TV Series That Defined Each Presidential Era - Rolling Stone
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All the Presidents’ TV Shows: Series That Defined Each Era

If art imitates life, these are the television shows that best captured the spirit of the American experience over decades both tumultuous and prosperous


Photo Illustration by Joe Rodriguez; Images: Paramount Television/Kobal/Shutterstock; CBS/Getty Images Nbc-Tv/Kobal; Mark Hill/HBO;George Lange/NBCU/Getty Images;Spelling-Goldberg/Kobal/Shutterstock; Nicole Rivelli/HBO

NBC’s recent Parks and Recreation quarantine special was a delight for a variety of reasons. Chief among them was the fact that, even though it was set during the current pandemic, it seemed to be transporting us back to the time in which the comedy originally unfolded. Few series in recent memory have been as clearly tied to a moment — and, specifically, a presidential administration — as Parks and Rec. The show’s belief in the power of government to make people’s lives better — and, more broadly, in the obligation members of a community (be they friends, family, or, as Ron Swanson once put it, “workplace proximity associates”) have to help one another in times of need — made it the standard-bearer for the hopefulness of the Obama era.

That flashback to a saner, safer version of the world inspired Rolling Stone to look back all the way to John F. Kennedy — often referred to as “the first TV president” for his command of the medium — to identify the series that best captured the feeling of each administration. These aren’t necessarily the best or most popular shows of each era, but the ones that best reflect either what that presidency was saying about what America was, what was really happening in the country at the time, or something about the man in the Oval Office himself.

For each administration, we chose one representative comedy and one drama; presidents who were elected to two terms got two apiece. All shows had to have aired at least briefly during an administration to qualify, even if some or most of their run happened under another presidency.

30 ROCK -- "The Ones" Episode 319 -- Pictured: (l-r) Tina Fey as Liz Lemon, Alec Baldwin as Jack Donaghy  (Photo by Jessica Miglio/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images)

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John F. Kennedy, Comedy: ‘Dick Van Dyke Show’ (CBS, 1961-66)

There was a dashing young couple in the White House, and a dashing young couple to match in New Rochelle, New York. TV comedy writer Rob Petrie (Dick Van Dyke) and wife Laura (Mary Tyler Moore) weren’t exactly JFK and Jackie, but there was something more exciting about them than their suburban counterparts under Eisenhower. (Rob and Laura slept in separate beds, but it was clear they had a livelier sex life than, say, Ward and June Cleaver from Leave it to Beaver.) The Dick Van Dyke Show didn’t reinvent the sitcom wheel that I Love Lucy had created in the previous decade, yet it seemed contemporary and polished, just like the New Frontier Jack Kennedy had promised.

American actor Burgess Meredith (1907 - 1997) as Henry Bemis in 'Time Enough at Last', the eighth episode in the American TV series 'The Twilight Zone', 1959. (Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)

Burgess Meredith as Henry Bemis in "Time Enough at Last," the eighth episode of the 'The Twilight Zone,' 1959.

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John F. Kennedy, Drama: ‘The Twilight Zone’ (CBS, 1959-64)

If The Dick Van Dyke Show represented the giddy hopefulness of the Kennedy years, then the original, and best, run of Rod Serling’s sci-fi anthology franchise served as a weekly reminder that all was not perfect in Camelot. Its parables about conformity, paranoia, nuclear apocalypse, and more provided harbingers for a decade that started off in seeming normality and ended with war, riots, moonwalkers, and flower power.

American actor Jim Nabors grins in a scene from an episode of the television comedy series 'Gomer Pyle, USMC' called 'Dance, Marine, Dance,' September 30, 1964. (Photo by CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images)

Jim Nabors, as Gomer Pyle, in 'Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.' 1964

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Lyndon B. Johnson, Comedy: ‘Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.’ (CBS, 1964-69)

A Texan was in the Oval Office, and rural comedies were all the rage on television, particularly at CBS, which played home to The Andy Griffith Show, The Beverly Hillbillies, and Green Acres, among others. This Andy Griffith spinoff, where guileless pump jockey Gomer (Jim Nabors) enlisted in the Marines, is the pick, though, because its attempt to portray a peacetime version of the U.S. military even as our involvement in Vietnam kept escalating mirrored the political rhetoric of the day, which either ignored the war altogether or treated it as a conflict that would be over any minute now.

