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TV Adjusts to New Creative Challenge: Constant Trump Drama

Variety logo Variety 6/1/2017 Dade Hayes
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The socio-political Tasmanian devil known as President Trump has thrown cultural works of every stripe — from tentpole movies to operas — into chaos since Election Day, everything. But if one single medium has a clear opportunity to interpret for mass audiences the experience of living in these Trumpian times, it is television.

Unscripted comedy and news series have already risen to the challenge, hitting a higher level of ratings and relevance since November. “Saturday Night Live,” late-night broadcast talkers, and shows on Comedy Central, TBS and HBO have all scored by taking meaningful sips from a firehose of daily material.

Scripted drama series, on the other hand, face a far trickier task: mining this turbulent era without alienating precious viewers or risking obsolescence given the lightning clip of the news cycle. The current Emmy season doesn’t feature any one definitive Trump era show, but rather a field of hopefuls that is responding, bit by bit, to the ground shifting underfoot.

“To one degree or another, everyone is energized by what’s going on,” says Alex Gansa, executive producer of “Homeland.” “When Trump got elected, everything changed.”

Agrees Misha Green, creator and executive producer of “Underground”: “This past election woke a lot of people up and made people say, ‘Wow, I guess we’re not as good as we think we are.’”

Not surprisingly, there hasn’t yet been a definitive TV take; by and large, contenders are still trying to figure it all out. Some of that uncertainty has to do with when their eligible episodes were produced. Unlike late-night comedy or news, quality programming can take many months to execute. HBO’s Emmy-decorated “Veep,” for example, was shooting the season currently airing before Trump had won, so the show’s perspective — though not its acerbic wit — has completely shifted. The pendulum can shift the other way — Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” benefited hugely by emerging this spring, when its dystopian vision of gender politics can easily transcend the realm of science fiction.

The retro gender politics in “The Handsmaid’s Tale” seem extra timely in the Trump era.

Half-hours are taking some notable swings. ABC’s “Black-ish” did an entire episode around issues including Trump and the Black Lives Matter movement surfacing in the workplace. Fox’s “Last Man on Earth” imagined an apocalyptic virus wiping out the entire administration — complete with faux news footage of their funerals — and much of the population except for Kristen Wiig.

For many dramas, the election flipped a more urgent switch. “Homeland’s” Gansa says the most recent season, the show’s sixth, was the first one where the creative team had “course-corrected” midway through.

“We were keeping an eye on what was happening during the campaign, especially the talk of fake news,” he says. “First and foremost what changed for us was the ending [of the season]. We had crazily posited the election of a president who was in an adversarial relationship with the intelligence community. That was purely luck on our part. It just felt like a natural. All of a sudden it became something that was really happening. That required us to be a lot more careful and a lot more buttoned up.”

During the frenzy before, during and after the election, when the news cycle seemed to be unsurpassable by Hollywood, Gansa says the goal was for the show’s writers to stay disciplined.

“When you were watching, we were creating. And what we were trying to do was create a story that was relevant. It was certainly a strategy on our part,” he says. “One thing we did do toward the end of the season was, we did threaten some core democratic institutions in this country. On some level, we felt this was happening. The last image is Carrie Mathison [Claire Danes’ character] looking up at the Capitol building with a dark, concerned expression on her face.”

Similarly, Netflix’s “House of Cards,” having planted its flag in 2013 during a far different Washington era, has continued to craft storylines about Beltway institutions. “The Good Fight,” a spinoff of “The Good Wife” on CBS All Access, has gone deeper on issues, devoting entire episodes to the Affordable Care Act, for example.

Drama will surely continue to be a rich vein in terms of Trump stories in seasons to come. Ryan Murphy has said his “American Horror Story” anthology on FX will examine the election, and scribe Mark Boal and producer Megan Ellison are training their sensibilities on 2016 presidential election via a limited series.

Sometimes, period shows can provide a proper lens on the nature of society and politics — consider past greats such as “Mad Men” or “Deadwood.” Peter Morgan, who created and runs “The Crown” on Netflix, about the ascendance and early days Queen Elizabeth II, has made a career of historical fiction. He maintains a staff of researchers digging up key details.

Homeland (left) Showtime’s politically themed show “course-corrected” midway through the season. Black-ish (middle) ABC’s hit comedy addressed the election in an episode airing shortly before inauguration. The Good Fight (right) The CBS All Access show has devoted entire episodes to topics such as the Affordable Care Act.

One such nugget was a speech John F. Kennedy gave in England, which became a key moment in season two, now in production. “I wrote that speech the day after Trump became president,” Morgan says. “The speech was very much a question of what happened to America, how America became so divided. I was sourcing stuff that was pertinent to the political moment we are in now.”

In putting together the scene, “I thought I was being incredibly clever,” Morgan says. “And so sure enough, when we cut it together, it felt ridiculous. It felt journalistic. All these people are doing dramas about the Hillary [Clinton] and Trump — it’s just way too soon, in my opinion. My rule is, I always want to wait a decade because if you don’t, it can’t just be what it is. You can read nothing into it but the present.”

Period doesn’t have to mean decades ago, either. In some ways, USA’s “Mr. Robot” feels as Trump-specific as any show on the air. But creator and showrunner Sam Esmail points out that it is set in 2015 and, he adds, any show about technology is by definition destined to quickly become a period piece. Even though it contains no scenes of former reality TV stars inviting Russian hackers to invade U.S. servers, “there’s a weird connection with the cosmos,” he shrugs. “Since the election, we have not taken on the dystopic view that some people have had since the election. That was the wavelength we were already on. A synchronicity with public awareness of hacking has allowed us to be a show that has credibility.”

The show, which was picked up for a full series order on the day of the Sony hack in 2014, has often anticipated real events. Even so, “I personally don’t feel like we’re being predictive,” Esmail says, and that holds true of the Trump era. “I feel like we’re shining a spotlight on criminal hacking that’s been around for years.”

Joel Fields, an executive producer of “The Americans,” ardently protects the “1980s bubble” in which the show’s creative team operates. Trump the New York real estate developer and tabloid fixture will not be popping up in the show’s final episodes, he says.

Still, Fields concedes that “the show will be experienced differently by the audience seeing it in today’s context” compared with its start in 2013. And it’s a lot for shows to compete with “because we’re more tethered to reality than reality is.”

In many respects, creating scripted fare these days feels not unlike working as a producer for CNN. With each update of the Trump era, each tweet or contradictory statement, “there was a considerable amount more energy in the room,” says “Homeland’s” Gansa. The show has remained “politically agnostic” since launching in 2011 as an attempt to take stock of the war on terror, and has been criticized by both the left and the right for favoring one side or another.

“All of a sudden, we were confronted by a challenge. Anyone who is creating films or plays or TV shows understands — we are seeing everything through this prism now.”

There have been elections before where the mood of the country shifted, he continues. But 2016 was different.

“After an election — Bush, Clinton, Obama — you sort of were able to go back to your normal life and see that there was a recognizable situation in Washington, D.C. I was not waking up every morning when Obama was president wondering what happened overnight. I was pretty sure that things were going to be OK. Not anymore.”

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