Local Government on American Television

Because government touches so many parts of the American experience, it is logical that government has worked its way into the story lines of television. The criminal justice system is featured on countless shows like Dragnet (1951-1959), Law & Order (1990-2010), NYPD Blue (1993-2005), Oz (1997-2003) and CSI (2000-). Police departments, the courts and correctional facilities are as common as medical dramas, soap operas and daytime talk shows.

In recent years American television has branched out into other aspects of local government like executive management, community politics, emergency management and parks. While these shows are stylized to entertain rather than instruct, we can see public administration played out on a weekly basis.

The Andy Griffith Show (1960-1968)

Deputy Barney Fife (Don Knotts) and Sheriff Andy Taylor (Andy Griffith) in a promotional photo for the Andy Griffith Show.
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The Andy Griffith Show is different from later police shows in that it focuses on county government in rural America instead of large law enforcement operations based in major metropolitan areas. Sheriff Andy Taylor is the chief law enforcement officer for Mayberry County, North Carolina. Because no City of Mayberry police department is mentioned, viewers are left to assume that Andy and his deputy Barney Fife also enforce the law within the city.

The particulars about the city and county governments in Mayberry are left hazy. What is clear is that the citizens have small government to match their small population. Over the series, two individuals serve as mayor of the City of Mayberry.

The most frequent occupant of the Mayberry jail is Otis Campbell, the town drunk. Otis is able to lock himself up when he gets drunk. This arrangement is a convenience for Andy and Barney, but a real sheriff or deputy would never hand out spare keys to the jail. Actor Hal Smith, who played Otis, never had a drink in his life.

Andy lives with his aunt Beatrice, or “Aunt Bee,” and his son Opie. Andy is a widower. His wife died when Opie was small.

Spin City (1996-2002)

Still image from Spin City with Barry Bostwick, Charlie Sheen and Heather Locklear.
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For the first four seasons of Spin City, Mike Flaherty manages up and down as he tries to run New York City’s government as deputy mayor. The show’s mayor is shown as a competent but sometimes bumbling politician who leaves the governing up to Flaherty and the other staff in the mayor’s office. Flaherty is great at his job but neglects his personal life.

During the show’s run lead actor Michael J. Fox announced he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. At this time in the series, the mayor runs for the US Senate, and Heather Locklear plays campaign manager Caitlin Moore. Fox left the show in 2000. His character resigns to take the blame for a relationship the mayor has with organized crime. The show kept going two more seasons with Charlie Sheen taking over the lead role as new deputy mayor Charlie Crawford.

New York City operates under the strong mayor form of government where all city departments ultimately report to the mayor instead of a city council or city manager.

Gilmore Girls (2000-2007)

Actresses Alexis Bledel (L) and Lauren Graham from the series 'Gilmore Girls' attend the 2006 Summer Television Critics Association Press Tour on July 17, 2006 in Pasadena, California
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Gilmore Girls is set in the fictional Connecticut town of Stars Hollow. The main characters are Lorelai and Rory (short for Lorelai), a single mother and daughter who are close enough in age that their relationship is often more like best friends than mother and daughter. Rory was born when Lorelai was 16 years old. Lorelai ran away from her wealthy parents’ home in Hartford and became a maid at the Independence Inn. At the beginning of the series, Lorelai manages the inn for the owner who gave her a job and the two girls a place to sleep.

Local market owner Taylor Doose (pronounced Doh-see) presides over town meetings as the town selectman. The issues prompting many of the meetings are hair-brained schemes that Taylor would carry out on his own, but his sense of civic duty compels him to take the decisions before the assembled townspeople. Diner owner Luke Danes always opposes Taylor’s ideas. In the show’s fifth season, Jackson Belleville defeats Taylor in an election for town selectman. Based on these town meetings where the elected official has no real power, it is safe to assume that Stars Hollow operates under the town meeting form of government.

Lorelai and her mother Emily make an arrangement for Emily and Lorelai’s father Richard to pay for private school in Hartford. In exchange, Lorelai and Rory have dinner every Friday night at Emily and Richard’s home.

Chilton Academy is in Hartford. Rory takes the bus to school before her boyfriend Dean builds her a car. It is unlikely that a private school would send a bus to a rural community to pick up one student, so it appears that the bus line Rory takes is either operated by a private company or as part of a state or regional bus service. Given that Rory takes the bus five days a week, the bus is probably affiliated a governmental entity in some way.

Rescue Me (2004-2011)

Actor Denis Leary and actress Tatum O'Neal
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Rescue Me is a dark drama about New York City firefighter Tommy Gavin. Tommy faces personal problems and fears as he copes with losing his best friend in the World Trade Center on September 11, substance abuse, and the struggles of a divorce with children involved. Actor Denis Leary portrays Tommy. Most of the show’s recurring characters are firefighters in various levels of the department.

Friday Night Lights (2006-2011)

Kyle Chandler holding Emmy
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Friday Night Lights follows the five-year stint by Eric Taylor, played by Kyle Chandler, as a high school football coach in the fictional West Texas town of Dillon. Through the course of the series, Taylor and his family deal with many of the difficult situations that face coaches -- meddlesome booster club members, disgruntled parents, players getting in trouble with the police and lawsuits filed against him. The show also follows the lives of Coach Taylor’s players and associated students.

In the second season, Taylor’s wife Tami becomes the guidance counselor at her husband’s school. In the third season, she is promoted to principal. Despite winning a state championship, Coach Taylor is kicked out of his job as coach of the Dillon Panthers to take on the upstart East Dillon Lions. Tami also moves to the school as the guidance counselor. Taylor wins a state title with the Lions in the series finale.

The series has a few inaccuracies about local government, chief among them being that the mayor is portrayed in early seasons as the head of schools. It is not said outright, but the audience is led to believe that the mayor can decide the fate of Coach Taylor’s career. While a mayor can influence school board members, a small-town Texas mayor does not hold any official power over school matters.

Parks and Recreation (2009-)

Leslie Knope
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Parks and Recreation centers around Leslie Knope, the deputy director for parks and recreation for the fictional city of Pawnee, Indiana. A nutty cast of characters go about their official business, but the comedy and drama are built around the characters’ personal relationships with each other and with people outside the department.

The City of Pawnee has a population of 79,218 according to the official phony website dedicated to the show.