Star Trek , James Doohan, Deforest Kelley, Walter Koenig, Majel Barrett, William Shatner, Nichelle Nichols, Leonard Nimoy, George Takei

Star Trek

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Lyndon B. Johnson, Drama: ‘Star Trek’ (NBC, 1966-69)

William Shatner’s moralizing, womanizing Capt. James T. Kirk was a blatant “JFK in space” figure, though the iconic sci-fi series aired most of its run under Kennedy’s successor. Kirk’s tendency to ignore the Prime Directive and interfere in the development of interstellar cultures reflected our own ill-conceived intervention in Southeast Asia, while the relatively diverse crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise and many of the stories echoed the civil-rights struggle of the era.

Rowan And Martin's Laugh In , Goldie Hawn, Dan Rowan

Goldie Hawn and Dan Rowan on 'Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In'

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Richard Nixon, First Term, Comedy: ‘Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In’ (NBC, 1968-73)

Saturday Night Live has been on far too long to be associated with any one president. The most famous moment for its NBC sketch-comedy predecessor, though, came early in the run, when Nixon — then running for office again after years in the political wilderness — cameoed to transform the show’s most famous catchphrase from exuberant request to puzzled query: “Sock it to me?” With its rapid-fire sketches and hippie imagery (including a young Goldie Hawn frequently dancing in full flower-child regalia), Laugh-In presented itself as the quintessential counterculture comedy. Really, though, it was more evenhanded than the political satire of its peer The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, on CBS — which seemed about right for an era that was celebrated for the Summer of Love and Woodstock, even as Tricky Dick got elected twice.

The Mod Squad , Peggy Lipton, Michael Cole, Clarence Williams Iii Film and Television

'The Mod Squad': Peggy Lipton, Michael Cole, Clarence Williams III (from left)

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Richard Nixon, First Term, Drama: ‘The Mod Squad’ (ABC, 1968-73)

This drama about a trio of young rebels — famously described as “one black” (Clarence William III’s Linc), “one white” (Michael Cole’s Pete), “one blonde” (Peggy Lipton’s Julie) — recruited to be undercover cops was, like Laugh-In, caught between two political extremes. On the one hand, its heroes were meant to represent — and appeal to — the counterculture, and the series touched on hot-button issues like abortion and Vietnam vets coming home with PTSD. On the other, they were working with the police, and the show largely used them to maintain the status quo: They were there to prevent violent revolutions rather than join in on them.

LOS ANGELES - MARCH 9: ALL IN THE FAMILY cast members: Jean Stapleton as Edith Bunker, Carroll O'Connor as Archie Bunker, Sally Struthers as Gloria Bunker Stivic and Rob Reiner as Michael Stivic. (Photo by CBS via Getty Images)

'All in the Family': Jean Stapleton, Carroll O'Connor, Sally Struthers, and Rob Reiner (from left)

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Richard Nixon, Second Term, Comedy: ‘All in the Family’ (CBS, 1971-79)

Norman Lear’s groundbreaking family comedy was far more clear in its intentions and feelings about Nixon’s America than the two previous shows on the list, but his audience didn’t always see it that way. As All in the Family depicted a generational clash between blue-collar reactionary Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor) and his progressive son-in-law Michael “Meathead” Stivic (Rob Reiner), it was always explicitly on Meathead’s side. But studies showed a Rorschach effect: Liberals who watched the show saw Archie as the fool and Meathead as the hero, while conservatives believed the show, like Archie, was on their side.

