Bureaucrats on TV: How the Depiction of Government Employees Has Evolved

The West Wing (NBC) Season 4 -Martin Sheen- H 2016

There are plenty of reasons to hate The Simpsons' Patty and Selma Bouvier. For instance, their sour attitude makes their sister Marge’s life a living hell, and they’re exceptionally mean to Homer, but perhaps worst of all, they’re lifers at the DMV.

The Bouvier twins aren’t the only TV characters who have given civil servants a bad name over the years. President Frank Underwood and his staff on Netflix's House of Cards are so craven, they’d get even Machiavelli to cry “Uncle.” Leslie Knope’s team on NBC's Parks and Recreation usually seemed more concerned with their personal issues than public policy. And for every heroic Fox Mulder, Dana Scully or Jack Bauer, there always seems to be a devious bureaucrat eager to undermine their work.

“There are two different ways government officials get portrayed on television,” explains Zach Patton, executive editor of Governing, a monthly magazine that offers policy insight and analysis for state and local governments. “One is with police and fire departments and public defenders, who are seen as mostly positive and heroic. Then, there’s every other government employee, who for the most part are portrayed as bored or unmotivated or totally incompetent.”

Sure, there have been exceptions to television’s relentless use of government employees as whipping boys and girls. There’s NBC's beloved The West Wing, of course, and more recently, CBS' Madam Secretary. For the most part, though, from Selina Meyer’s self-obsessed staff on HBO's Veep and the vicious world of Scandal’s Olivia Pope all the way down to sitcom mailmen Cliff Clavin and Newman of Cheers and Seinfeld fame, respectively, the people who work for taxpayers more often than not come off as lazy, self-absorbed or downright evil.

“There’s definitely a mismatch between what you see of public servants on television and who these people really are,” says Patton. “I’d love to see more positive portrayals because the vast majority of people at all levels of government are good people and good public servants. I don’t doubt that the buildup from constantly seeing these people negatively can eventually affect how people feel about their own government.”

It’s pretty clear that at this point in history, it’s not particularly a feeling of love and understanding. A Pew Research Center study this year found that faith in government was nearing an historic low. Roughly 68 percent of Americans said they trust the government only some of time, with an additional 11 percent noting that they never trust the government to do the right thing.

There’s no recent research to quantify whether a constant barrage of cynical civil servant characters on TV leads to a cynical view of civil servants in real life or it’s the other way around. Given that we now have a longtime television personality as president, though, it’s safe to say there is at least some linkage between what we see on the screen and how are views on government reflect that.

“Entertainment does affect the way we see lots of things. People used to get their sense of self and right and wrong from church and family but now, it’s just as often from what they watch,” explains Madam Secretary executive producer Lori McCreary.

This might explain why government workers come up to her on a regular basis “to say they’re so glad we’re showing another side to what they do.” It’s not like Madam Secretary never explores the dark side of federal employees, but for McCreary, the goal is to keep the primary focus on the little-known civil servants who still believe in what they’re doing, even if the public they work for does not.

“I hope our show will allow people to see not just the five or six major people who make the news in government,” she explains. “Behind them, there are thousands of people who make our government work. And hopefully by seeing what they do, viewers might even think they could be one of those people.”

Despite those good intentions, though, there’s no denying that TV government employees frequently seem to possess all the comfortable charm of a paper cut. Professor Robert Lichter, director of George Mason University’s Center for Media and Public Affairs, has studied the connection for two decades now and figures the "negative portrayals are a crutch. People are more likely to be impressed by a show that takes that approach than one that takes a positive approach. It’s the easy way out when you do something negative about the government.”

And it’s been that way for a while now. Things started to sour in the late 1960s and ‘70s, according to Lichter, courtesy of the way in which Watergate, the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement started “delegitimizing government. Television has usually tried to reflect the views of the mass audience in order to appeal to them and once it created its own vision of reality, people start buying into that.”

Even four decades later, TV is still feeling the after-effects of the Watergate era.

“There’s definitely been an arc to politician characters on TV for several years,” says Veep showrunner David Mandel. “In the early days of television, they went incredibly into one direction, getting put on pedestals. That led to shows were we saw that one day, they’d eventually break your heart. And that’s where Veep lives.”

Similarly, 24 executive producer Evan Katz admits that his show might never have become what it was were it not for the Nixon administration. Look no further than the deeply corrupt President Charles Logan character (played by Charles Itzin) for proof.

 “Watergate made it clear to most Americans that the president can be crooked, which freed people to tell more critical stories about government,” he says. “I feel like the default position for politics on television now is that the government is corrupt.”

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. A little skepticism can come in handy when it comes to portrayals of elected officials in particular.

“TV tells stories and reflects the time in which we live,” explains Mike Schur, co-creator and executive producer of Parks and Recreation. “And the current way government is represented is more honest across the board than it was in the old days. TV used to put a happy face on everything from government to marriage to other institutions, and I far prefer a world where television is more honest.”

To be fair, there have been plenty of crusading TV characters in shows like The X-Files, 24 and Homeland who try to do the right thing. However, the villains they’re crusading against are frequently fellow government employees.

