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Jeff Simon: The world of politics, as seen on TV

His name was Bob Sweeney. Because he was a pol from Buffalo, naturally the downstate pols called him "Buffalo Bob" Sweeney.

We're talking about some key moments in Sunday's episode of "Billions" on Showtime.

He wasn't widely known downstate, where the series is set. All they knew is that Bob liked to talk a lot about being a volunteer fireman and reminisce about the days when he knew how to operate the business end of a garbage truck.

When Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti) denied the request of wealthy state political kingmaker "Black Jack" Foley played -- by David Strathairn -- to put his attorney granddaughter into a prestige clerkship, Foley transferred his allegiance in the next gubernatorial race from Rhoades to "Buffalo Bob."

That pushed Rhoades, the demonic and ambitious state attorney in Manhattan, to go all in on oppo research into "Buffalo Bob." And that revealed this unpleasant fact: that his way of dealing with his gay son was to send him to forced religious conversion camp so that he could "pray away the gay" and send excruciatingly unhappy letters the whole time to his friends.

Asia Kate Dillon as Taylor Mason in "Billions." (Jeff Neumann, Showtime)

When Bob pointed out that no one cares about pols with gay kids anymore, Rhoades smirkingly pointed out that downstate voters wouldn't be all that crazy about forced conversion camps. One of the ironies of all this is that Rhoades' obscenely rich Yalie father is played by Jeffrey DeMunn, a Buffalonian who was a couple of classes behind me at Nichols School.

The episode was written by Adam Perlman. It was the first time I've ever seen a TV show make a major plot point out of one of the shakier old cliches of state politics, that downstate is where the liberals are and upstate is where the conservatives congregate and send their gay sons to religious conversion camp.

It's something of a myth about upstate, with only a grain of truth. It doesn't begin to explain the persuasive fact that Byron Brown is the mayor of Buffalo and that Mark Poloncarz is the Erie County Executive, but it does touch on the fact that downstate and upstate pols have to re-think their campaigns a little bit when they want to get votes state wide.

The episode ended when "Buffalo Bob" after rattling his sabre a little at Rhoades, folded so that Rhoades and his wealthy Wall Street Father could make jokes at "Black Jack's" blowout party about Bob not wearing his "big boy pants" for the gubernatorial run. Self-congratulation is what they do so eloquently on "Billions," where there is more about the weaponization of words than the acquisition of money. It's one of the things that make it one of the nastier and best things on television.

This, to put it mildly, is NOT the kind of show we're going to tune in to to see suddenly that an upstate politician has turned into the image of political rectitude and an apostle of truth, justice and the American way.

Anyone thinking that TV is still handling politics the way "The West Wing" used to, has not understood that the politics -- in particular those surrounding the White House -- have become the center of chaos on contemporary television. We're a world away from the kind of TV wherein, once upon a time many decades ago, Richard Crenna's short-lived political series "Slattery's People" was a small miracle.

Here's what happened in just in the last week:

"DESIGNATED SURVIVOR" The most post-apocalyptic nightmare in TV history, this series BEGAN with a bomb in the capitol wiping out EVERYONE but two people assembled for the President's State of the Union Address. The exceptions were one "accidental" survivor and one "designated survivor" deliberately kept separate in case of disaster to take over as president.

That is Kiefer Sutherland, the former HUD secretary who invented American virtue and who will, by God, get us through it all. If you pay any attention, you'll see that some minor attention on the show was paid to replenishing the entire U.S. Congress after the apocalypse, no one said "boo" about reconstituting the U.S. Supreme Court, whose attendance was also required at State of the Union addresses.

Since becoming president, our former HUD virtuecrat has been the victim of an assassination attempt. His conspiring veep was killed by the veep's co-conspiring wife who then turned the gun on herself. Rotten people in high office are visible almost every night of the week on 21st century TV.

"SCANDAL" And that's mostly because of Shonda Rhimes' amazing and utterly lunatic Washington fantasy which began by seeing if a series could be made out of authentic Washington D.C. "fixer" Judy Smith and then quickly turned into an ongoing dirty joke on all Washington power where presidents kill Supreme Court justices in hospital beds, Smithsonian scholars lead the most evil intelligence crew in American history and liberal good guys are elected president only to be assassinated during their acceptance speech by the aforementioned Smithsonian scholar/demon. When last we left the show, we had watched as much torture as I've ever seen in prime time and the show's prime torturer, Huck, was put at risk by three bullets shot into his thorax. He survives. The torture victim? Not so much.

"HOMELAND" Back at cable-TV's most artful approximation of a show devoted to geopolitical paranoia, its season six ended on Sunday with the taste of gall and wormwood. After spending the whole final episode saving the life of new president Keane (Elizabeth Marvel) and losing her partner in the process, that new president got super-agent Carrie to reassure all her old secret pals in the intelligence community that a new political anti-conspiratorial purge wasn't on the way.

A couple of months later we learned at the end of that season finale, that's exactly what happened: Carrie's pals were either in custody or snatched off the street to be there soon. When she ran to the president's office, understandably, to complain, all she could do was wind up screaming at the president's closed Oval Office door while we saw that the stony expression on the face of silent President Keane inside could freeze a mackerel.

The show should have ended before it even began a third season. For a walking dead continuing cable TV premium zombie, it's pretty good, especially in its way of keeping Mandy Patinkin around with Claire Danes and getting F. Murray Abraham to say dark conspiratorial things to them.

For those keeping score at home, the only current TV show that likes its fictional U.S. president in an unqualified way is "Designated Survivor."

If Chuck Rhoades ever becomes popular enough upstate to become governor, watch out.




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