Every piece of pop culture is a byproduct of the time in which it’s produced. But the relationship between pop culture and politics has never been as symbiotic — or fraught — as it is now, with President Donald Trump looming on the horizon.
Given that Trump solidified his brand on television, it makes sense that the subject of how TV will react to his presidency loomed large at the Television Critics Association’s winter press tour in Pasadena this January. Throughout the two-week conference, reporters hammered the panels for upcoming dramas, comedies, and documentaries alike with variations on the same vaguely panicked question: “What about Trump, though?!”
The wide range of resulting answers gives some insight into how those who make TV are grappling with the election results, and what their reactions might mean for shows going forward. But since TV is seemingly never-ending these days and life is short, let’s break those reactions down into four basic categories.
“Our Show Is Our Show, and It’s Not About Trump”
For a few TCA panels — several, even — the Trump question was shoehorned into a discussion that otherwise had no relevance to the election results. Other times, though, the question was asked of a show that either ended up being relevant to the election by accident (see: HBO’s power study The Young Pope) or has proven especially prescient in retrospect (see: FX’s Cold War spy drama The Americans). In these cases, the answers boiled down to — as The Young Pope creator Paolo Sorrentino succinctly put it — “I wrote this stuff many years ago.”
But the most interesting reaction might have been from the political melodrama Scandal, which kicked off ABC’s press day with a barrage of questions from reporters about how Trump has affected the show. Stars Kerry Washington, Bellamy Young, and Tony Goldwyn were firm in their belief that Scandal exists outside the realm of what’s currently happening in real-life Washington, DC.
“It’s really interesting to have a show that’s a political show in sort of counterpoint to a very dramatic real political world,” Goldwyn mused, later adding definitively, “but they’re not the same.”
Then, when a reporter still tried to draw parallels between Scandal’s fifth season — which ended on two unexpected characters gaining their parties’ presidential nominations — creator Shonda Rhimes fought back, hard.
“These candidates don’t equate,” she said, “so I don’t think you can correlate the two.”
Basically: Just because Scandal is about politics doesn’t mean it’s about Trump. There’s also the fact that much of the upcoming season was written before the election was over, so if you’re looking to Scandal and other shows like it for an immediate reaction, you’re going to have to wait — and you might be waiting a while.
“Our Show Takes Place in the Real World, So Why Wouldn’t We Talk About Trump?”
The cast and crew of The Good Fight — CBS All Access’s upcoming Good Wife spinoff — were filming the week of the election. Following Christine Baranski’s liberal feminist character Diane Lockhart, The Good Fight was created and developed under the assumption that it would be airing under the first female president. Now The Good Fight will be reflecting a much different reality.
“One of the things we’re looking at in The Good Fight is how the environment changes,” said co-creator Robert King. “So it’s not just anti Trump ... it’s also looking at how liberals are reacting.”
“The Good Wife was a little bit about the Obama years,” he later added. “[The 2016 election] gives shape to a new show.”
The challenge and opportunities that come with folding very real politics into a scripted show was also a brief — but intense — topic of discussion at a panel for an upcoming CBS sitcom.
Superior Donuts is about a generational odd couple — played by Jermaine Fowler and Taxi star Judd Hirsch — working in a Chicago doughnut shop, as adapted from a Pulitzer Prize–winning Tracy Letts play. (This is all true.) Married With Children alum Katey Sagal will also tap in as a Chicago cop, who has moments like when she reassures Fowler’s Franco — who is black — that he can relax, because her body camera is on.
When asked if the show’s mentions of issues like gun control and police brutality might be too controversial today — especially for a sitcom — the Superior Donuts producers vehemently disagreed. “We’re going to try to make the show seem authentic,” executive producer Garrett Donovan said. “And to the extent the people are talking about issues, we’ll have our characters [do the same].”
Hirsch’s response, however, called out the idea that comedies shouldn’t touch hotter topics, and the election itself as one that doesn’t understand what comedies can actually do:
What comedy would not take advantage of the fact that this is a funny thing that happened to us? You know what I mean? Any administration is funny ... everything that’s present tense is up for grabs in this country, and that’s what makes great comedy. I mean, if you don’t do it, it looks like you’re hiding. That would be crazy. There’s so much material in that.
Whether or not you agree with Hirsch that Donald Trump winning the election “is a funny thing that happened to us,” his point that avoiding the topic completely would seem like a cowardly omission was one echoed across genres throughout the press tour.
“We Have a Responsibility as Artists to Address What’s Happening Around Us”
The most common answer to “what about Trump” at TCA was maybe predictable, but powerful nonetheless.
Over and over again, reporters asked writers, actors, directors, and hosts about how the election would affect their work and how they see it. Over and over again, panelists answered that even if they weren’t exactly sure yet, they knew it would affect them for a long time to come — and that they accepted that as part of not just their job descriptions but also their responsibilities as people creating content for public consumption.
