8:00am PT by Samantha Leffler
Black Lives Matter, Gun Control and Abortion: How TV Shows Are Tackling Hot-Button Issues
Television is a more immediate medium than film, and as such, has the opportunity to address a wide variety of complex social and political issues in a timely manner.
Whether it’s season four of Orange Is the New Black paralleling the Black Lives Matter movement inside a women’s prison, or Grey’s Anatomy airing a powerful episode in its 12th season that presented a two-sided look at gun control in America, numerous showrunners behind today’s hottest TV series have proven they’re not about to shy away from touchy topics. In fact, many feel a responsibility to bring up these points in an effort to spur impactful conversations.
The Hollywood Reporter takes a closer look at how a handful of current shows are integrating everyday matters into their respective fictional worlds.
Black Lives Matter
The Kenya Barris-created comedy Black-ish dealt with the Black Lives Matter movement in a season-two episode, “Hope.” The installment featured the family of six, led by matriarch Rainbow (Tracee Ellis Ross) and patriarch Dre (Anthony Anderson), discussing race issues while watching news coverage of a grand jury considering the indictment of a white police officer accused of killing a black teen.
Though BLM was never mentioned — Barris told The Hollywood Reporter he didn’t want to “politicize” the show — the intent was clear. “I just hope that it's received well and I hope that it actually starts a conversation, because I think that it's a conversation we need to have,” he said, following the episode’s premiere in February.
Netflix dramedy Orange Is the New Black echoed the Black Lives Matter movement in the penultimate episode of season four when Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley) was accidentally suffocated to death by white CO Baxter Bayley (Alan Aisenberg.)
“When you work on a show like Orange Is the New Black, the responsibility is there to be a part of this conversation in some way,” Aisenberg told THR when asked if being part of an important storyline was worth the emotional toll. “If it takes a fictional 13-hour show on Netflix to start this conversation, then great. Because people's lives are changing, people are dying and something needs to be done about it.”
Shonda Rhimes' Grey’s Anatomy had a gun-control debate in season 12’s “Trigger Happy,” which featured a child who was accidentally shot by his friend. The circumstances divided the docs into two camps — those who understood the need for protection, and those who found it morally reprehensible to own a gun, let alone leave one in a kid’s reach.
Comedienne Amy Schumer’s strong connection to gun control legislation was solidified when a shooter in Louisiana killed two people before turning the gun on himself at a showing of her movie Trainwreck in 2015. On an April 2016 episode of Inside Amy Schumer — aptly titled “Welcome to the Gun Show” — she parodied in a “funny and unique way” how easy it is for felons and suspected terrorists to obtain weapons.
Another Rhimes series, the political drama Scandal, tackled abortion for the second time in the season-five midseason finale, which aired last November. While Senator Mellie Grant (Bellamy Young) successfully filibustered a bill that would’ve practically defunded Planned Parenthood, Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) aborted a baby belonging to President Fitzgerald Grant (Tony Goldwyn), Mellie’s ex.
In January 2014, Rhimes said abortions shouldn't be ignored on TV, explaining, "Because it is such a hot-button issue, because people are debating it, it should be discussed. And I’m not sure why it’s not being discussed.”
Masters of Sex featured a near-abortion in its third season (set in 1965) after Virginia (Lizzy Caplan) unexpectedly became pregnant by her ex-husband, George, (Mather Zickel) though the word “abortion” was never uttered. In “Three’s a Crowd,” Virginia was prepped for the procedure but had a last-minute change of heart, ultimately deciding to have the baby.
Though Virginia’s third child was necessitated by what showrunner Michelle Ashford called an “astronomical legal hurdle,” the Showtime drama still deserves recognition for tackling the topic in the 1960s, when it was even more taboo than it is now.