John Doyle: Trump-era America is challenging the TV industry
Television programmers face a unique dilemma in this new political era: either they perpetuate liberal Hollywood stereotypes or build a bigger tent
Early on the morning after Meryl Streep unleashed her scolding of Donald Trump at the Golden Globes, and then Trump, aided by his supporters, hit back at "liberal" Hollywood, the fight continued.
CBS came here to the TV Critics Association press tour and introduced The Good Fight, a drama that will, it seems, pivot on themes arising from Trump's election as president. That is, Trump's election symbolizes changes that impact a major character in a very bad way.
The Good Fight is a spinoff series taking characters from The Good Wife forward, and it is mainly about lawyer Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski) and her descent into a hellish existence. She retires and then learns that she's lost all her retirement savings in a Ponzi scheme. And that's just the start.
The husband-and-wife team of Robert and Michelle King, co-creators of The Good Wife, also created The Good Fight.
And Robert King made it crystal clear at the press tour that the new show is firmly rooted in new, Trump-era America. "The election gives us a spine," King said. " The Good Wife was always a little bit about the Obama years. I think this election gives shape to a new show which is, well, a matter of 'this is all gonna change.' Some people say for the better, some say for the worse."
You could posit that U.S. television offers U.S. society a mirror to itself. Network TV programs, aired within weeks or days of being written, reflect the mood and contemporary tensions with an intuitive accuracy. In a country where every president is a magnetic centre of attention, the president becomes an instant archetype.
The thing us, when you posit that TV is a mirror to society, you're thinking old-school. In this age of what's called "Peak TV," there is a staggering amount of great TV being made and aired across multiple platforms.
The rote explanation for the explosion in quality content is the expanding number of cable channels and the arrival of multiple streaming services. Like the United States itself, politically and culturally, the TV landscape has fragmented. The mass audience, such as it exists, is much smaller.
Free of the restrictions placed on network TV, cable and streaming services deliver sophisticated, adult content. Much of it is challenging and some of it challenges the status quo and tradition. And audiences are drawn to it. While conventional network TV remains a vital force in the arena, and sometimes achieves a remarkable degree of urbanity and finesse, it has diminishing significance.
What the entire TV industry, but especially conventional TV, faces now is stark choices. Does it continue to create content that might arouse the anger and derision of Trump supporters and the right-wing media that helped get Trump elected? Or does it somehow seem to support Trump by celebrating figures like him and reflecting the views of pro-Trump viewers?
Or does it veer toward escapism that cannot be interpreted as having any political context or meaning?
Trump and his supporters have accused the news media and Hollywood of drooling over Barack Obama. And it's certainly true that the content of much television presented here is a snapshot of the Obama years, especially in matters of race.
Go back to the Bill Clinton years and remember that he was perceived as smart but immature, selfish yet sensitive and, most of all, unwilling to fit into the straitjacket of age and responsibility. It's no coincidence that on Seinfeld, Jerry and his callow friends George and Kramer became iconic figures just as Clinton became president. The typical male figure on U.S. television during the Clinton presidency was a boy in a grown-up's body.
But that was in a different TV era. So now what? The various networks and cable channels presented their wares to critics just days before Trump's inauguration. As the producers, execs and actors put on their sales pitches, simultaneously the country was changing the guard – there were cabinet-confirmation hearings in Washington, Obama gave his farewell address, there were salacious, unproven allegations against Trump and, of course, his train-wreck press conference.
The talk at the critics' press tour, an event about entertainment content, was Trump and then more Trump. At times it reached a point of absurdity. CBS introduced a new sitcom, Superior Donuts, set in a doughnut shop (based on the play by Pulitzer Prize-winner Tracy Letts), and the shadow of Trump loomed briefly over the presentation. See, Superior Donuts is a comedy that's vaguely topical, with current-affairs issues turning up in the plot and dialogue.
Judd Hirsch plays a rueful former sixties radical who now owns a doughnut shop in a Chicago neighbourhood; Katey Sagal plays a regular customer who is a cop. Jermaine Fowler is a new black employee. Jokes about cop shootings and racial profiling abound. One critic asked if Trump supporters might be put off by the anti-establishment jokes.
Hirsch bristled: "What comedy would not take advantage of the fact that this is a funny thing that happened to us in this country? 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."