“It’s ironic that when you do get a positive portrayal, you’re almost automatically going to have an equally negative one,” says Lichter. “That fosters the notion that the whole system is corrupt, and while our heroes can fight against it, they’ll never entirely win.”

Of course, civil servants are definitely not the only TV characters who have been portrayed in a negative light over the years. However, Patton believes “it’s more dangerous when it happens to public officials. If you see negative portrayals of a chef or a lawyer, it doesn’t affect you in the same way because you’re not paying the salary of those folks. I won’t say that TV has a responsibility to show government workers in a positive light because that’d be really boring, but absolutely there are consequences from the way they are shown.”

That’s something Barbara Hall is keenly aware of. The creator of Madam Secretary, CBS’ peek at the inner workings of the State Department, grew up in a military family and spent plenty of time with people who worked in government. So, while she doesn’t consider it her job to provide good PR for a career in public service, she does try to provide a more encouraging view of folks who have those jobs.

“I want a more realistic depiction,” she explains. “I want to focus on people who are doing this for all the right reasons. Our show tries to be a bit aspirational in that way. The No. 1 obligation is to entertain people, but when that’s done right, there’s no way to doubt you’re making a contribution to society.”

Take Cliffy from Cheers, for example. The character was designed to be a know-it-all blowhard, admits one of the show’s former executive producers, Cheri Steinkellner. That made for good comic relief having “this guy taking his duty as a civil servant seriously to the point where he gets ridiculed by others.” At the same time, though, there was still something about Cliff Clavin that endeared him to audiences.

Says Steinkellner, “He wore his uniform with pride, even though he was a lower-status guy in the bar than even Carla. That put a human face on him and maybe for other mailmen.”       

It’s one thing for a show to get some laughs out of an arrogant postal employee. Their professions are ones most of us deal with on a personal level at some point. We can form opinions about them based on our own experiences. When it’s a government gig that mostly happens behind closed doors, though, what viewers see could clearly have more of an impact.

“When you have aspects of government that are kind of like a black hole for a lot of people, it’s always possible that someone’s perceptions could be affected,” Patton explains.

That element of the unknown may carry more responsibility for writers and producers, but it’s also what attracts them to the topic in the first place.

“TV is at its best when it’s an invitation to a world you know but don’t really know,” says Frank Pugliese, co-showrunner on House of Cards. “We pull a curtain aside and invite people in. It’s up to viewers to decide how they want to take what they see.”

Adds fellow Cards showrunner Melissa James Gibson, “There have been many shows about government at this point, and well before The West Wing they were already offering different perspectives. Now we’ve got Scandal, Veep … not one of them claims to portray the reality of government. Everything should be seen through the point of view of each individual show. The obligation is to serve the story.”

In other words, series featuring civil servants “don’t aspire to be accurate,” believes West Wing co-executive producer Kevin Falls. Each one should be viewed on its own terms and not as part of a trend influencing America. “House of Cards takes a darkly cynical look at government. Veep is hilariously satirical. Scandal is outsized soapy,” he explains. “West Wing went for inspirational.”

The plan seems to have worked. Patton has heard over the years from a generation of public policy students who tell him, “I went into public service because of The West Wing.” The series is also indirectly responsible for one particular group of TV bureaucrats.

“When we pitched Parks and Recreation, we described it as a comedy version of The West Wing because that seemed like the perfect reference point,” says Schur. “It’s just that the stakes in West Wing were China moving troops in Kazakhstan, and for us it was the boys' and girls' soccer teams both booking the field for the same time. This was not a show about lofty ideals on a national level. Things happen on a federal level that don’t or won’t affect people for years to come. It’s more abstract. Our interest were much more concrete. We wanted to tell stories that reflect where people live.”

That might explain why for all her staff’s occasional indifference to their work, the central character — ever-optimistic Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) — has become a bit of an icon for civil servants around the country. Schur says he’s heard anecdotally that local government employees “have said that her hopeful vision of government was helpful in times of crisis.” There were even Leslie Knope signs spotted at the Women’s March in January.

“There’s an aspirational quality to Leslie,” explains Schur, whose current NBC comedy The Good Place features an afterlife that’s also stymied by bureaucracy. “She offers a kind of blueprint for how we might go about curing certain problems in government.”

Given all our current level of satisfaction with how government is operating, we could probably use some new Leslie Knopes. If the disillusionment of the Watergate era drove television to all the subsequent negative portrayals of civil servants, there’s always the chance that the Trump era might do just the opposite.

“I think there’s no question what we’re experiencing now will eventually be reflected on TV,” says Katz. “I’m just not sure how that’ll happen, whether the approach will be things getting more cynical or something that gives people hope that things can get better. A lot of our institutional norms about how we look at people in government are up for grabs at the moment.”

The doesn’t mean “every show has to be a documentary that restores the public trust in civil servants,” adds Patton. “At the same time, though, I’d love to see someone start mixing in more portrayals of government employees who are dedicated to what they do and doing it well. If you can’t make them heroes, at least let them be good role models.”