NBC Columbo

Peter Falk as Columbo in 1974

NBCU Archive/Getty Images

Richard Nixon, Second Term, Drama: ‘Columbo’ (NBC, 1971-78; ABC, 1989-2003)

Plenty of early-Seventies cop dramas, like Kojak, captured the urban decay and white flight that descended in the wake of late-Sixties riots. But really, is there a better detective show to mark the ignoble end of the Nixon administration than one about a dogged investigator who — like a certain pair of real-life Washington Post reporters — had a knack for unraveling the schemes of powerful men who thought themselves above the law?

Henry Winkler, Ron (Ronny) Howard Happy Days - 1974-1984 Henderson/Miller-Milkis/Paramount Television

Henry Winkler and Ron Howard in 'Happy Days'

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Gerald Ford, Comedy: ‘Happy Days’ (ABC, 1974-84)

Garry Marshall’s nostalgic sitcom about a Wisconsin family in the Fifties didn’t become a huge hit until after Ford lost the 1976 election to Jimmy Carter. Still, even its modest early success symbolized the sweeping sense of dissatisfaction felt by so many in post-Watergate America. Who wants to spend time in a fictionalized version of the depressing present when it’s so easy for the TV to transport you back to the peace and prosperity of the Eisenhower years?

The Waltons , Richard Thomas, Judy Norton, Jon Walmsley, Mary Elizabeth Mcdonough, David Harper, Ralph Waite, Kami Cotler, Michael Learned, Will Geer, Ellen Corby, Eric Scott Film and Television

'The Waltons'

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Gerald Ford, Drama: ‘The Waltons’ (CBS, 1972-81)

If anything, the enduring Seventies power of The Waltons — about a rural Virginia family of nine in the Thirties and Forties, based on the autobiographical novel Spencer’s Mountain, by the show’s creator, Earl Hammer Jr. — is the Happy Days effect squared. In this case, viewers were eager to travel all the way back to the Great Depression rather than think more about the present state of things. Good night, President Ford. Hello, John-Boy!

M A S H (Mash) , Alan Alda

Alan Alda in 'M*A*S*H'

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Jimmy Carter, Comedy: ‘M*A*S*H’ (CBS, 1972-83)

During the Carter administration, viewers of the long-running military comedy — technically about Army surgeons in the Korean War, but really about Vietnam — began regularly seeing star Alan Alda’s name in the writing and the directing credits. As Alda exerted greater influence behind the scenes, both his heroic doctor, Hawkeye Pierce, and M*A*S*H as a whole became more dramatic, more political, and — to the derision of a certain segment of the audience that already felt the same way about the man occupying the White House during this time — more sensitive.

Charlie's Angels , Farrah Fawcett, Kate Jackson, Jaclyn Smith

Charlie's Angels , Farrah Fawcett, Kate Jackson, Jaclyn Smith (from left)

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Jimmy Carter, Drama: ‘Charlie’s Angels’ (ABC, 1976-81)

On the campaign trail in 1976, then-Gov. Carter admitted to Playboy, “I’ve looked on a lot of women with lust. I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times.” Though the adultery remained theoretical for one of our best-behaved presidents (both in and out of office), Carter’s remarks came at a time when American culture as a whole was becoming more hedonistic. Many of the biggest hits during his administration came to be dubbed a wave of “Jiggle TV,” most famously this show about a trio of gorgeous detectives (initially played by Farrah Fawcett, Kate Jackson, and Jaclyn Smith) who solved crimes while running around in tight outfits that often left no room for bras.

