Critic's Picks: The Best and Worst of Trump-Era Television
Several TV shows have tackled the president, and our polarized politics, in the two years since his election. But which have actually been effective?
Just hours away from the midterm election results, it seems that not a day passes in which pop culture doesn't intersect (or even spar) with the Trump administration. But beyond the professional rabble-rousing of late-night comedy, how has television directly tackled — or skirted — current politics? Some bombastic White House-set shows that premiered during the Obama administration ended up feeling more true to life during the new presidency (Scandal, Veep, House of Cards), while other more politically neutral series have moved to attack the administration head-on (remember American Horror Story: Cult?). Here are the hits and misses of post-Trump TV.
The Good Fight (CBS All Access)
The brazenness with which legal drama The Good Fight confronts the Trump administration is completely owed to the fact that it's neatly tucked away on CBS' hidden-behind-a-paywall streaming service. Far more cutthroat than even its predecessor, The Good Wife, the opening moments of the pilot depict lawyer Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski, larger than life) watching her television in horror during Trump's inauguration. Besides tackling the rise of the alt-right and the chaos of fake news in its two seasons, storylines have also centered around Democratic efforts to impeach the president, a Russian sex worker claiming she has the apocryphal "pee tape" and the ostracizing of a black law firm's partner because he voted for Trump.
The Handmaid's Tale (Hulu)
Although at times overwrought, this drama based on Margaret Atwood's classic 1985 novel is a speculative vision of how our current world could invert if America transformed into a radical Christian theocracy. Perhaps TV's best political allegory since Battlestar Galactica took on the post-9/11 Bush years, The Handmaid's Tale imagines a nation where women's rights were slowly eroded (and then completely eradicated) in the name of a "return to family values." In a current political atmosphere that has seen a woman arrested for laughing at Jeff Sessions, the government's proposed erasure of trans identities and miscarrying women prosecuted for murder, sometimes the misery porn of this show doesn't feel too far-off from reality.
Jane the Virgin (The CW)
This magical realist telenovela puts a human face on how anti-immigration rhetoric impacts everyday lives, devoting seasonlong arcs to the Villanueva family matriarch's status as an undocumented immigrant. In 2018, it's a political statement to film whole scenes of a network show in Spanish (and, of course, depict a Trump portrait at an immigration office morphing into Obama to provide Jane's abuela comfort), but this show only feels like the beginning. One Day at a Time and Superstore recently included storylines about undocumented lead characters, while Freeform's potential Party of Five reboot centers on how children survive after their parents' deportation.
Saturday Night Live (NBC)
The 43-year-old sketch comedy series tends to thrive during tense political environments, and in the three years since Trump announced his candidacy, the show has been brutal in how it skewers the absurdities and extreme personalities of the campaign and administration. We've got Kate McKinnon's elfin impression of Jeff Sessions, Alec Baldwin's Noo Yawk-flavored Trump, and satirical skits advertising everything from a DACA-themed Game of Life to an Ivanka fragrance called "Complicit." Some commentators have even partially credited the fall of former White House press secretary Sean Spicer to Melissa McCarthy's famously combative impersonation.
Hannah Gadsby's searing stand-up special ballooned into a cultural moment this past June when she declared on stage that she would no longer use her queerness, nonconforming body or past traumas as fodder for laughs. Although at times unfocused, her set unfolds the layers of self-effacement marginalized people perform so they can win over the hearts and minds of those in power. By declaring she would no longer capitulate to bullies in the disguise of a clown, she challenges the cultures of abuse that have led to our polarized global political landscape.
Will & Grace (NBC)
During the last two years, queer-centered art has helped turn a spotlight on divisive political issues. This past Thursday, Will & Grace devoted an entire episode to Grace revealing to her father that his best friend raped her when she was a teenager. Debra Messing's diner-set monologue is an emotional bulldozer flattening everything in its path: Grace's dissociation from the tragedy and her decades of shame, her disgust with her father's pushy flirtations with a meek waitress and her rage that her father didn't protect her when she tried to warn him about the man's creepy behavior.
Roseanne/The Conners (ABC)
The failure of Roseanne or The Conners successfully to address the Trump administration has nothing to do with Roseanne Conner's (or Roseanne Barr's) support for our president, but everything to do with politics never really coming up again after the reboot's premiere. For a network that capitalized on its star's polemic viewpoints to drum up ratings prior to the show's return, it's disappointing that Roseanne and now The Conners suck in their gut to be able sneak past viewers primed for more trenchant perspectives. That's how you end up with a series that kills off its lead with an on-the-nose opioid overdose instead of one that actually gives voice to why millions of people voted for Trump.
Murphy Brown (CBS)
One of the more fetid sitcom zombies to hit airwaves recently, Murphy Brown sees itself as a liberal counterpoint to the perceived conservatism of Roseanne or Last Man Standing. Too bad the show relies on soggy "get off my lawn" humor to lampoon Fox News fans, tech-savvy millennials, and anyone who considers him or herself an old-school kinda fella. The most recent episode tackles midterm elections, depicting Murphy's TV journalist son Avery in a cringeworthy phone call tete-a-tete with a bodiless Trump and Murphy's cable news team preaching to its fictional — and real-life — audience on the importance of voting. Sadly, you've got to wade through stale hanging-chad and menopause jokes to even get there first.
When Black-ish aired Black Lives Matter-themed "Hope" in early 2016 and then a postelection "Lemons" in January 2017, both episodes were everything think-piece dreams were made of: two direct and honest conversations as the affluent Johnson family clashes or comes together over real-life concerns. Despite these successes, ABC pulled "Please, Baby, Please" earlier in 2018 before it even aired. The episode reportedly included paterfamilias Dre sharing his controversial social and political opinions in the form of a bedtime story to his baby son, as well as a debate on the rights of athletes to kneel before the American flag. Unsurprisingly, ABC's move eventually pushed Barris to sign a deal with Netflix. You lose artists when you censor them.
The Simpsons (Fox)
It's hard to pinpoint exactly when The Simpsons slipped from cutting-edge joke-telling into dad humor, but the shift was no more obvious than during "No Good Read Goes Unpunished," the show's stubborn response to comedian Hari Kondabolu's stereotype-dissecting documentary, The Problem With Apu. In the episode, Marge tries to introduce Lisa to her favorite childhood novel, only to realize how racist the story is. Marge attempts some sanitized revisions, but Lisa stops her in her tracks, suddenly addressing the fourth wall and nudging to a picture of Apu: "Something that started decades ago and was applauded as inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?" Yikes — way to misread a request for some humanity. Far from issuing a mea culpa, the producers double-down on their excuses for dabbling in racial minstrelsy, misusing the show's most progressive character to faux-intellectualize the debate.
South Park (Comedy Central)
South Park was supposed to be the most deliciously nihilistic voice of all — impaling the myopic left, chastening the furious right — but in this current political climate, the show can barely muster a coherent response to the absurdities of the news, let alone save us from taking ourselves too seriously. In the October 2018 episode "The Problem With a Poo," South Park just takes on too much at once, using personified feces Mr. Hankey to satirize the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, Roseanne Barr's "Ambien made me do it!" media tour and The Simpsons' Apu-related shortsightedness all in one go. Trey Parker and Matt Stone are the kings of trolling the trolls, but offending everyone equally — from sensitive snowflakes to snarling celebrity jerks — never really goes anywhere.