Civics and Chill: What’s On Your Binge Watch List for the Holiday Break?
The holiday break is coming up, and that week means free time and a chance to catch up on leisure activities.
Last week, I shared a list of civics related books that you should consider reading over the break. But maybe your brain needs a break, and you just want to veg out in front of the television.
If that’s the case, here’s a list that’ll get you through the Christmas break – and probably through the summer break as well. Some of these shows and movies are available to stream for free on Netflix, others are available to stream for free on Amazon Prime, and others you’ll have to pay to download.
Some of these would be useful for viewing in class with your students, while others would probably be considered inappropriate. But either way, they will all satisfy your craving for political entertainment. Make some popcorn and curl in on the couch in front of the screen, and get ready to relax…
Political Shows and Movies on Netflix
If you’re a Netflix subscriber (and who isn’t these days?), then you know there’s a great selection of television shows to binge watch. Here’s three political shows and one movie you should check out – and they’re all worth a re-watch if you’ve seen them before.
Parks and Recreation. Parks and Rec is a hilarious spoof on municipal government. It’s set in a fictional town in Indiana, and the show plots the day to day life of the employees at the Parks and Recreation Department. There’s a wonderful juxtaposition between the overzealous Leslie Knope and her boss, Ron Swanson, who hates the very idea of government. The rest of the cast is hilarious, and their characters are each well developed through the seven seasons that will keep you busy for some time.
Parks and Rec comes from the same people who made The Office. If you enjoyed it, you’ll love Parks and Rec. If you didn’t, you might want to move on to the next one. For the most part, this is too silly to watch in class – but it’s definitely entertaining. If you don’t have Netflix, you can purchase the show for download on Amazon.
The West Wing. If you’re looking for something a bit more dramatic and realistic than Parks and Rec, The West Wing is a great option. This was a classic in the late 90’s and early oughts, and it won a ton of awards. The plot tracks the Presidency of Josiah Bartlett and the inner workings of his senior staff in the west wing. It’s been a few years since I’ve watched it myself, but I recall there being some gems in there that would be useful for watching in class with your students. So think of all that time on couch as research and lesson planning.
At some point, I’m going to have to go back and watch The West Wing myself and pick out some episodes that would be good for teaching. In the meantime, go watch it on Netflix or purchase it for download on Amazon. And drop a comment below if you see an episode that you think would be useful in class.
House of Cards. If you have Netflix and you like politics, I find it hard to believe that haven’t heard of House of Cards. This follows the rise of Francis Underwood to the Presidency of the United States (and ultimately his fall from grace). It’s a dark show, full of suspense, intrigue, and corruption. While the plot in its totality is pretty far fetched, many of the individual plot elements are believable. This show will confirm your worst fears about government – and how evil and self-serving politicians are.
There are certainly some parts of the show that are inappropriate for watching in class, so be careful to screen it first if you want to watch an episode with your students. The final season is due out next year, so this would be a great time to re-watch it or catch up if you’re behind. If you don’t have Netflix, you can purchase episodes for download on Amazon. And if you’re a fan of the American series, you should also consider the original British mini-series. It’s also available for streaming on Netflix.
Rosewater. If you don’t want to waste your whole week binging a TV show, here’s a movie for you to watch. Rosewater is a bizarre – but true – story of a man who did an interview for the Daily Show and was later arrested by the Iranian government for being a spy. It’s an intriguing look into the Iranian regime and it raises a lot of questions about governmental power and personal freedom. The movie was directed by Jon Stewart – if you’re a Daily Show fan you might remember when he took a break from the show to make Rosewater.
This is potentially an interesting movie to watch in class. I watched it in my AP Government class after it came out, and the kids enjoyed it. It would be especially useful for a comparative politics class. You can also purchase it for download on Amazon.
Political Shows and Movies on Amazon Prime
I’ve been a Prime subscriber since I was in college. It’s amazing to get free two day shipping on anything you want, and I’m pretty sure I more than make up for the $99 subscription fee each year. But in the past few years they’ve expanded the value of Prime – with music, movies, books, and more. If you’re a Prime Subscriber, here are some options that you can stream without paying anything else out of pocket.
The Wire. The Wire is an amazing show that uses Baltimore to explore issues with urban systems. Each season has a different focus – the police department, the drug trade, politics, education, unions, the press – but the police department and city of Baltimore is the unifying thread throughout the series. The later seasons are explicitly political, but the entire show will appeal to someone who’s interested in politics and municipal government. I wouldn’t use this to teach high school, although this could be a wonderful basis for discussion and analysis in a college course. But you should definitely watch it nonetheless.
Veep. Veep is actually on my watch-list for this break, because I’ve never gotten around to watching it. Veep features Julia Louis-Dreyfus as the vice president of the United States. I remember when it first came out, but for some reason I never got around to watching it. It looked funny and interesting, and it’s got pretty good reviews. I also realized recently that Seasons 1 and 2 are available for free on Prime, so if nothing else you ought to give it a try. I will.