First Lady Nancy Reagan chats with cast members of the television series " Diff'rent Strokes" on the set in Los Angeles Thursday. Mrs. Reagan made a special guest appearance on the show to help deliver an anti-drug abuse message. From left are Mary Jo Catlett, Dana Plato, Conrad Bain, Todd Bridges, and Gary Coleman, center. The show will air March 19

First Lady Nancy Reagan chats with cast members of 'Diff'rent Strokes'

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Ronald Reagan, First Term, Comedy: ‘Diff’rent Strokes’ (NBC, 1978-85; ABC, 1985-86)

First Lady Nancy Reagan actually played herself in a 1983 episode of this sitcom, where she delivered her “Just Say No” anti-drug message to young Arnold Jackson (Gary Coleman). But even before that cameo, the series — in which Arnold and brother Willis (Todd Bridges) are adopted by Philip Drummond (Conrad Bain), the well-to-do employer of their late mother — captured a lot of what was in the air in the early days of the Reagan administration. It presented a post-racial vision of America where Arnold and Willis’ blackness was mainly just fodder for jokes about strangers confused by their relationship to Mr. D, and the show pioneered the concept of the “Very Special Episode” with stories about child molestation and kidnapping. But it also very much venerated Mr. D’s wealth, and suggested that the best way for poor minorities to get ahead was to be saved by a rich, white businessman.

Joe Spano, Daniel J. Travanti, James B. Sikking Hill Street Blues - 1981-1987

Joe Spano, Daniel J. Travanti, and James B. Sikking (from left) in 'Hill Street Blues'

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Ronald Reagan, First Term, Drama: ‘Hill Street Blues’ (NBC, 1981-87)

Reagan swept into office on a campaign to undo the perceived moral rot of the previous two decades. Some cleaning jobs are more complicated than others, though. This groundbreaking serialized cop drama — the great-grandfather of Peak TV — depicted various attempts to repair the blight in its unnamed city, whether through the thoughtful leadership of Daniel J. Travanti’s Capt. Frank Furillo (an Alda-Carter-ish sensitive hero if ever there was one) or the gleefully violent tactics of James B. Sikking’s conservative tactical-unit commander, Howard Hunter. There was even one cop, undercover detective Mick Belker (Bruce Weitz), who had gone feral from his time on the mean streets, and was known to occasionally take a literal bite out of crime.

Meredith Baxter-Birney, Michael J. Fox, Michael Gross Family Ties - 1982-1989 Ubu Productions

Meredith Baxter-Birney, Michael J. Fox, and Michael Gross in 'Family Ties'

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Ronald Reagan, Second Term, Comedy: ‘Family Ties’ (NBC, 1982-89)

The poster boy for Reagan’s “Morning in America” improbably turned out to be Alex P. Keaton (Michael J. Fox), the gleefully conservative son of ex-hippie parents Steven (Michael Gross) and Elyse (Meredith Baxter). The show was meant to be told from the parents’ point of view, but Fox proved such an obvious star that the focus largely shifted to him, with Steven and Elyse offering wisdom as needed, but mostly powerless to influence their charismatic, materialistic oldest child.

Joan Collins, John Forsythe, Linda Evans Dynasty - 1981-1989 Spelling/ABC

Joan Collins, John Forsythe, and Linda Evans in 'Dynasty'

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Ronald Reagan, Second Term, Drama: ‘Dynasty’ (ABC, 1981-89)

As Americans in the Eighties focused increasingly on money and comfort, television began presenting one aspirational wealthy family after another. (See: the Ewings of Dallas, a show that had its biggest cultural moment — “Who shot J.R.?” — come at the tail end of the Carter years; the Huxtables of The Cosby Show, a series we understandably don’t talk about much anymore.) Perhaps the poshest clan of all was the family of Denver mogul Blake Carrington (John Forsythe, previously famous as the voice of Charlie on Charlie’s Angels) on this long-running, oft-imitated soap opera filled with board-room battles, shoulder pads, and periodic brawls between Blake’s current wife, Krystle (Linda Evans), and his ex, Alexis (Joan Collins).

