true power in Springfield; “donations” from those first two parties keep Quimby in his “MAYOR” sash. Quimby may be corrupt, fat, lazy, and stupid, but he’s certainly not threatening (or illiterate, anymore)—it’s the implication that our own elected officials may be these things that’s chilling.
6. Richard Nixon’s presidential administration, Dick (1999)
By all accounts, the Watergate scandal was a political bungling of farcical proportions, a series of crimes and blown cover-ups that eventually led to the disgracing of the most powerful man in the world. It’s a complicated case that continues to be unraveled and re-examined to this day—though, in the fictional account of the period comedy Dick, it all comes down to a pair of 15-year-olds and teen idol Bobby Sherman. While entering a contest to win a date with the “Easy Come, Easy Go” singer, Betsy Jobs (Kirsten Dunst) and Arlene Lorenzo (Michelle Williams) stumble across G. Gordon Liddy and his accomplices in the Watergate break-in. The girls have no idea what they’ve witnessed, and in an attempt to keep it that way, the president makes Betsy and Arlene “official White House dog walkers”—inadvertently exposing the girls to damning evidence they later turn over to a pair of bumbling reporters at The Washington Post. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein get all the glory, but considering the number of smoking guns accumulated by the real Nixon, he too could’ve been taken down by a pair of meddling kids (and Checkers, too!).
7. The City of Chicago, Illinois, The Front Page (1928)
A comedy staple of the American stage, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s play The Front Page is a loving exposé of the cutthroat world of the newspaper business, written by a couple of ex-reporters who had wised up and gone to find where the real money was kept. Besides being endlessly revived, the play was filmed under its own title in 1931 and 1974, and turned into a screwball love story by giving the reporter hero a sex change in the 1940 über-classic His Girl Friday. The love-story angle was kept up in the 1988 flop Switching Channels, which was set in the world of cable TV news, and in 1982, it was adapted into a stage musical, Windy City. But one thing has already remained constant: The government of Chicago, represented by a venal mayor and a bumbling sheriff, is no match for the fast-talking, wisecracking con artists who call themselves journalists and will do anything for a scoop. The plot involves the mayor and the sheriff’s plan to execute a mentally incompetent man who shot a cop, thinking it’ll help them in the upcoming election, but the reporter heroes run rings around the elected officials. The closest thing to a heroic government figure in the original is the unseen governor, who is the mayor’s political enemy, making him the newspaper’s strategic ally. One of the more notable aspects of Switching Channels is that it does include a scene with the governor, which establishes that he, too, is a moron who lives by the polls.
8. Rufus T. Firefly’s presidential administration, Duck Soup (1933)
In the Marx Brothers’ 1932 hit Horse Feathers, the boys ran roughshod over a university campus after Groucho was made the college dean, so it seemed like a logical next step to up the ante in their next film, Duck Soup, by having Groucho in charge of an entire county. His character, Rufus T. Firefly, is appointed leader of Freedonia at the behest of the rich but clueless Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont), who makes it her sole condition for agreeing to use her personal fortune to bail out the bankrupt nation. Firefly’s governing philosophy, as outlined in his opening song (“If anyone’s caught taking graft / And I don’t get my share / We stand ’em up against the wall / And pop goes the weasel!”) is perfectly calculated to chill your shit, but he’s soon too caught up in personal feuding with the ambassador from the rival nation of Sylvania to cause too many problems for his citizens—even after things break out into a slapstick war. The role of the man on the street in all this is summed up in a dialogue between a man and his wife when he comes home from work, tired and disgusted. She tells him that the country is at war; he grunts, “I’m gonna take a bath.”