Then producer Bob Daily explained: "The pilot was written a year ago, and I think a lot of these issues, sadly, are evergreen, like gun control and racial profiling. So I don't think that the change in the administration will change what we're doing. I think it will just continue on that same path."
This, note you, was part of a discussion about a pretty innocuous CBS sitcom. CBS is not in the business of being political, of disturbing anyone's views. It's the No. 1 network because it offers a lot of harmless escapism.
But in the tense, pre-Trump period everything seems weirdly and intensely political. And here's the key thing – like Superior Donuts, most of what mainstream television will offer this year comes directly out of the Obama era. It will reflect Obama-esque issues and topics. Some might see that as a kind of resistance movement. Especially Trump himself, since he pays close attention to the entertainment world and seems to get a lot of information from TV.
All of this will make American TV at the start of the Trump era especially charged, laden with meaning. Do viewers make their TV choices based on real political events in the world, by political affiliation, or do they even care about political context and subtext? That's the taxing question that television is dealing with. Like the United States itself, the creators and producers are divided. Some see their shows as a kind of resistance to Trumpism. Others see opportunity, and many are very wary of being seen as politically motivated at all. Right now, it's the entire industry that's a mirror to the United States, not just one or two shows.
Robert and Michelle King, The Good Fight people, are proudly liberal, and in fact the pilot episode of The Good Fight was being filmed during the week of the U.S. election, which, they say, shifted its direction. The character Diane, a feminist who had a framed picture of herself with Hillary Clinton in her office, is personally devastated by the outcome and her world crashes, and not simply because she's been left almost broke. She's obliged to return to work but must toil surrounded by men, and confront financial fraud. It's a much more cruel world, this Trump era she experiences.
Said Baranski: "I think the interesting thing is you have a lead character who is in a practical free fall in a similar way to what the country is feeling right now. How do you take the next step up when there's no foundation? Where are we? Where are we morally?"
At the same time, Shonda Rhimes, whose hit series Scandal is set in Washington and has White House figures as central characters, wants no perceived connection between her show and the new Trump administration.
Rhimes, a very successful black woman who has created multiple hit series, is a fascinating figure in the current entertainment climate on the cusp of the Trump era. She was a Hillary Clinton supporter and produced the short film that introduced Clinton on the night she accepted the Democratic nomination, a film that had endorsements from Obama and Bill Clinton. The most recent season of Scandal featured a presidential election and the tagline was, "The balance of power is about to shift." Yet Rhimes told critics here that there was "no correlation" between Scandal and real political events.
As it happens, the return of Scandal was postponed by ABC to accommodate the Jan. 19 airing of an interview with Trump on a 20/20 special. Asked if this bothered her, Rhimes said, "I'm not going to comment on a conversation I had with my boss, because I like my job." And she described any detected connection between her politics, the show's fiction and Trump to be "irrelevant."
If Rhimes wants her material seen as escapist rather than political, her bosses at ABC are proceeding with two very political productions early in 2017. Coming in February is When We Rise, a four-part miniseries about "the real-life personal and political struggles, setbacks and triumphs of a diverse family of LGBT men and women who helped pioneer one of the last legs of the U.S. civil-rights movement." This chronicle of the gay-rights movement will be aired over four consecutive nights and stars Rachel Griffiths, Mary-Louise Parker and Guy Pearce.
The creator, Dustin Lance Black, who won an Academy Award for the screenplay of Milk, told the critics, "Loud and clear, I want to say this show is under attack by the alt-right online. We have been targeted. We will get absolutely zero ratings on every Internet platform. Listen, there's a negative idea about this show out there in some small groups. And let's be real. I don't think there's a lot of people who voted for Donald Trump who will love this show."
Further, ABC will air the third season of American Crime, its serious-issue showcase drama series. Like the first two, this one is substantial in intent, searing at times in examining toxic issues of race, religion and class. It has a very sharp edge, and is focused on real social issues that have a visceral impact on American society. This edition, which is superbly nuanced and poignant, is about the exploitation of immigrant Mexican workers and about sex trafficking. Creator John Ridley was wary of linking the drama to Trump's politics. The series argues forcefully that migrant workers are exploited by rich businessmen, but he doesn't want this American Crime to be seen as political commentary. "There's an infrastructure in place that unfortunately allows these things to continue. This story would have been told irrespective of who is in the Oval Office. It's the bigger picture."