LOS ANGELES - NOVEMBER 14: Candice Bergen stars as Murphy Brown,(a seasoned broadcast journalist) on "Murphy Brown" the CBS television situation comedy program featuring topical current events and satire. Premiere episode broadcast November 14, 1988. (Photo by CBS via Getty Images)

Candice Bergen as Murphy Brown

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George H.W. Bush, Comedy: ‘Murphy Brown’ (CBS, 1988-98, 2018)

The Bush administration beefed with several TV shows of the era, including the time POTUS lamented that American families needed to be “a lot more like the Waltons and a lot less like the Simpsons.” (The Simpsons took revenge with an episode where Bush moved to Evergreen Terrace and began a petty feud with Homer.) Meanwhile, Bush’s VP, Dan Quayle, went after fictional TV newswoman Murphy Brown (Candice Bergen) for setting a bad example by choosing to be a single mother. It was a testament to the force of Bergen’s performance that Quayle talked about Murphy like she was a real person. But she also made an interesting target because the sitcom was so much about liberal boomers like Murphy reckoning with both middle age and their place in a post-Reagan America. In the end, the Murphy writers made the dispute part of the Washington-based show, with Murphy getting revenge on Quayle by dumping a truckload of potatoes onto his property, recalling his notorious flubbed spelling of the word.

Sheryl Lee, Kyle Maclachlan Twin Peaks - Fire Walk With Me - 1992 Director: David Lynch Lynch-Frost/Ciby 2000

Sheryl Lee and Kyle MacLachlan in 'Twin Peaks'

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George H.W. Bush, Drama: ‘Twin Peaks’ (ABC, 1990-91; Showtime, 2017)

The Bush years were an odd, transitional time for TV drama as much as they were for America as a whole. The country was waiting to shift from Reaganism to Clintonism, just as television was in a bit of a holding pattern between Hill Street Blues and the Nineties boom of future classics like ER and Homicide. So why not go with the strangest possible show for a strange time in our nation? David Lynch and Mark Frost’s blend of murder mystery, soap opera, supernatural horror, surreal comedy, and more was unlike anything else TV has ever seen. Though it was mostly unappreciated in its time, it was a huge influence on the TV-drama revolution that took place while Bush’s son was in office. (It’s a favorite of, among others, Sopranos creator David Chase.) Like Murphy Brown, Twin Peaks had a one-season revival in the late 2010s, though it proved more adaptable to the times than its Bush-era comedy counterpart.


Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Jerry Seinfeld, Michael Richards, and Jason Alexander

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Bill Clinton, First Term, Comedy: ‘Seinfeld’ (NBC, 1989-98)

The most famous Seinfeld episode, “The Contest” — where Jerry Seinfeld and his friends place a masturbatory wager on who can go longest being “master of your domain” — aired two weeks after Clinton’s election, and the show’s most popular seasons all ran during his tenure. It was a perfect match of show and president: slightly naughty stories for a commander in chief who had already survived several sex scandals on the campaign trail, and a “show about nothing” for an era when America was so peaceful and prosperous, few felt the need to worry about anything bigger.

30 ROCK -- "The Ones" Episode 319 -- Pictured: (l-r) Tina Fey as Liz Lemon, Alec Baldwin as Jack Donaghy  (Photo by Jessica Miglio/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images)

Dennis Franz (right) on 'NYPD Blue'

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Bill Clinton, First Term, Drama: ‘NYPD Blue’ (ABC, 1993-2005)

This cop story from Hill Street Blues writers Steven Bochco and David Milch was famous for featuring partial nudity and profanity previously forbidden on broadcast-network television, which seems a good fit for a POTUS whose indiscretions were blamed for coarsening our public conversation. And the acclaimed drama’s mix of liberal and conservative leanings — often inviting viewers to cheer along when antihero cop Andy Sipowicz (Dennis Franz) beat confessions out of suspects — were right in step with an administration that pushed for a draconian crime bill for which Clinton would later express some regret.

