Skip to main content
Welcome to
super saver spring
offer ends april 20
save over $140
Sale ends in
per week for 24 weeks
Welcome to
super saver spring
per week for 24 weeks
save over $140
// //

The HBO series Watchmen had its origins in DC Comics and conveyed a magisterial commentary on racist violence, white supremacism and vigilantism.

Mark Hill/HBO

It’s perfectly possible that no producer or writer actually sets out to do it, but the fact is that U.S. presidential periods are reflected in the popular culture, especially on TV. Sometimes, setting out to capture the pulse of a presidential period is precisely what creators have in mind.

The Trump era, soon to pass, might be defined as one livid with lying, paranoia, conspiracy, sexism, cronyism, dread, racism and greed. That’s more than enough material for a TV era. Let’s think about the past few years: Conspiracy thrillers in Big Little Lies, true-crime series about a coverup in Making a Murderer and The Keepers, greed and utterly immoral villainy in Ozarks. Dread? Multiple seasons of American Horror Story, one set specifically during the 2016 election.

Binge-watching guide: The recent shows you need to catch up on, all available to stream

In early January, 2017, as Donald Trump took office, I heard a broadcast exec at ABC tell TV critics that the success of such shows as Pawn Stars, American Pickers and Duck Dynasty was “an early indicator of how the country was feeling.” The implication was that the Duck Dynasty fan base was part of what put Trump in the White House.

Story continues below advertisement

Yep, a social shift can propel a candidate into the White House and that shift is mirrored in a batch of TV content. Television can react to perceived cultural changes faster than film or other media. Think back over the past few decades. Family Ties is the classic Reagan-era series, with its young conservative figure, played by Michael J. Fox, rebelling against his hippy-liberal parents. Also in the Reagan years there were multiple shows perfectly in tune with the nostalgia-steeped atmosphere fostered by Ronald Reagan and furthered by George Bush: Brooklyn Bridge, I’ll Fly Away and Homefront were all set in the past, but a past in which the present was curiously alive.

Bill Clinton was closely connected to the TV world before he was president. Among his closest friends were Harry Thomason and Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, creators of the hit series Designing Women, Evening Shade and Hearts Afire. (Thomason made The Man from Hope, the film that introduced and mythologized Clinton at the 1992 Democratic National Convention.) Maybe the couple prepared the ground for Clinton with those shows steeped in Southern liberal sincerity.

The Clinton era itself was defined by series about male characters aged thirty- to fortysomething, in Seinfeld, Home Improvement, The Jackie Thomas Show, The Larry Sanders Show and Dream On, which all feature cynical, supercilious and happily sexist men.

The Fox drama 24, featuring Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) and his Counter Terrorist Unit, became the defining drama of the post-9/11, George W. Bush period. Yet, it was never meant to be definitive or mirror events. The series was created before 9/11, but as soon as it aired it encapsulated the zeitgeist – the constant threat of terrorism, the use of torture and the casting aside of ethical dilemmas in order to protect the safety of Americans.

The Obama era was in part defined by two Shonda Rhimes shows, Scandal and How To Get Away with Murder, simply because they featured Black actors in the lead roles. But by critical consensus the defining Obama-era series is Parks and Recreation, its entire ethos and storyline an exemplar of liberalism in the Obama years, with its substantial but gentle take on government, tolerance of multiculturalism and inherent belief in the rightness of being decent.

U.S. television is, by commercial necessity, about values that connect the majority. Those values are embodied in the new president by definition of his being elected by the majority, so we get television that reflects his personality and vision. Trump-era TV has reflected a deeply divided country and culture. Saturday Night Live became newly pertinent as soon as Melissa McCarthy’s vicious but accurate take on Sean Spicer debuted. Jimmy Kimmel want from lightweight late-night joker to the voice of righteous indignation.

It will be years before we grasp it all and have the benefit of hindsight. But for now, here are six shows that exemplify the period that ends in January, 2021.

Story continues below advertisement

The Handmaid’s Tale

Elisabeth Moss stars in the adaptation of Margaret Atwood's modern dystopian classic, The Handmaid's Tale.

Hulu / Bravo

Arriving in the spring of 2017, on the heels of Trump’s inauguration and the women’s march that followed, the adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel seemed to exist for extrapolation – its dystopian world at parallel with the views on gender equality and reproductive freedom that emanated from the Trump administration. The series started and remains cultural commentary that gives you a dose of the creeps.


The Roys, a fictional, wealthy American media family, are the subject of much fodder in HBO's Succession series.

Graeme Hunter/HBO

The series about the Roy family, a fictional, megarich American global-media clan, didn’t get attention at first. It seemed part of an odd trend – along with Billions, and the FX miniseries Trust (about the Getty family), it looked like part of a faddish fascination with the very rich for our entertainment. But it became a powerhouse drama about the internal workings of the 1 per cent, rich families who control massive wealth and big media. These graceless, venal characters, with their incessant power games, could be the Murdoch family, or the Trumps.

Roseanne/The Conners

Roseanne Barr, left, and John Goodman star in ABC's revival of Roseanne, which abruptly ended when its star unleashed a racist tweet in May, 2018.

Adam Rose/The Associated Press

ABC’s revival of Roseanne Barr’s sitcom was the most shameless manoeuvre to literally reflect the Trump era and showcase Trump voters. In doing it with Barr, ABC made a deal with the devil, but for a while it was unnerving TV. The Conner family had aged but life wasn’t better. They were the left-behind, those voters who flocked to Trump’s message of grievances and anger. Roseanne and husband Dan (John Goodman) faced the reality of looming old age and medical bills. Their children had not transcended the lives their parents lived, stuck in middle-America with few prospects. Roseanne Conner was a Trump voter, and you understood why. Then Barr attacked a former Obama White House adviser in a viciously racist tweet. Within hours, ABC cancelled the show. But they really only fired Barr and The Conners emerged from it, and succeeded, an often excellent depiction of the working poor in the United States, without overt political framing.


The anthology format Fargo predated Trump, but it captured a culture of greed and banal selfishness; evil entering small towns unnoticed but then exploding. Then in subsequent seasons dwelt on themes of avarice and cutthroat hubris. Right up to the current season, largely about a world run by con artists and criminal gangs, and the effort to stay ethical in such a world.


HBO’s series had its origins in DC Comics but had the heft of raw and magisterial commentary on racist violence, white supremacism and vigilantism. After three years of Trump, the alternative reality of the series didn’t seen alternative – it seemed shockingly contemporaneous and relevant. Real, simmering frictions about race, conspiracy and retribution burst through it and framed this era as a nightmare.

The Good Fight

The first episode began with Trump being elected. Then the show, a spinoff from The Good Wife, faced the Trump era with audacity: confronting race, immigration (the cruelty of ICE) and incompetent judges appointed to tow the Trump line. An angry, bleakly funny legal drama, it’s set in an arena run by what central character Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski) calls “dirtbag men.”

Story continues below advertisement

Plan your screen time with the weekly What to Watch newsletter, with film, TV and streaming reviews and more. Sign up today.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

  1. Follow topics and authors relevant to your reading interests.
  2. Check your Following feed daily, and never miss an article. Access your Following feed from your account menu at the top right corner of every page.

Follow the author of this article:

Follow topics related to this article:

View more suggestions in Following Read more about following topics and authors
Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

If you do not see your comment posted immediately, it is being reviewed by the moderation team and may appear shortly, generally within an hour.

We aim to have all comments reviewed in a timely manner.

Comments that violate our community guidelines will not be posted.

UPDATED: Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies