The past 10 presidencies, explained by the TV shows that defined them

Todd VanDerWerff
Parks and Recreation.

A long-running, beloved TV show doesn't just become a favorite work of art. It becomes a literal part of your life, weaving its way into the fabric of everything else going on for you at that point in your personal timeline.

That's why some TV shows — through no fault of their own — become almost inextricably tied to certain presidential administrations. Their lives eerily parallel said administrations, and they explore themes that are particularly raw during that specific moment in American history. What's more, they often become so tied to that point in time that they feel a little dated as soon as the country has moved past them a bit.

I've been thinking about this idea for a while, and over time I've identified one show per administration that best captures its era, going all the way back to John F. Kennedy. (Dwight D. Eisenhower — the first president of the TV age — presided over a country that largely saw TV as a cool novelty, which makes it harder to pick a specific show that speaks for his time in office.)

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Each one overlaps significantly with the administration it represents — meaning it debuted close to the beginning of that administration, and in the most exemplary cases, ended shortly before or after the end of that administration.

In short, later examinations of how America feels about a particular time period don't qualify — "Mad Men" doesn't count for JFK. All of these shows say something specific about how America saw itself when they were on the air. They capture TV's unique quality as a real-time document of a country constantly in transition.

The Barack Obama years: "Parks and Recreation"

Since we don't yet have much historical perspective on the Obama administration, consider this pick subject to change. Indeed, I considered three or four other series before selecting "Parks and Recreation."

But Parks fits the Obama era perfectly, in that it started in the spring of 2009, ended in the spring of 2015, and exemplified a kind of American optimism about the idea that public service is an ultimate good. But the series was also laced with the progressiveness that would cause many to turn against Obama. Though protagonist Leslie Knope believes she's doing the best for her constituents, they see her as out of touch with their real needs — no matter how ridiculous those "real needs" might be.

Much of the popular narrative around the 1990s casts the decade as a time of lazy good feeling — sort of a redo of the 1950s, but with a vaguely multicultural bent. And yet the seeds of the right-wing populist revolt that propelled Donald Trump to the White House were being sown throughout the decade, via talk radio and the early days of the internet.

The George W. Bush years: "24"

This is perhaps the most obvious choice of them all — a show viewed by many as the perfect example of America's subconscious during the second Bush presidency. The natural iconoclast in me wants to push back a bit; what about "The Sopranos"? "Lost"? "The Shield"? All speak to America's Bush-era anxieties almost as well.

But it almost has to be "24," which nails the brief period of time in this country when the need to feel secure above all else coincided with TV's status as the mass medium. 24 — which overlapped beautifully with George W. Bush's two terms, running from 2001 to 2010 — is about how civil liberties are just a suggestion in the face of a major crisis. It's also about how if you ever take time for self-reflection, you just might have to stop moving forward, so don't do that.

And as such, it has almost no narrative consistency, choosing instead to continually twist its own rationale in the name of exploring the horrors of imagined, hypothetical death. It's the perfect TV show for the Bush years.

The Bill Clinton years: "The X-Files"

Much of the popular narrative around the 1990s casts the decade as a time of lazy good feeling — sort of a redo of the 1950s, but with a vaguely multicultural bent. And yet the seeds of the right-wing populist revolt that propelled Donald Trump to the White House were being sown throughout the decade, via talk radio and the early days of the internet.

That brings us to "The X-Files," which ran from 1993 to 2002 and neatly plays to both sides of the era. The series' brazen, goofy escapism embodies a country that was seeing its numerous local subcultures being gobbled up by a national monoculture (symbolized by FBI Agents hunting down various local monsters and urban legends), but it also saw, clearly, the paranoia and darkness animating many on society's fringes, then gave that paranoia voice.

The George H.W. Bush years: "Roseanne"

One-term presidents are tricky for this game, because successful TV shows usually run far longer than four years.

But "Roseanne" — which debuted a couple of weeks before Bush was elected in 1988 and finally ended in 1997 — neatly tracks the increasingly frustrated working-class voices who felt constrained by a decade of trickle-down economics. No TV show captured the early '90s recession as well as this one did, which made it a good fit for a time when the American public was slowly losing interest in Republican ideals.

Cast of the tv show Family Ties.

The Ronald Reagan years: "Family Ties"

"Family Ties," which began in 1982 and ended in 1989, is mostly notable now for its superb, breakthrough performance by Michael J. Fox as Alex P. Keaton, the conservative son of former hippie parents, and Michael Gross's underrated work as one of said parents. (As an actual TV show, it leaves something to be desired.)

But it's worth looking at as an example of how the political sitcom ideals of the 1970s — as encapsulated by loud arguments about any issue you can think of — were flipped and subverted by the feel-good '80s. Now the kids were the conservatives, the parents were the liberals, and everybody was realizing that things were Pretty Okay. If the Reagan years hoped to be about sunny optimism overcoming everything, "Family Ties" was that sentiment in a nutshell — right down to the way it only seemed to acknowledge the darker corners of American life in Very Special Episodes.

The Gerald Ford/Jimmy Carter years: "Saturday Night Live"

Okay, this is a cheat, but since Ford was in office for such a relatively short period of time, and since Carter was a one-term president, and since both overlap with "SNL'"s famed original cast/golden years (its first five seasons), I think it works. The late '70s were, in general, marked by a sense of American decline, and the idea that the presidency was primarily marked by a fumbling impotence that deserved mockery. Enter the most famous sketch series of them all.

Jean Stapleton as Edith Bunker and Carroll O'Connor as Archie Bunker in 'All In The Family.'
CBS Photo Archive | Getty Images

The Richard Nixon years: "All in the Family"

Here's an even more brazen cheat. Nixon took office in 1969, and "All in the Family" didn't debut until January 1971. Then it aired, in some form or another, for nearly 10 years after Nixon resigned in 1974. (My argument is somewhat bolstered by the original pilot for what became "All in the Family," which was shot in 1968; the show spent just over two years making its way to the screen.)

But there simply isn't a better show from the era for articulating the way America's political arguments burst out into the open in the late '60s and early '70s — or for clarifying how those arguments and Nixon's eventual ouster soured many Americans on government altogether. It's a show about a family that loves each other, but views their country with growing suspicion, which sounds about right for the era.

The Lyndon B. Johnson years: "The Andy Griffith Show"

The '60s — when TV tried like hell to pretend the larger world wasn't encroaching upon its hermetically sealed settings — are one of the medium's weaker decades overall. But Andy Taylor, the folksy sheriff of Mayberry, North Carolina, seems like an accidental attempt to create a kinder, gentler LBJ. (It really was an accident; the show debuted a couple of weeks before Johnson was elected vice president in 1960, though it left the air a few months before Nixon won the election to replace Johnson in 1968.)

The John F. Kennedy years: "The Dick Van Dyke Show"

Kennedy's assassination in 1963 means that no one show overlaps perfectly with his presidency, but this one — which ran from 1961 to 1966 — comes close. "The Dick Van Dyke Show" captures a country that was increasingly urbanizing and getting younger and younger. Plus, Van Dyke and his TV wife, Mary Tyler Moore, look a little like JFK and Jackie if you squint.

Commentary by Todd VanDer Werff, critic at large at Vox. Follow him on Twitter @tvoti.

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