Sex and The City

Cynthia Nixon, Kristin Davis, Kim Cattrall, and Sarah Jessica Parker (from left) in 'Sex and the City'

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Bill Clinton, Second Term, Comedy: ‘Sex and the City’ (HBO, 1998-2004)

By the time this adaptation of Candace Bushnell’s sex advice column — starring Sarah Jessica Parker as a fictionalized Bushnell, and Cynthia Nixon, Kristin Davis, and Kim Cattrall as her friends — debuted, the special prosecutor’s investigation into President Clinton’s relationship with intern Monica Lewinsky was front-page news. As details about oral sex and semen-stained dresses wormed their way into everyday discourse, a show where women gave each other frank advice about anal sex and funky spunk seemed a bit less outré than it might have in an earlier era.

Martin Sheen West Wing

Martin Sheen in 'The West Wing'

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Bill Clinton, Second Term, Drama: ‘The West Wing’ (NBC, 1999-2006)

Aaron Sorkin’s Emmy-winning powerhouse was transparently a fantasy vision of the Clinton administration, with Martin Sheen as a centrist Democrat governor-turned-POTUS who managed to avoid sexual transgressions. (Though Jed Bartlet’s decision to conceal his relapsing, remitting case of multiple sclerosis was arguably a much bigger crime than Clinton lying about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky.) The majority of The West Wing ran during the George W. Bush years — including a clumsy, patronizing episode about the origins of Islamic-fundamentalist terrorism, produced in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 — but it’s not a coincidence that the show’s two best seasons by far were largely produced and aired while its inspiration was working out of the titular portion of the White House.

30 ROCK -- "The Ones" Episode 319 -- Pictured: (l-r) Tina Fey as Liz Lemon, Alec Baldwin as Jack Donaghy  (Photo by Jessica Miglio/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images)

David Cross, Portia de Rossi, Jason Bateman, Will Arnett, Jessica Walter, Tony Hale, Alia Shawkat, and Michael Cera (from left) in 'Arrested Development'

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George W. Bush, First Term, Comedy: ‘Arrested Development’ (Fox, 2003-06; Netflix, 2013-19)

This farce about a spoiled Orange County, California, family coping with the incarceration of its patriarch, George Bluth (Jeffrey Tambor), started out as a relatively timeless story about the foibles of the pampered elites. Soon, though, Arrested turned into an unmistakable satire of the younger-Bush administration and the war in Iraq, including an episode where grandson George Michael (Michael Cera) finds his pop-pop hiding in a spider hole and inspects him in a frame-for-frame re-creation of the capture of Saddam Hussein. Eventually, it turned out the entire Bluth Co. was in bed with Hussein, while youngest son Buster (Tony Hale) was only spared having to serve in Iraq when his hand was bitten off by a loose seal. (The series resurfaced years later with additional seasons that aired under both Presidents Obama and Trump; whatever magic Arrested once possessed, it was long gone, like one of Gob’s many failed tricks.)

30 ROCK -- "The Ones" Episode 319 -- Pictured: (l-r) Tina Fey as Liz Lemon, Alec Baldwin as Jack Donaghy  (Photo by Jessica Miglio/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images)

Kiefer Sutherland in '24'

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George W. Bush, First Term, Drama: ’24’ (Fox, 2001-10)

The pilot episode of this real-time thriller, originally scheduled to debut in September 2001, climaxed with a terrorist blowing up a mid-air passenger plane to conceal her activities. Then 9/11 happened. This at first required some awkward editing to remove an image now scarring to the entire nation, but 24 quickly leaned into its accidental role as a show about terrorism at a time when no one could talk about anything else. In time, the series proved so popular and influential that clips of Kiefer Sutherland’s relentless Jack Bauer torturing information out of suspects (WHO DO YOU WORK FOR?!?!”) were used to promote and justify the Bush administration’s use of similar techniques overseas.  

