WASHINGTON – War, terrorism, economic struggle, mass shootings – such is life in the Oval Office for President Obama.
Yet in his few quiet moments, this president seeks not to escape to the delicious back-stabbing of the “Real Housewives” or the frivolity of the singing teens on “Glee.” By his own accounts, Obama is drawn in his spare time to shows like HBO’s “Game of Thrones” and “Boardwalk Empire,” the kind of heavy, darkly rendered television that echoes the sadness and strife that make up so much of his workday.
These days, when Obama retreats to the White House residence after a long day on the other end of the colonnade, he is working his way through the DVD box set of AMC’s “Breaking Bad,” the award-winning TV drama about a drug-dealing high school teacher. The show just ended after five seasons, but the president is way behind and frequently reminds those around him not to give anything away.
Friends say Obama is also keenly awaiting the new season of the Netflix show “House of Cards,” which starkly depicts a dysfunctional Washington, a theme that must seem all too familiar. At a meeting of technology executives last week, Obama jokingly lamented his own inability to maneuver the halls of Congress in the way of Kevin Spacey’s character Frank Underwood.
“I wish things were that ruthlessly efficient,” Obama was overheard saying to Reed Hastings, the Netflix CEO, who invited the president to do a cameo on the show. Obama joked of the sleazy, congressman-murderer Underwood: “This guy’s getting a lot of stuff done.”
It may be a fool’s errand to psychoanalyze anyone – let alone a sitting president – based only on the books he reads or the music he listens to or the TV shows he watches.
Bill Clinton was a fan of ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy,” the medical-student drama, and “Boston Legal,” the sometimes goofy courtroom saga starring William Shatner, Candice Bergen and James Spader. Clinton also liked “24,” Fox’s terrorism cliffhanger, and – you guessed it – ABC’s “Scandal.” Ronald Reagan, a former actor, once offered to appear on his favorite show, the sitcom “Family Ties.” (His offer was rejected.) Franklin Roosevelt was said to like Mickey Mouse cartoons in an era before cable made TV edgy. George W. Bush was said to not be a particular fan of television, but made exceptions for A&E’s “Biography” and a variety of sports programs.
But for Obama, “Breaking Bad” and “House of Cards” are hardly the exceptions to what has become a clear pattern. Obama is also a devotee of Showtime’s “Homeland,” which offers an eerily familiar mirror to the president’s own foreign policy adventures: terrorism, Iranian nuclear negotiations, drone strikes and an intelligence agency struggling for legitimacy with Congress and the American people.
And the list of heavies continues: Obama has told people he is a big fan of “Game of Thrones,” a brutal imagining of the wars in Medieval Europe. He has raved about “Boardwalk Empire” and the BBC’s “Downton Abbey,” two period dramas that document the angst and difficulties people faced during those times. And he has worked his way through the DVDs of AMC’s smoldering “Mad Men” series, telling friends that the character of Peggy Olson has given him insight into what it must have been like for his strong-willed grandmother in a world dominated by men.
Then there is HBO’s “The Wire,” which Obama has repeatedly called one of the “greatest shows of all time.” The drama depicted the poverty-stricken projects in Baltimore and documented the drug war between worn-out cops and the city’s African-American residents. (The president’s favorite character: Omar Little, the stick-up man who robs the drug dealers.) It was never, by any measure, a happy-go-lucky hour of television.
It is true that Obama has his own TV distractions that do not involve serious subjects. He is a rabid sports fan, and friends and colleagues say he enjoys ESPN’s “SportsCenter.” He also once told TV Guide that he and his family watch ABC’s “Modern Family” and NBC’s “Parks and Recreation” – two comedy shows that could never be accused of being deep, dark or edgy.
Obama once admitted to People Magazine that he is “a little darker” in his TV habits than the rest of his family.
It may be “Homeland” that offers the most interesting insight into Obama’s down-time preferences. Like Fox’s “24” before it, “Homeland” reveals the hidden dangers in a complicated world. But “Homeland” is more subtle, presenting choices that are rarely easy and never cost-free. It is not unlike the phrase Obama often uses with his closest advisers: “Hard things are hard,” he says.
Mandy Patinkin, who plays Saul Berenson, the CIA chief on “Homeland,” talked in a recent interview about what he called the “exciting” fact that Obama watches the show.
“There are people in key places all over the world that are watching this, in power, and it is their break from the end of their very difficult day,” Patinkin said. “Our job is not to reflect, in my opinion, the real CIA or Washington. Our job is to be the poetic response, the poetic reflection.”
Perhaps that is what television is for Obama: a poetic reflection. Or maybe despite his day job, the president simply enjoys the cliffhanger tension of the best dramas. Either way, his viewing habits are of interest to everyone – including those who make the shows he watches.
After meeting the president at the White House last year, Claire Danes, who plays CIA officer Carrie Mathison in “Homeland,” expressed her shock at having a “first fan.”
“I think we were all stunned – and a little terrified by that idea,” Danes said. “The president knows what we do?”