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As nation gets more political, so does TV

Before NBC's "The West Wing" made political wonks sound sexy, prime-time TV shows about politics were about as rare as, well, a female or black presidential candidate.

Despite such proof that TV drama can be both politically savvy and popular at the same time, only a handful of imitators have come and gone since the show debuted in 1999, most notably "The Court," about the Supreme Court, starring Sally Field, and possibly "Citizen Baines," about a former US senator.

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But in the buildup to this fall's presidential election - the first since 9/11 - TV executives have discovered that politics can make compelling television.

They're trotting out a range of politically charged drama, comedy, and reality fare, including "The American Candidate," a 10-part, unscripted Showtime series searching for a "real person" candidate, which debuted this past week; Robert Altman's "Tanner on Tanner," a faux documentary about a presidential candidate; and "K Street," which concluded its latest season on HBO, among others. In addition, numerous documentaries about hot-button topics will air in the next few months, including "Uncovered: The Whole Truth About the Iraq War" and "Afghanistan Unveiled."

Without a doubt, programmers are capitalizing on an election that media watchers are calling the most divisive of the past 30 years. "Many are engaged with politics now because of what's happening outside television, like the war and the economy," says Gary Edgerton, coeditor of the Journal of Popular Film and Television.

"There's a focus now on this presidential election and politics in general that we haven't seen in a good long time."

The political process seems ripe for Hollywood treatment. What people found with "The West Wing" is that the federal government is an inexhaustible source of material, says Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. "It has scandals that can topple nations ... and it's this rich dramatic vein that's been so avoided that it's comparatively virginal. There are no formulas for the political shows the way there are for the doctor and cop shows."

Of course, politics and entertainment have always been mirror images of each other, with politicians eager to share the Hollywood limelight and movie stars eager to gain gravitas by association with important issues.

But in years past, Hollywood has shied away from overtly political shows to avoid offending either side - an attitude that seems almost quaint in these Bill O'Reilly and Michael Moore times.

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Just like the breakout hit documentary movie "Fahrenheit 9/11," these shows are tapping the public's desire for information with an attitude. "This is the next stage in the great American drama," says Thompson. "We really need great storytelling that attempts to interpret our politics."

Not that this is a simple job, with politicians being more scripted than actors these days, says documentarian Alexandra Pelosi, daughter of Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D) of California. The young filmmaker's "Diary of a Political Tourist" airs on HBO this fall. Her story follows each of the candidates through the primary season. "The biggest heroine in my movie is Candy Crowley from CNN, who used to say all the time, 'There's no such thing as an honest moment in politics.' The candidates can't be real because if they're real [the media] will exploit it."

The creators of "American Candidate" suggest a way around candidate prepackaging: Go straight to the people. The show takes its candidates, culled from a cross section of the population, through the entire election process from announcement to coronation in what producers call a simulation.

Producer R.J. Cutler says that the show "has a very high civic objective in mind, which is to get people engaged in the process." The winner will receive $200,000 (roughly a president's salary) and a speaking engagement. While he or she will be a "candidate" in contest terms only, the producers hope the process will have an impact.

"I'm also hoping," says host Montel Williams, "that a reporter is going to say to either [Senator] Kerry or [President] Bush, 'Did you hear what the "American Candidate" said on Sunday?' Because what [we're] doing is actually discussing the real issues and not avoiding them."

The only surprise about these shows is that they haven't appeared earlier.

"Politics is tightly connected to the trends and popular culture of any country and our pop culture is fast-paced, extremely shallow, and superficial," says Steffen Schmidt, professor of political science at Iowa State University. "It's also highly sexualized and based on personality. The entertainment industry has hooked society on colorful individuals as the central themes of all entertainment."

The biggest drawback, even to the high-minded shows such as Cutler's, says the professor, is that real politicking is much slower, more bureaucratic, and full of compromises.

"Our pop culture can't tolerate the true pace of politics," says Professor Schmidt, "so the entertainment industry has decided to make it happen in a way that fits more closely our interests and our attention span."

Given the controversy over ballot results in the last presidential election, the stakes are seen to be even higher this fall. That's where mixing politics and entertainment becomes most problematic.

"Entertainment doesn't stress us or tax us; that's the point," says Nancy Snow, communications professor at California State University Fullerton. "I can simply take it in through my senses and that's not good for real tackling of issues or working on reasoning and critical thinking skills," all the necessary tools for a functioning democracy, Ms. Snow says.

She doesn't care what road people take to important issues, even if it's MTV's "Rock the Vote." But she suggests that even a show such as "The American Candidate" will not prepare voters for the serious questions in a real election.

This clash between the popular values represented by these shows and the elitist values of those who maintain they cheapen and dilute serious civic dialogue is as old as democracy itself, says Thompson. But he points out that the democratic process has always been a messy business at best, saying "our own Constitution is full of ambiguity and compromises."

And, he points out, the process of getting there was as full of drama and colorful personalities as any TV show: "Two of our Founding Fathers got in a duel and shot each other and one was killed," he says. "This makes sniping between Michael Moore and Rush Limbaugh seem positively civil."