9. British parliament, Yes Minister (1980-1988)
The BBC comedy Yes Minister is akin to P.G. Wodehouse’s novels featuring Wooster and Jeeves, but in reverse. Jeeves, the infallible manservant, used to contrive all manner of cunning and elaborate plans to get his dumbass employer out of the most complicated scrapes. In Yes Minister, Sir Humphrey (Nigel Hawthorne), personal secretary to aptly named MP Jim Hacker (Paul Eddington), goes to great lengths and executes astonishing feats of verbal gymnastics to keep his nominal boss out of trouble by doing his best to keep Hacker from doing much of anything. He sees absolute stasis as the secret to both good government and a long, respectably uneventful political career, and the few occasions when Hacker is able to get past him long enough to do or say anything newsworthy only tend to support this view. The series ran under its original title for three seasons, by which time which Sir Humphrey had been so successful at preventing Hacker from following through on any of his crusading impulses that he fell upward, and the title was changed to Yes, Prime Minister—which ran an additional two seasons.
10. Canadian government, Archer, “The Limited” (2012)
Making fun of Canada, with its tin-pot navies and parliamentary governments, can be pretty easy. (See: South Park, Canadian Bacon.) But it can also be fun: Take “The Limited,” the third-season Archer episode that sees the ISIS gang transporting a dangerous Nova Scotian terrorist to Ottawa. Regarding the threat of a Canadian terrorist with typical flippancy, Archer shows up to the mission drunk, leading to a series of catastrophes that culminates in a shootout between the Royal Mounted Police and terrorist operatives dressed as the Royal Mounted Police. The consistent jokes at Canada’s incompetence—both at a governmental and anti-governmental level—all end up being in good fun, as Archer (and ISIS) prove themselves comparably useless. The sting is further reduced by having Robb Wells, Mike Smith, and John Paul Tremblay, stars of the hit Canadian sitcom Trailer Park Boys, voice the members of the so-called New Scotland Front. [JS]
11. U.S. Department of Defense, Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Stopped Worrying And Learned To Love The Bomb (1964)
Stanley Kubrick’s jet-black comedy Dr. Strangelove depicts a government so bumbling and foolish the only scary thing about it is the idea that it might reflect reality. Some of the film’s most memorable scenes take place in the War Room, where the president and his military advisors make a series of inept attempts to avert the nuclear Armageddon initiated by one overzealous general with an unhealthy fixation on his precious bodily fluids. If the ineptitude weren’t enough, there’s General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) arguing for Armageddon, on the premise that going for an all-out attack is the United States’ only chance. The picture that emerges is a group of ineffective bureaucrats failing to restrain a childish, overenthusiastic jackass eager to play with the shiniest, most deadly toys and whining about the Russian ambassador seeing his “big board,” even as instant death for hundreds of millions of people creeps closer.
12. The Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho presidential administration, Idiocracy (2006)
It’s hard to imagine a less-sinister government than the one in Mike Judge’s Idiocracy. The film depicts a future where, after 500 years of imbeciles outbreeding the intelligent, the average IQ has dropped to somewhere around 20. Sure, the government of this moron-ruled future is prone to locking people up and sentencing them to death by monster truck for not much reason at all, but it’s not so much a menacing master plan as it is what happens when a five-time “Ultimate Smackdown” champion and porn superstar is the head of state. It’s like if Nazi Germany were run by the cast of Jersey Shore: scary, sure, but only because putting that much power in the dumbest human beings imaginable is never a good idea.
13. Occupied Turaqistan, War, Inc. (2008)
Written during the height of the U.S. occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, at a time when it wasn’t far-fetched to think that American forces would never get out of either country, War, Inc.’s satire of the government-industrial complex showed that neither the government nor the industry it employs could manage its way out of a wet paper bag. Screenwriter and star John Cusack and his co-writers try to show that Tamerlane—a Halliburton-esque company contracted by the U.S. to run the fictional nation of Turaqistan—is supposed to be evil, but the company comes off as more “Scrooge McDuck greedy” than anything else. The signs of greed are literally that: advertisements plastered all over the war-torn nation. For their part, the Turaqistanis seem to be classified as the sniveling Islamic stereotypes that are more suited for a ’60s-era James Bond movie than one that is supposed to be a sharp satire of the corporatization of war and the people who facilitate it.