30 ROCK -- "The Ones" Episode 319 -- Pictured: (l-r) Tina Fey as Liz Lemon, Alec Baldwin as Jack Donaghy  (Photo by Jessica Miglio/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images)

Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin in '30 Rock'

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George W. Bush, Second Term, Comedy: ’30 Rock’ (NBC, 2006-13)

Sure, The West Wing and 24 at different points presented thinly-disguised versions of real-life political figures and events. But Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin), the smugly conservative NBC exec who reluctantly mentored Tina Fey’s comedy producer Liz Lemon, actually went to work for the Bush administration for a bit, with the title “Homeland Security Director for Crisis and Weather Management,” and even may have had sex with Dick Cheney while both were under the influence of a “gay bomb.” Top that, Sorkin.

30 ROCK -- "The Ones" Episode 319 -- Pictured: (l-r) Tina Fey as Liz Lemon, Alec Baldwin as Jack Donaghy  (Photo by Jessica Miglio/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images)

Wendell Pierce (left) and Dominic West in 'The Wire'

(Bush & Television) Shutterstock, 2; (The Wire)Nicole Rivelli/HBO

George W. Bush, Second Term, Drama: ‘The Wire’ (HBO, 2002-08)

Like several shows for two-term presidents, David Simon and Ed Burns’ epic about the death of the American city — as seen through the eyes of cops, drug dealers, politicians, schoolkids, reporters, and others — could just as easily apply to the early Bush years as to the late ones. The third season — an Iraq War allegory year, with stand-ins for both the collapse of the Twin Towers and the search for nonexistent weapons of mass destruction — even aired in 2004. But, as the series’ brainiest character, Detective Lester Freamon (Clarke Peters) once put it, all the pieces matter, and the sum total of what The Wire had to say about the crumbling of the American Dream couldn’t be fully appreciated until its respective president was nearly out of office.

PARKS AND RECREATION -- "One Last Ride" Episode 712/713 -- Pictured: (l-r) Nick Offerman as Ron Swanson, Amy Poehler as Leslie Knope -- (Photo by: Chris Haston/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images)

Nick Offerman and Amy Poehler in 'Parks and Recreation'

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Barack Obama, First Term, Comedy: ‘Parks and Recreation’ (NBC, 2009-15)

The funny thing about Parks and Rec being so closely tied to Obama (down to those fan-made “Knope” posters inspired by the Obama campaign’s “Hope” ones) is that the series wasn’t created with him at all in mind. Greg Daniels and Michael Schur wrote the pilot during the darkness of the 2008 financial crisis, and their only thought was that government was going to have to get more involved in people’s lives, at least for a while, to try to undo the damage that banks and lax regulations had created. But a show inspired by one era wound up a perfect fit for another.

Walter White (Bryan Cranston) and Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) - Breaking Bad _ Season 5, Episode 11 - Photo Credit: Ursula Coyote/AMC

Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul in 'Breaking Bad'

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Barack Obama, First Term, Drama: ‘Breaking Bad’ (AMC, 2008-13)

If Parks and Rec was the sunniest possible vision of the Obama years, then Breaking Bad was its dark mirror image. In telling the story of dying chemistry teacher Walter White (Bryan Cranston) becoming a drug kingpin, the series brutally captured the sense that the system had already failed all of us, and the only way to thrive was to focus on getting what you felt entitled to, no matter the collateral damage. That level of anger over the state of things, coupled with the audience’s unrelenting love of the increasingly terrible Walt — the latest charismatic asshole in the vein of Tony Soprano, Vic Mackey, and Don Draper — presaged what was growing in the shadows of the era, and what would come into full bloom in the administration to follow.

