How Trump Impacts TV Storylines: "It Would Be a Blander Show If Hillary Had Won"
The President looms large in a slew of Emmy contenders in which showrunners chose to face the political climate head-on, from hypothetical impeachment campaigns to radical conservative governments.
During the April 29 episode of The Good Fight, CBS All Access’ operatic legal drama, Emmy- and Tony-winning lead Christine Baranski spends the better part of the 52-minute runtime debating the legitimacy of “the pee-pee tape” — the alleged video of Donald Trump watching Russian prostitutes urinate on each other, as detailed in the Steele dossier. When two characters finally watch the presidential pornography, all viewers see are their beaming faces illuminated by a glowing computer screen.
“Writers have to write what they live, and the time we’re living in is stranger than fiction,” says Baranski, who’s amused by her new material after seven seasons on The Good Wife. “Our capacity for outrage and shock has gone to where we’re almost maxed out.”
Directly or obliquely, dozens of scripted series are dealing with the Trump presidency and the climate it was born out of on a now-weekly basis. Increasing evidence of politics’ influence on TV can be found in prestige dramas — from Showtime’s Homeland to USA’s Mr. Robot — and on revived Big Four sitcoms Roseanne and Will & Grace. Skating alongside headlines often comes with critical acclaim, ire from the right or left and, in the case of ABC’s runaway hit Roseanne, more than 20 million viewers tuning in to each episode. What’s not clear, one year after the timeliness of The Handmaid’s Tale helped put Hulu on the path to Emmy victory, is whether TV Academy voters still have an appetite for shows marinating in the same cultural upheaval that’s so frantically covered on cable news and late night.
“It’s a temptation and a danger,” Handmaid’s Tale showrunner Bruce Miller says of leaning too far into current events. His breakout, a dystopian drama seemingly tailored for the #MeToo era, relies heavily on flashbacks that show an America on the brink of collapse at the hands of conservative radicals. “We’re seeing things on the news that are an accurate and perfect analog to the show,” says Miller. “It seems silly not to use all of them, but you don’t want to get sucked into wagging the dog.”
Showtime programming president Gary Levine agrees. “Resonating in the culture doesn’t have to mean chasing any particular headline,” notes the exec, whose network is making a hard Emmy push for Frankie Shaw breakout comedy SMILF and Lena Waithe drama The Chi — shows that navigate issues of gender and race in Trump’s America. “But when Homeland shows up in the op-ed pages or [New York Times columnist] Maureen Dowd references Billions in a piece about [ex-New York Attorney General] Eric Schneiderman, that’s pretty thrilling.”
Talking about Trumpism without uttering his name is the most popular move. Roseanne, the biggest hit of the TV season and recent memory, spent its first season back on ABC after a two-decade hiatus going all-in on class issues and a poor, Trump-voting family. None of the comedy’s nine episodes this season ever directly mention the president’s name — not that anyone would know that after his much-publicized congratulatory call to star and noted Trump supporter Roseanne Barr.
Will & Grace, which beat Roseanne to the air with its September return to NBC, went the opposite route — peppering the first few episodes with multiple mentions of Trump. The unabashedly liberal comedy, which returned to the network’s schedule after filming a Hillary Clinton promotional spot on the eve of the 2016 election, has been rewarded with a Writers Guild Award. (But the conservative-courting Roseanne outperformed it by 230 percent among viewers.)
“It’s too triggering,” says Whitney Cummings, an executive producer on Roseanne and a self-professed liberal, of the decision to not use the T-word on camera. “Roseanne isn’t about Trump. It’s about the circumstances that made people think Trump was a good idea. Really, I secretly hoped he would no longer be in office by the time it aired.” (On May 18, it was announced that Cummings would not return as co-showrunner for the 2018-19 season.)
Roseanne and Will & Grace are in a unique position this Emmy season. The comedy field is wide open now that perennial victor Veep is taking a year off, and both shows successfully courted the TV Academy during their original runs. But what matters more to unquestionably left-leaning Emmy voters in 2018: making an artistic statement against the administration or giving the struggling broadcast industry a desperately needed ratings win?
“I understand why people have a hard time separating Roseanne Barr from Roseanne Conner,” adds Cummings, aware that the show is a tough sell for many in Hollywood. “But I wanted to work on Roseanne because I couldn’t make sense of things. I had this martyr instinct to help give visibility to the people who gained visibility by voting for Trump.”
Tackling “the pee-pee tape” was not the first time The Good Fight writers chose to hammer Trump. One episode saw the cast debating impeachment strategies with the DNC, and another — to the outrage of alt-right website Breitbart News — made a crack about assassination. Indeed, the drama was TV’s first series to lean hard into the Trump era. Its 2017 freshman run had to be retooled midproduction when Clinton lost the election. There was a question of abandoning the subject for its second run, but the opposite route proved more appealing to the creative team.
“We started this season concerned about Trump fatigue, anticipating that we were going to pull back from politics,” says co-creator and showrunner Michelle King. “The more we talked with the writers, the more we realized we had to go all-in.”
Robert King, Michelle’s writing partner and husband, says he thinks the show found its voice in tackling Trump. “It would be a blander show if Hillary had won,” he says. “There’s an excitement in writing and shooting the show, wondering if something is going to happen to make it entirely irrelevant — or if we’re all going to burn up in a nuclear holocaust before the episode airs.”
All jokes aside, the Kings’ real-life frustration is the new normal among showrunners forced to talk about current events in the writers room — even if it helps them stand out in the crowded TV landscape.
“Personally, I’d be thrilled if The Handmaid’s Tale was irrelevant,” says Miller, laughing. “I would gladly take the hit in popularity.”
SHOWS TO WASH THE PARTISAN BLUES AWAY
If you’d rather your TV time be spent ignoring today’s realities, tune in to these politics-free shows
By Rebecca Ford
A mockumentary about a high school student (Jimmy Tatro) accused of defacing cars in his school’s faculty parking lot with giant pink phallic symbols is pretty much as far away from the political turmoil of today as it gets.
In need of some laughs that aren’t politically tinged? Barry is a dark and quirky comedy starring Bill Hader as a hitman who is also an aspiring actor. Plus, the Fonz (Henry Winkler) is excellent as his acting coach.
David Fincher’s dark, slow-burn saga follows a 1970s-era FBI agent (Jonathan Groff) chasing serial killers. Standout performances from several talents playing real-life serial killers help make it a binge-worthy escape.
This dramedy focuses on the issues facing Jason Bateman’s bumbling money launderer, who accidentally gets into trouble with some Mexican drug lords and then moves his wife (played by Laura Linney) and kids to Missouri to pay off his debts.
Yes, the word “terror” is in the title and it’s pretty scary, but this fictionalized account of Captain Sir John Franklin’s expedition to the Arctic is set in the 1840s, so it’s guaranteed to be Trump-free.
This story first appeared in the May 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.