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It was only fitting that the Television in a Trumped Up America panel Friday at the ATX Television Festival started out with a reading of the president’s latest tweet, centered on former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony Thursday.
TV writer-producers including Liz Tigelaar (Casual), Javier Grillo-Marxuach (The Middleman), Paul Garnes (Underground), Michael Rauch (Royal Pains), Julie Plec (The Vampire Diaries) and Beau Willimon (House of Cards) gathered to dive deep into the impact of the presidential election on TV, specifically Donald Trump’s rise from Celebrity Apprentice host to the 45th president of the United States.
Looking back on Nov. 8, Plec recalled the “absolute horror and depression” felt in her writers room the day after the election, while Tigelaar remembered that “we didn’t know whether to cancel the room, we didn’t know whether to keep working” at Hulu’s Casual, which was early into its third season.
The election’s impact ultimately found its way into the scripts. “We all had this call to action,” she said. “We were at this point of still being able to decide our season arcs, and it definitely impacted our younger character Laura’s story on the show. We decided, with her, we were going to go a more political route. … We were able to create this different backdrop for her story that I don’t [otherwise] think would have occurred to us to do.”
As for Underground, Garnes discussed how the election inspired co-creator Misha Green’s writing of one of the final episodes of the WGN America show’s second season, despite the fact that it centered on Harriet Tubman and the plot took place more than a century ago. “The election influenced Misha’s tone in that monologue. It ended with this amazing call to action almost directed to the audience: ‘Are you a citizen or a soldier?’ ” he said.
That push toward more feminist-friendly storytelling was also felt by Tigelaar in terms of the projects she’s looking to develop. “What I’ve been attracted to lately is about women who are refusing to play the game and put themselves in a box,” she said.
Willimon, now working on the Hulu space drama The First, said the impact of the election reaches far beyond just political storylines. “We’re hyperaware,” he said. “There are political implications to every story choice you make.”
While Trump’s presidency and the many issues that have stemmed from his time in office thus far have greatly impacted television writing, the producers discussed the difficulty in finding a way to stay informed with the news cycle while also getting work done.
“There’s a lot of stress eating involved,” said Grillo-Marxuach. “More than anything else, the torrent of news and information is more about the stuff you do to mitigate your stress.”
For Rauch’s part, on his forthcoming CBS thriller, Instinct, he says he employs a “no-computer, no-cellphone rule, so there’s a complete kind of blackout from the news.”
Willimon, who returned to his political roots from his earlier days in the immediate aftermath of the election, admitted it was tough to return to TV writing. “For the first couple months after the election, it was really hard to focus on anything else. It felt as though the whole country had been slapped across the face by a two-by-four,” he said. “It’s become a negotiation to balance one’s time between what you’re able to do as an artist creatively, in terms of holding a mirror up to society reflecting.
“That’s a new reality for people that want to be involved. It’s been an interesting balance to strike,” he continued. “But the resistance is strong. We’re seeing that everyday, and I maintain hope.”
Willimon’s new series is set 15-20 years in the future, which has made him contemplate the long-term impact of the Trump presidency. “You have to speculate and imagine what the world will look like 20 years from now. Prior to Nov. 8, 2016, what the world looked like was a lot different,” he said. “Whether you support Trump or not … it’s still a traumatic event for the country, one way or another, in terms of the schism and the divisiveness and the polarization, and we will be contending with those consequences and ripple effects for decades to come.”
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