We're coming up on the sixth anniversaries of the end of the last two major network primetime shows that centered on life in the White House: "The West Wing" and "Commander in Chief."
"The West Wing" ran seven years – nearly two terms, in real time, for Martin Sheen's President Josiah Bartlet. "Commander in Chief," starring Geena Davis as the first woman president, lasted less than a year.
But this Sunday's premiere of HBO's "Veep," starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus as the first woman vice president, marks the latest evidence that "Commander in Chief" presaged Hollywood's recent focus on shows and movies about women in power, fictional and otherwise. The Davis show also anticipated the bigger game changer: the 2008 presidential contest roles of Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton.
Less than three weeks after Barack Obama’s election, Cherry Jones debuted as President Allison Taylor on "24," the Fox thriller, earning the actress a following and an Emmy. More recently, USA announced Sigourney Weaver would star in "Political Animals," whose premise sounds very Clintonesque: a divorced former first lady and failed presidential hopeful becomes secretary of state.
But clearly the most compelling – and polarizing – figure to emerge in the increasingly melded worlds of entertainment and politics, and women’s changing role in both, is Palin. When John McCain tapped the little-known Alaska governor as his GOP ticket running mate, she almost instantly became a recurring character and target of mockery, via Tina Fey, on "Saturday Night Live" – and even turned up on the show herself as Election Day neared.
More recently, Palin’s campaign travails emerged as the focus of HBO's "Game Change" – based on a book that portrayed Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards as fascinating, flawed figures also worthy of movie treatment. Palin, since losing the election, has played a role more akin to an entertainer and pundit than a politician, with parts ranging from reality show star to Fox News commentator to a recent stint on the "Today" show.
Dreyfus and “Veep” creator Armando Iannucci have repeatedly noted the pol at the center of the mockumentary-style show is not based on Palin. Judging from the previews of "Veep," Louis-Dreyfus' feisty take on Vice President Selina Meyer seems to be more informed by her "Seinfeld" character Elaine Benes than any real-life role model – not that there's anything wrong with that.
“Veep” arrives shortly after this year’s presidential contest turned into a two-man race. The only major run by a woman this year came from Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, who aired a campaign commercial touting herself as “America’s Iron Lady” – an obvious effort to capitalize off the 2011 movie featuring Meryl Streep's Oscar-winning performance as former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
But the game could change yet again, in the race and in the entertainment media. Romney, after all, has yet to decide on a running mate. In the meantime, check out a preview of “Veep” below:
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Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NY City News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.