The events of November 8, 2016 delivered a severe psychological blow to many corners of American society, including the boardrooms of television executives.
The election’s impact on TV news, with its higher ratings and Twitter feuds, has been much discussed. So has the effect of the new president on the increasingly politicized award show category and the re-energized late night segment.
TV critics have been eager to view scripted entertainment through the same political lens. About “The Americans,” the FX show about Soviet spies operating in the U.S. in the 1980s, The New York Times wrote: “In the light of today’s headlines, this Cold War drama feels newly relevant.”
When “The Man in the High Castle,” an alternate reality show about a 1960s America occupied by Nazis, returned last December, Newsweek said: “Watching in the aftermath of the recent presidential election, on the precipice of Trump’s America, the series feels different.”
And Slate called the new season of “American Crime,” which is focused on an illegal immigrant from Mexico searching for his son in America, “a worthy, Trump-Era successor to ‘The Wire.’” Looking ahead, you can be sure that when “Veep” and “House of Cards” return, we’ll hear similar commentary about their relevance to our time.
Given how long it takes to conceive, write and produce a season of scripted television, it’s a sure bet that none of these shows was intended to be a commentary on Trump’s America. This is especially true since these shows were mostly written when everyone in Hollywood expected Hillary Clinton to win.
Eventually there will be TV shows that actually do reflect the Trump presidency. That has always been the case. The disputatious “All in the Family” seemed to embody the Nixon era, while “Dallas,” with its celebration of buccaneering capitalism, could only have been a massive hit during the Reagan presidency. And “24,” which preyed upon America’s apocalyptic fear of terrorism, provides essential insight into the George W. Bush presidency.
When television finally does deliver a Trump-era show, I doubt it will be an overt political series, which we are already drowning in anyway. Seriously, how many dramas, sitcoms, soap operas and satires about the White House can television sustain? And besides, the conventional wisdom about the Trump administration seems to change weekly. In just three months the Establishment’s view of the Trump presidency has gone from potentially dictatorial to inept to laughable. Who knows what’s next? Any show that attempts to deliver direct commentary about Trump runs the risk of quickly getting stale.
A smart television producer would instead wonder how a complete outsider like Trump got elected in the first place and try to figure out what’s in the mind of his supporters. That would require a pivot away from the upper-middle class lifestyle that was the focus of so much television programming during the Obama years (think “Modern Family” and “black*ish.”)
In another words, a true Trump-era show would dramatize or satirize the lives of middle- and lower-middle-class Americans who are anxious about their status, culture and economic prospects. This could be a 21st century “Rosanne” with an even more pointed edge. Or a police drama about an immigration and customs enforcement (ICE) squad operating at the border.
If showrunners can’t wrap their heads around what it would be like to be a Trump voter or ICE agent, they could still do a Trump-era show about anti-Trumpers. This could depict the lives of refugees or undocumented immigrants trying to adjust in America. There have been recent shows about immigrants (“Fresh Off the Boat” and “Jane the Virgin”) but the characters were (mostly) legal. I don’t think there’s ever been a show about refugees or the undocumented (unless you count “American Crime,” which is more about the crime than immigration per se.)
It looks like the TV industry is getting the memo that it needs more cultural diversity in its programming. Last November, ABC’s president of entertainment, Channing Dungey, said at the Content London conference, “With our dramas, we have a lot of shows that feature very well-to-do, well-educated people, who are driving very nice cars and living in extremely nice places. There is definitely still room for that … but in recent history, we haven’t paid enough attention to some of the true realities of what life is like for everyday Americans in our dramas.”
If ABC and the other networks see a market opportunity among the 63 million Trump voters, then there’s a real potential for a wider variety of stories and perspectives. And maybe our television entertainment would get even better — even if our politics doesn’t.