Fox will air the miniseries Shots Fired as an "event" this spring. The drama is about the explosive aftermath of two racially charged shootings in a small Southern town.
According to co-creator Gina Prince-Bythewood, the show's origins lie in a decision by Fox CEO Dana Walden, who went to veteran TV and movie producer Brian Grazer and said she wanted him to develop a project that would "take on the issues Ferguson brought up," referring to the racially charged riots in that suburban Missouri city. The riots erupted after a St. Louis County grand jury, of nine whites and three blacks, decided in November, 2014, not to indict a police officer in connection with the shooting of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black man.
Grazer enlisted Prince-Bythewood, and Grazer says the point of the series is "to do an autopsy of a town like Ferguson." The show is forceful in asserting that white politicians simply fail to understand the lives of black citizens and turn a blind eye to racism from police and other authorities. Prince-Bythewood has said previously that she was inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement while working on the show.
At a presentation of the series, actor Richard Dreyfuss, who stars in it, said, "This is probably the most current show you'll ever see. This is now. This is America." What was striking, however, was a shift away from the creators emphasizing racially charged political commentary in the series. Prince-Bythewood kept telling the TV critics that the series is entertaining as well as serious. "The mystery element is highly important," she said. "And we knew that we wanted to create a great narrative that would, ideally, keep the audience at the edge of their seats. We had a creed for the show, which is to get the audience to the edge of their seats and, while they're leaning forward, hit them with the truth. It's a whodunit and a whydunit."
That wariness about being observed as Obama-ish in content and intent is palpable here. Not everyone is prepared to be as blunt as Robert and Michelle King about their politics and where their show stands as a commentary and disapproval of Trump and what he stands for.
On the cable side of things, though, at least one executive seemed to relish the arrival of the Trump era. Showtime Networks president and CEO David Nevins was asked how a Trump White House would impact any shows he has on the air now or "what you choose to put on the air in the future."
Mainly, it seems, he sees opportunity. HBO has had huge success with John Oliver's weekly political satire and commentary show and Nevins thinks Showtime could go in that direction.
The channel had the highly engaging political-reporting series The Circus airing almost every week during the long U.S.-election campaign and Nevins is thinking it could be a permanent fixture. To begin with, there will soon be an extralong episode of The Circus covering the period between election night and the inauguration.
"It has big-time potential besides an election," Nevins said. And he added, "We have a lot of shows that are very political." He noted that the thriller Homeland, returning for a sixth season, reflects the political world, and that the money-based drama Billions is about "power politics in New York City," and is about the nefarious manipulations of an actual billionaire character. Nevins seemed happy to report that "a Donald Trump administration will be filtered through in a lot of ways" on Showtime.
Particular emphasis was given to Homeland by Nevins. "Homeland went into production in August and was written in the months before that. It deals with an incoming administration, a transition period between administrations, and it deals a lot with issues of trust and distrust between the permanent state, the intelligence community and a new president. … So it reflects that."
While Nevins describes Homeland as "prescient," the new season actually features a new female president, not a Trump-like figure. It does, however, also depict a deep distrust between the intelligence community and the president-elect on the show. It's just that the distrust is less toxic than the real discord between Trump and U.S. intelligence agencies. And in terms of reflecting the Trump-era reality, main character Carrie Mathison, played by Claire Danes, tackles the hostility toward Muslim Americans and grapples with the matter of whether they should be considered potential terrorists.
Nevins and Showtime might well be blithe about how the coming Trump era will change television content, but Showtime is a premium cable channel that does not rely on advertising. It would be unaffected by the disdain of Trump supporters and attacks from pro-Trump media.
The reality for conventional American TV is very different. It must adapt. It will adapt. That hasn't happened yet. It seems the creators and producers in that arena did not expect a Trump victory. And if the Trump era is looming ominously for some in the industry, that's because TV is still in Obama mode. There are a lot of Meryl Streep types in U.S. TV, and a lot of nervous people too.
Still, if you ask me, as a critic who has been on these press tours many times, the nervousness is unnecessary. The cable and streaming services will continue to produce baldly compelling, unalloyed and often unnerving content that might disturb pro-Trump viewers. But it matters little. There is a massive, established audience that doesn't want only escapism. Obama's legacy might be in doubt, politically and socially, but on the best of television, it is safe.