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TV Producers on Trump Presidency: ‘It’s a Traumatic Event for the Country’

Variety logo Variety 6/9/2017 Debra Birnbaum
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AUSTIN, Texas — A day after the nation was captivated by the James Comey hearings, some of TV’s top producers gathered at the ATX Television Festival to discuss the effects of Trump’s presidency on their storytelling.

The “Television in a Trumped Up America” panel, which was moderated by Michael Schneider, IndieWire’s executive editor and Variety’s editor-at-large, featured Javier Grillo-Marxuach (“The Middleman”), Michael Rauch (“Royal Pains,” “Instinct”), Julie Plec (“The Vampire Diaries,” “The Originals”), Beau Willimon (“House of Cards,” “The First”), Liz Tigelaar (“Casual”), and Paul Garnes (“Queen Sugar,” “Underground”).

“It’s become a negotiation in terms of what you’re able to do as an artist creatively in terms of being able to hold a mirror up to society,” said Willimon. “But that process is not immediate. It takes time.” He added, “Whether you support Trump or not, it’s still a traumatic event for the country in terms of the schisms. We will be contending with those ripples for decades to come.”

The producers acknowledged that the surprise results of the election impacted the stories they’d planned to tell, many of which were already well underway. For “Casual,” it meant changing the storyline for Laura (Tara-Lynne-Barr). “It definitely impacted Laura’s story,” said Tigelaar. “We decided with her we were going to go a more political route. These characters don’t shy away from their opinions…. We were able to create for Laura a more political backdrop, which we would not have occurred to us to do if that hadn’t happened.”

Garnes, who works on WGN’s “Underground,” said, “It caused us to reframe what the show was.” He also talked about the monologue that Aisha Hinds performs in the episode “Minty” as Harriet Tubman. “The election influenced (executive producer) Misha’s tone in that monologue…Are you a citizen or are you a soldier?”

He also referenced the other show he works on, “Queen Sugar.” Added Garnes, “One of my EPs on ‘Queen Sugar’ thought she should run for president, and that’s Oprah.”

Plec said the election spurred her to abandon a storyline that fans would have wanted but which had a female character getting beaten up by a male character. The script came in the day after the election, she recounted. “We killed the love story that day,” she said. “Your conscious can’t advocate that kind of violence and lean into that.”

The producers said the political activism spurred up by the election had a clear impact on the Writers Guild negotiations back in May.

“In a lot of our meetings leading up, it was very much in the context of a Trump America, as organized labor, that there was a political moment here,” said Willimon, who serves on the council for the guild. “The only way things happen is when you stand up for yourself. This was not a time in our nation’s history to sit down and be quiet and hope for the best. Nothing happens unless you make it happen. Those conversations happening within the union are not ones that have been happening to that level in years past….There’s a charged political consciousness happening among the screenwriters and television writers that you’re going to see percolating into almost everything you watch.”

Grillo-Marxauch agreed. “There’s a direct correlation between the quality of the deal we got from management and the election of Donald Trump,” he said. “A lot of that displaced anger led to us saying authorize that strike vote by 96 percent. People were generally looking for someone to stick it to, who’d been sticking it to us. And I do believe that the militancy that the guild showed is directly influenced by that. And that’s going to wind up on TV screens at some point.”

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