Brian Huskey, Anna Chlumsky, Gary Cole, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Tony Hale, and Kevin Dunn (from left) in 'Veep'

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Barack Obama, Second Term, Comedy: ‘Veep’ (HBO, 2012-19)

Parks and Rec acknowledged the limitations of its own brand of optimism by regularly illustrating how hard it was for Leslie and friends to get anything done in an increasingly divided country. Still, that show’s dysfunctional local government had nothing on the national one presented in Armando Iannucci’s brutal political comedy, starring the great Julia Louis-Dreyfus as a vice president utterly lacking in any political beliefs other than what would help her gain, and hold onto, more power. Selina Meyer’s amorality wasn’t unique in the Veep world, where its fictionalized Washingtonians believed in nothing or in the dumbest possible things (like the anti-math campaign platform of Timothy Simons’ Jonah). And its satire ultimately proved more like prophecy; its last few years played out under President Trump, where real-life headlines proved far more absurd than anything the Veep writers could invent.

EMPIRE: L-R: Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson in the "Over Everything" episode of EMPIRE airing Tuesday, April 14 (9:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. ©2020 Fox Media LLC. CR: Chuck Hodes/FOX.

Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson in 'Empire'

Season 7, episode 3 (debut 4/14/19): Brian Huskey, Anna Chlumsky, Gary Cole, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Tony Hale, Kevin Dunn. (Empire) Chuck Hodes/FOX

Barack Obama, Second Term, Drama: ‘Empire’ (Fox, 2015-Present)

Just as President Obama was the first African American man to serve as president, his administration marked a time when people of color were finally getting a chance to thrive in other traditionally white spaces, including the realm of the prime-time soap opera. Co-created by Lee Daniels, Empire — about the battle between hip-hop mogul Lucious (Terrence Howard) and ex-wife Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) for control of a family-run entertainment company — mirrored the increasingly mainstream nature of hip-hop and black culture in general. And it shifted the focus of classic Eighties soaps like Dynasty and Dallas from money as the sole endgame to celebrity being just as important (if not more), making it a key chronicler of the age of Instagram.

THE GOOD PLACE -- "You've Changed, Man" Episode 410 -- Pictured: (l-r) Kristen Bell as Eleanor, Ted Danson as Michael, Jameela Jamil as Tahanil, D'Arcy Carden as Janet -- (Photo by: Colleen Hayes/NBC)

Kristen Bell, Ted Danson, and Jameela Jamil in 'The Good Place'

(Trump & Television) Shutterstock, 2; (Good Place)Colleen Hayes/NBC

Donald Trump, Comedy: ‘The Good Place’ (NBC, 2016-20)

Michael Schur’s metaphysical follow-up to Parks and Rec was also conceived without knowing what the era in which it aired would be like; Schur first wrote it when he assumed that Hillary Clinton would win the 2016 election. Instead, a comedy about a group of people discovering that the afterlife is fundamentally broken turned out to be the perfect show for coping with the rampant dysfunction and malevolence of the Trump era, when all our assumptions about how our own country does and should work have proven to be hopelessly naive. The series’ weekly philosophy lessons about what we all owe to each other proved an essential tonic for getting through all the bad news down here on Earth.

(Trump & Television) Shutterstock, 2; (Watchmen) Mark Hill/HBO

Donald Trump, Drama: ‘Watchmen’ (HBO, 2019)

There are so many shows from the past few years that couldn’t be more obviously about the ongoing calamity at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, while based on a book written in the Reagan years, latched onto something unnerving about the Trump administration’s rampant misogyny and push to shatter the separation of church and state. HBO’s Succession captures not only the bottomless pit of a Fox News-style media empire that could help create the political rise of someone like Trump, but also the failson quality of so many people in and around Trump’s administration. But HBO’s Watchmen embodies the surreal, racist brutality of these days more than anything else. In adapting the classic comic book (also an Eighties artifact), Damon Lindelof looked to the current state of our world and saw white nationalism as the existential threat that nuclear war was under Reagan. Despite the characters running around in ridiculous costumes, the series repeatedly laid out the danger lurking beneath the notion of Making America Great Again. And sadly, the show’s ongoing debate about who should and shouldn’t wear masks has taken on a new, real-life resonance in the months since Lindelof concluded his take on the story.

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