'Veep,' 'West Wing' Showrunners on How Political TV Accidentally Became Aspirational

Television Academy's member event Penning Pennsylvania Ave -AP Photo-Publicity-H 2018
Danny Moloshok/Invision for the Television Academy/AP Images

Thomas Schlamme, Executive Producer, "The West Wing", Bradley Whitford, Actor, "The West Wing", and Moderator Kal Penn, Actor, "Designated Survivor" & former White House staffer, participate in the Television Academy's member event "Penning Pennsylvania Ave.: How Hollywood (Re)Creates The Oval Office," while sitting on props from the Oval Office set of the television show "The West Wing" including a Resolute desk replica on Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2018 at the Saban Media Center at the Television Academy in North Hollywood Calif. 

'Madam Secretary' creator Barbara Hall also spoke at the Television Academy event Wednesday night.

Executive producer David Mandel thinks Veep is an aspirational TV show. That might come as a surprise to many viewers, who have known the HBO comedy as a satire bent on capturing the worst instincts in politics. After all, the show featured an entire plot point in which a political campaign used secret childhood mortality information in order to court recently bereaved parents.

Yet in the world of Veep, there have been two female presidents. "They’re two ahead of us," Mandel told The Hollywood Reporter at the Saban Media Center on Wednesday night, before an event exploring how actors and producers represent politics on television. "Our alternate universe is clearly a little more progressive." Though he noted that the show never "set out with the agenda of, 'This is going to be a show about a universe where a woman is going to be president,'" that’s where the characters — and the comedy — took them.

Now, in a political climate in which facts are dismissed as fake news, the series looks like a bastion of progress.

Inside the event, where Mandel gathered around an old set of The West Wing with that show's executive producer Thomas Schlamme and star Bradley Whitford, Madam Secretary creator Barbara Hall, The Good Wife showrunner Michelle King, and Designated Survivor star Kal Penn, Mandel said, "[At least] in Selina Meyer’s world, there are consequences."

The new political landscape has brought other TV shows into a different light, too. After a clip of The West Wing in which a character delivers an earnest speech praising the political process alongside patriotic background music, Schlamme cringed. "You look at it now, and it’s like, pull some of that music back a little bit, please," he joked to the audience. In an era of political pessimism, The West Wing’s belief in justice suddenly feels dated.

Madam Secretary's Hall also believes that her show has become a dream version of the political world she tried to re-create. First of all, the CBS drama features a successful third party, which "in and of itself is an aspirational part of the show," she said. Hall admitted to being surprised by the way seemingly far-fetched plot points have appeared organically in the real world. In January, for instance, the show ran an episode where characters consider invoking the 25th Amendment, which allows for the removal of a sitting president who is "unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office" — right as Michael Wolff’s explosive account from inside the White House rekindled speculation that the procedure could be used against President Donald Trump.

Mandel had a similar experience during the recent season of Veep. He pointed to a moment when fictional congressman Jonah Ryan ignites a political movement for the most “idiotic” reason Mandel could muster: an impassioned rant against daylight saving time. Then, late last year, Massachusetts announced that it was considering shifting time zones from Eastern to Atlantic Time, triggering a heated debate that Mandel sees as at least partially mirroring the show.

Another bizarre moment came after he and his writers wrote a joke in which a character enjoys being peed on, then had to cut it because the president has been alleged to have done exactly that. The show that set out to be "nonaspirational," according to Mandel, had suddenly become the opposite.

Penn, who worked as associate director in the White House Office of Public Engagement in the Obama administration, describes his time under Barack Obama as a “wear-your-heart-on-your-sleeves” eight years. He remembered watching House of Cards after its debut in 2013 and thinking it could never happen in real life.

Referring to House of Cards, Schlamme interjected: "Now it’s aspirational!"