On-screen presidents are an unusual collection because they don’t always reflect what we want from a leader. (Though these days, it seems that consensus is fracturing more than ever.)
Some are abrasive, some are diabolical. Others are worse at their job than you would expect. So when picking the “best” TV versions of U.S. presidents, it’s just as important to consider what these individuals brought to the position that previous inhabitants did not, for good or ill.
Despite the occasional missteps of these fictional Commanders-in-Chief, many of them do represent the theoretical ideals that a national leader should uphold: a clear grasp of the office’s privilege, an understanding of the ramifications of key policy decisions, and the power that words can have to send a message to the entire nation.
We kept this particular roundup to fictional Presidents of the United States. You could make a technical case that Anthony Atamanuik’s fine work on “The President Show” might qualify, but that minor distinction is why Mary McDonnell’s Laura Roslin won’t pop up here, either.
But speaking of President Roslin, it’s interesting to note that, even with a few women on this list, none of those characters were explicitly elected to the office either. In the fictional world, the most notable leaders are the ones called upon when the time demands. Here’s hoping that sooner rather than later, America will have a woman in the nation’s highest position not by accident, both in TV and real life.
15. Dale Gilchrist (Bill Pullman), “1600 Penn”
After playing one of the big screen’s titanic presidential figures (“In less than an hour…”), Pullman got the chance to take on a decidedly different one on TV. “1600 Penn” was a First Family sitcom, co-created by Josh Gad and former Obama staffer (and current Crooked Media host) Jon Lovett. This brand of political comedy may not have worked for network audiences, but it served as a reminder that there’s more to a president than speeches and official appearances.
14. Julia Mansfield (Patty Duke), “Hail to the Chief”
Like creator Susan Harris’ previous sitcom “Soap,” “Hail to the Chief” was a comedy with soap opera-like elements, including ongoing storylines. As the first female Commander-in-chief (like other TV female presidents, she was VP first, and then elevated to the top job), Duke’s character faced political crises — rogue generals and Soviet spies, to name a few — while dealing with her chaotic family, including a philandering husband and dysfunctional kids. “There were jokes about religion, race, politics and sex–or, as one ABC executive suggested, something to offend everyone.” the Los Angeles Times wrote at the time. The show ended after a seven-episode run.
13. Robert “Bobby” McCallister (Logan Lerman), “Jack and Bobby”
“Jack and Bobby” had one of the more fascinating TV premises in recent memory: a docudrama about two brothers, one of whom would grow up to be president. Though the pilot kept things in suspense, later episodes revealed that Lerman’s character Bobby would be the one to go on to take a seat in the Oval Office. Though the WB drama concerned itself more with the events of Bobby’s childhood, rather than future policy decisions, it was an interesting consideration of whether leaders are made or whether their arrival is signaled by years of carefully refining instincts that are present all along.
12. The President (Keith David), “Rick and Morty”
It’s one of the most paramount crises of our time: a giant head, appearing in the sky, demanding, “SHOW ME WHAT YOU GOT.” Aside from being one of the only people who believe in the title characters coming in and performing a planet-saving pop song, this President also does his best to hold off the more aggressive military leaders who favor a nuclear option. It’s a magnificent voice performance from David, whose on-screen avatar caps it all off by joining in a break-dancing celebration once intergalactic catastrophe is averted. (Half credit if you thought we were going the Abradolf Lincler route.)
11. Samuel Arthur Tresch (George C. Scott), “Mr. President”
Back in the early days of Fox, the network didn’t know what its programming focus would be, so it tried everything, including George C. Scott as the president in a comedy from Johnny Carson’s production company. The show focused on the life of the First Family and was originally single-camera, but was then retooled into more of a traditional multi-camera sitcom. In a 1988 essay for the Los Angeles Times, Scott explained his motivation for doing the show: “What finer vessel than the presidency? What more advantageous a milieu than the White House? Characters of persuasion and power grappling with important problems that affect us all. Striving with sardonicism and wit–and a rejection of self-delusion–to possibly illuminate some answers to those problems.” But he ultimately felt locked out of the creative process, and found himself frustrated that producers ignored his desire to tackle serious subjects.
Up next: Picks #10-6, including a couple of ex-presidents and one notable twin brother