Critic's Notebook: Waiting for Television to Catch Up to Anti-Trump Outrage

A wave of series that deal with the fallout from the first several months of the Trump presidency is coming; we just don't know what it looks like yet.
Comedy Central
'South Park' has a go at it.

As the new fall TV season for broadcast networks rolls out, two offerings — NBC's The Brave and CBS's SEAL Team — are essentially interchangeable pieces of American military porn: the kind of feel-good, "we beat the terrorists" pabulum that makes a certain segment of the population shout "U.S.A.!, U.S.A.!" and feel temporarily relieved that it doesn't have to think about chaos, if it chooses to think at all.

Both are already wildly out of step with what seems to be haunting the national psyche as of the last 24 hours or less — whether the unstable, possibly certifiable heads of the United States and North Korea will accidentally start a nuclear war by measuring the size of their dicks.

With Puerto Rico drowning and starving and President Trump choosing to take on both the NFL and the NBA — conflating free speech about systemic racism with lack of patriotism in the former instance and poutily disinviting the World Champion Golden State Warriors, who were likely to decline a trip to the White House anyway, in the latter — there's almost no time to wonder how artists, and in particular television writers, will address the Trump Era. But maybe now is the time, since the first real window of opportunity is opening, based on how long he's been in office and how long it takes to get a full-blown series on the air.

The two jingoistic network dramas referenced above were not created in time to cynically tap into a Trump base that might be watching broadcast TV and trolling for relatable content; it takes too long to get an actual pilot shot, produced and on the air. But we're now coming up on a period where new content — on all platforms — could conceivably be interpreted as the first wave of reaction to Trump.

But what form will that take? It would be hard to quantify an uptick in escapist fare as some sort of recognizable reaction to our crazy times, because escapist fare is and has always been prevalent on television. In fact, as a side note, it will be interesting to see whether a new crop of essentially pre-Trump fall shows on broadcast TV, universally dismissed as dismal, will almost accidentally find an audience — because people have spent a great portion of their work days secretly and frantically checking their Twitter feeds to see if we're all about die, and would like a little break starting around 8 p.m.

Passive viewing is a hallmark of traditional American television consumption that only really started changing in the past two decades, as more sophisticated dramas made people lean in and be challenged. But chaos in the world — especially when Trump pours gas on it — is precisely the thing that could send viewers back to more simplistic dramas, almost any kind of nonpolitical comedy or genre material that transports them from a world they already know (and which frightens them) into a world of fantastical make-believe.

But it's also possible that a wave of new programming might start to hit back at Trump and fear itself, just as athletes quickly responded to Trump's outburst this past Sunday and all kinds of people have been moved toward activism — people who weren't inclined to participate before Trump became president. Outlandish statements, oppressive laws, the rise of nationalism and racism and the possibility of mass loss of health insurance — which comes with an extremely personal and frightening sense of impending doom — have resulted in people now becoming, to use the current terminology, woke.

The first wave of that in the cultural realm — music — which can use technology to get to market far quicker than television, hasn't yet produced much popular political content in the months since the election, but there's a feeling from people who write extensively about the medium that it's inevitably coming (as it did in the 1960s).

For television, quick-turnaround political shows like Full Frontal With Samantha Bee on TBS, Last Week Tonight With John Oliver on HBO, The Daily Show on Comedy Central and a bevy of late-night talk shows (most notably Jimmy Kimmel and his powerful, headline-grabbing tackling of the health-care issue) are the first forays into small-screen resistance. But the longer-lead scripted stuff is coming. We just don't know what it will look like.

It could be indirect — a noticeable shift toward lighter fare on channels that haven't historically done much of it or that feeling in the zeitgeist, probably more palpable a year from now, that things on TV seem awfully bouncy in contrast to the leaden depression of the news. It will take time.

What will be far easier to see — and arguably far more important and worthy of dissection — will be television series that either go after Trump in a metaphorical manner that can't be ignored, or content that vigorously dives in to examine the issues that are currently dividing the country (or segments of it). Tackling racism, nationalism, political incompetence, the venality of politicians, the involvement (or lack thereof) of corporations or outside countries, stories of individuals and communities suffering (or banding together to fight back) — there are endless storytelling opportunities that present themselves to writers at this very moment. It would be stunning to imagine that writers in the television community are not looking at the events of 2017 as a prime and necessary chance to use their voices, creatively, to hold a mirror up to society.

This is what art does. The 1960s and 1970s produced social and political hot-button issues galore that leaked into art for years. Of course, that was a time in the evolution of television when the opportunity to say something viscerally powerful and dramatically impressive barely existed. But in 2017, with its explosion of Platinum Age television across numerous content-hungry platforms, we have an entirely different and more opportunistic time.

Waiting to see what will emerge is exciting.

On the other hand, it's worth pondering how anyone is getting anything done with the lightning-fast use of technology (primarily Twitter) and the knee-jerk unpredictability of an unstable president whom no one can apparently counsel.  And that's not snark or a joke. Seriously, it's easy to imagine that North Korea, believing that a declaration of war has been issued against it — via the Twitter ramblings of a mad man — could issue some kind of retaliatory, nothing-to-lose response based on the unpredictability of its own mad man. Who can work in this environment, this state of emotional upheaval?

We might have more television writers popping Xanax and hugging their kids than hunkering down to write a thinly veiled but brilliantly conceived political drama in response. It would be hard to blame them.

But here's hoping that the reverse is true, that a magnificent avalanche of new scripted fiction will come into our living rooms soon, intelligent and emotional and powerful reactions to the world we live in and the dangerous, divisive leader we live under.

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