Alpha House. Alpha House was one of Amazon’s first attempts at original programming for Prime subscribers. It’s a sitcom about four Republican U.S. Senators who share a house in Washington, D.C. It was inspired by a similar real life story (although in reality they were Democrats). At this point a few of the references may seem a bit dated, but the show is hilarious. It’s great humor for political folk, especially news junkies. I was disappointed when it was cancelled after the second season. But on the plus side, the episodes are short so you can easily binge-watch the entire show without killing your whole week off. Probably not worth watching in class, but definitely worth watching for a laugh.
Man in the High Castle. The Man in the High Castle is an amazing dark, disturbing view into an alternate reality in which the Germans developed nukes first in the 1940’s and the Axis won World War II. It’s based off a Philip K. Dick novel by the same name (which is available through Prime Reading / Kindle Unlimited). This will appeal to anyone with an interest in history, not just civics and government. I haven’t really thought through which episodes would be the most useful, but it would be interesting to show some of this show in a Modern U.S. History class. And if you watch and enjoy the movie, I would highly recommend that you read the book as well.
Other Political Shows and Movies
The rest of these are unfortunately not available through Netflix or Amazon Prime. Some of them are available for free streaming if you have certain channels as Amazon subscriptions, but otherwise you’ll have to pay a few bucks for them. But they’re all good and worth a watch.
Show Me a Hero. Show Me a Hero is a six part HBO mini-series about housing segregation in Yonkers. It’s from the same people who brought us The Wire, and if you enjoyed the gritty nature of The Wire you’ll definitely appreciate their depiction of 1980’s Yonkers, New York. Thankfully, it’s much shorter than the five series of The Wire. This is also a great mini-series for your students to watch, as it offers a lot of insights into municipal government and civil rights. You can read more here about some issues to discuss with your students.
The Mayor. The Mayor is a new sitcom from ABC. It tells the story of a young rapper who decides to run for Mayor of his hometown as a publicity stunt. Then he wins and he and his friends have to figure out how to govern. Some of the more recent episodes may still be available to stream from ABC, but you can purchase the older ones from ABC. It’s a funny sitcom, and the material is relevant for your students. I’ve been writing an ongoing series about how to use this to teach civics and government, and winter break would be a good chance to catch up on the show if you’re thinking about using it in class at some point.
Lincoln. Lincoln was a great movie, and it will appeal to lovers of history as well as to lovers of civics and government. It’s based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. The movie focuses on the last few months of the Civil War and of Lincoln’s life, and the political drama surrounding the passage of the thirteenth amendment. It’s a movie with potential value for both early U.S. history classes a well as civics and government classes. If you’ve never seen it, do yourself a favor and watch it.
All the Way. All the Way was an original production created by HBO about the beginning of the LBJ presidency. It follows Johnson from his assumption of the Presidency through his re-election in 1964, and it focuses on the debate and passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. There is a ton of value to be harvested from this movie for purposes of both a history class and a government class. It’s interesting to think about this story in relation to that told by Lincoln – which happened just about exactly a century earlier. I loved it, and when I watched it with my AP Government kids they loved it too. There is a bit of foul language in here, but it’s the President… so that’s ok, right?
All the President’s Men. All the President’s Men is a classic. It tells the story of how Washington Post reporters Woodward and Bernstein broke the story of Watergate and brought down a President. I rewatched this movie last year while news was breaking about the Trump campaign and Russia. It was really interesting to see this movie again and think about it in that context. This movie is a bit dated and it is a bit drawn out, so you might lose your kids if you watch it in class. But it’s still worth it.
Wag the Dog. Wag the Dog is a fictional story about a President who, facing a sexual misconduct scandal, creates a fictional war to distract the country and win his re-election campaign. It raises a lot of questions about the media, media literacy, and whether or not we can trust what we see and hear. This is particularly timely in the face of the “fake news” era. This also takes on some extra significance in the last few weeks, given the cascading amount of stories about politicians guilty of some form of sexual misconduct. Read here about some issues you can discuss with your class if you choose to watch this with them.
The Manchurian Candidate. The Manchurian Candidate is about a war hero who is brainwashed and turned into a weapon. It’s a remake of an earlier movie by the same name, and it’s a great story. This is less useful for teaching than for entertainment, but if you’re on vacation you might as well enjoy yourself.
Thirteen Days. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen Thirteen Days, but it seems more timely than ever today. It seems like every day we inch closer to a nuclear confrontation with North Korea. These events may not be as compressed as those in the Cuban missile crisis, but they carry the potential to be as devastating. This movie has value for teaching modern U.S. history, but it’s also useful for thinking about current events and foreign policy.
What Did I Miss?
This is not an exhaustive list, and there are definitely more movies that you could add to the list. What do you plan on watching or adding to your Christmas list for this holiday break? Did I miss something? Drop a comment below and let me know.