If Joe Biden really wants to get the most out of his time as vice president, he should sign a development deal instead of forming an exploratory committee. On television, the Naval Observatory is the hottest real estate since Melrose Place—far more popular, even, than that mansion over on Pennsylvania Avenue.
The evidence is everywhere, from the networks to Netflix. On “Scandal,” the Christian conservative veep Sally Langston (Kate Burton) exists in near-open enmity with libertine president Fitzgerald Grant (Tony Goldwyn). On Netflix’s “House of Cards”—spoilers for this and other shows ahead!—the ambitious Rep. Frank Underwood (played by Kevin Spacey) earns, at last, an appointment to the vice presidency. The vice president on “Homeland,” William Walden (Jamey Sheridan), defines an aggressive U.S. foreign policy. (He’s eventually killed as revenge for a drone strike.) And on HBO’s “Veep,” Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s pharmaceutical-popping Vice President Selina Meyer gasps for any press attention she can get. Meanwhile, Biden himself turns up as a consistent punchline on “Parks and Recreation,” where he’s the apple of civil servant Leslie Knope’s eye (he even made a cameo).
“I don’t think the public is necessarily aware of or puts great import in the vice president, his staff, or who they are,” said Charles Burson, who served as chief of staff to Vice President Al Gore. “That doesn’t mean within the White House they are without influence. But it gives writers a lot of leeway.”
These characters’ levels of power differ wildly, from Dan Quayle-like blundering (“Veep”) to Dick Cheney-like manipulations (“Homeland”). What they all have in common—and what the vice presidency offers television writers in comparison to the presidency—is a ready-made psychological profile. In every case, the vice president is something of a loser–sometimes literally, as TV veeps tend to be chosen by the president only after losing in the primaries (a process that “Veep” cleverly depicts in its opening credits). And their struggle to exert power over—or lay claim to—the oval office is palace intrigue at its best. On “Veep,” Meyer is scheming her run to succeed the president who beat her in a primary; on “Homeland,” the late Walden was already actively running. “Scandal”’s Langston is a malign force, threatening to turn the public against the president. And we can presume that, on “House of Cards,” a potential Vice President Underwood won’t be sated.
“In our show, at least, the subject is power,” “House of Cards” creator Beau Willimon told The New Republic. “And when you talk about power, you’re also talking about disempowerment.”
While vice presidents are rife with psychological tension, torn between party loyalty and personal ambition, presidents on television face a series of complex challenges that are, ultimately, always the same. Writers must ask themselves: What will make the next political opponent even more menacing than the last one? How can we make the upcoming terrorist attack or war even more scary for the commander-in-chief?
No wonder, then, that some of these shows, like “Veep” and “Homeland,” never show the president onscreen at all. Americans want their presidents to be heroic, but the vice-president is free to be the most valued sort of character on contemporary television: the anti-hero.
The vice presidency puts into practice not policy, but the most micro-targeted sort of politics. A president enacts change that affects the lives of millions of Americans, or is thwarted—either way, that’s not the stuff of entertainment. The vice president has little to do—on TV, at least—but to engage in politicking, currying favor among their colleagues and the public. The exercise of executive power is on, some fundamental level, benevolent and dull. The pursuit of executive power is what makes good drama work. After all, the public at large loves to pay attention to politics during the campaign more so than during a non-election year—and the life of a veep is, or seems to be, a campaign that never ends.
If the president is a chilly, removed figure we may support but cannot truly know, the vice president becomes, if only in our minds, all too human for his or her relative lack of power despite the proximity to it. In an interview with the AV Club, “Homeland” co-creator Alex Gansa—a veteran of “24,” the Bush-era series that depicted a series of iconic heroic or villainous presidents—said the show focused on the veep for a reason: “We felt that we didn’t want to make it the president. We wanted to make it the vice president, because it felt realer to us.”
Daniel D'Addario is a staff writer at Salon.