Unsurprisingly, the panel for Hulu’s upcoming adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale — Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel about a dystopian future in which fundamentalist Christians force all fertile women to become servile “handmaids” — addressed this head on. (And for what it’s worth: Yes, the first episode of The Handmaid’s Tale — available to stream on April 26 — is great and appropriately terrifying for 2017.)
“The book has been out for 30 years. Any year that we could have made it, it would have been relevant,” said star Samira Wiley. “But I do think that this is the time that we are living in now, and I feel like it is our responsibility as artists to reflect the time that we are living in.”
The same sentiment also ruled the panel for Dustin Lance Black’s When We Rise, an upcoming ABC miniseries detailing the fight for LGBTQ civil rights from the 1970s to today. The cast made sure to point out that the issues detailed in the miniseries have resonated profoundly throughout their lives, with Mary-Louise Parker detailing watching a generation die of AIDS in New York City in the ’80s and Ivory Aquino emotionally recalling when she responded to a friend denigrating the LGBTQ community by coming out to him as trans.
For creator Black — who won an Oscar for his Milk screenplay — the accidental timeliness of When We Rise is horrifying; he sighed at one point that he “would give anything in the world for it to be less topical right now.” But more importantly, he insisted, Trump and Mike Pence’s win only makes the message of his miniseries more urgent.
He spoke passionately about wanting to have the series on a broadcast network like ABC, saying it now stands a much greater chance of getting to families like his (“religious and Southern and conservative”) and/or those who might have voted for Trump. Moreover, he insisted, detailing the stories of lifelong activists is more important “now than ever”:
I do hope that a new generation looks to these people for inspiration and we can we find ourselves with more leaders like this who are able to work in these movements for broader social justice their entire lives. We need those people now more than ever, and I think it’s about time for us to be able to tell our LGBT stories, to be taken seriously, to even be able to be political, and to show these people that do that can survive and thrive.
This kernel of hope was picked up by When We Rise star Michael K. Williams, who maintained that telling triumphant stories born out of incredible pain can only help. “I see a very divided country, a country in pain, a nation in pain,” Williams said. He continued:
We need to be reminded that there’s a lot of stories of triumph, of courage that this country was built on. ... It’s a great time to tell the story to infuse pride again in just being Americans and celebrate our diversity, our differences and our unity.
So, to paraphrase Rihanna: Williams and When We Rise aim to find love in a seemingly hopeless place.
But as Williams, Black, and several other panelists also made clear, finding new motivation to push forward doesn’t mean everyone in TV was surprised to find themselves living at this particular point in history.
“We’ve Been Speaking Out on Injustice for Years, and Will Continue to Speak Out”
Unsurprisingly, the people who expressed exhaustion, rather than shock, about the election results were mostly queer people and people of color, who have for years been experiencing the entrenched racism, sexism, and homophobia that came out in droves during the election.
Take the panel for WGN’s Underground, a powerful drama about slaves escaping Southern plantations for a free life in the North, only to discover that, as star Alano Miller put it at TCA, “freedom isn’t enough.” When a reporter asked the producers whether Trump’s election might’ve affected the second season, had they produced it beforehand, the answer was a resounding no.
“This is a struggle that’s not over yet,” said Underground co-creator Joe Pokaski. “This is a battle that’s still being fought.”
Co-creator Misha Green agreed, adding, “I think this country was built on racism and sexism, and I think our soon-to-be president is again going to be racist and sexist.”
Producer and music supervisor John Legend, who was vocal about his opposition to Trump through the election and beyond, similarly drew a direct line from Underground’s subject matter to the 2016 election:
What we’re learning as we react to this election is that even when there’s progress, even when our main characters achieve freedom, that freedom is not guaranteed to be guaranteed to stay in place.
... And so we’re going through a period now where Donald Trump has promised to make us a less just and less free country, and those who believe in justice and freedom are going to have to stand up for it.
So, no, the Underground team wasn’t shocked by Trump’s win — but neither are they complacent about the hard work that’s in their future as a result.
The same holds true for prolific producer John Ridley, who attended TCA for both Showtime’s Guerrilla miniseries and ABC’s American Crime, and gave one of the best and most thorough answers of the tour when asked about “Trumpism in the entertainment industry.” Here it is in full:
I’m going to speak with an urgency that I’ve been doing for 20 years, and as long as people provide me a platform, I will continue to do that. It’s just too easy for a lot of the things that are being said, being said up here, when there are people every single day somewhere in this country, in other countries, who are dealing with the real impact of the disregard, the disrespect, the disenfranchisement that a lot of us take for granted because it doesn’t affect us.
The reality is it affects everybody in this room and everyone around the world. We can either, as [Guerrilla character] Jas says, say something or do nothing. When people ask me what I did, I’m not going to say, “I sat on the fence.” Certainly, as a storyteller, this is all I can do. I will continue to do it.
So as the first months of President Trump’s administration and the protests against his policies unfold, you might start to see more direct allusions and reactions to it on narrative television. But as Ridley and others would remind you: Some of them were telling stories of upheaval, systemic injustice, and defying adversity all along. Now, more than ever, it may be crucial to pay them closer attention.