Culture

Stumbling through TV’s first year with President Trump

One year later, scripted TV is still figuring out how to talk about the president.

Culture

Trump TV

Culture

Stumbling through TV’s first year with President Trump

One year later, scripted TV is still figuring out how to talk about the president.

Turn on any late night show, and you’ll often find its host gleefully talking about the hellish Trump presidency — yes, even the happy-go-lucky Jimmy Fallon, who has come around to political commentary as his ratings have collapsed. On the other hand, scripted television hasn’t always figured out how to address Trump. There are shows like Stranger Things and Game of Thrones that get a pass because they’re set in fantasy worlds. But the more realistic sitcoms and dramas that used to reflect the world we live in have, in some ways, become fantasies themselves, because they now present a reality where the horror of Trump is still largely abstract — a reality only inhabited by the rich.

On Broad City, Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer censored the president’s name like profanity and used his presence as a goofy plot point — his election is the reason why Ilana can no longer orgasm, and must see a sex therapist. The eighth episode of She’s Gotta Have It, Spike Lee’s new Netflix series that reboots his 1986 film, opened with a post-election day montage of anti-Trump headlines, protest signs, and graffiti, before pivoting to a completely unrelated plot, with sly references to current events slipped throughout the rest of the show but never becoming the focus. The current season of Curb Your Enthusiasm reportedly began filming the day after the 2016 election, but the administration has not received mention in the show thus far. In October, creator Larry David addressed the elephant in the room by telling the crowd at the Vanity Fair Summit, “I think we should stop talking about him.” Less than two years before, David had shouted “You’re a racist” at the then-future president during his opening monologue as the host of SNL.

“I don’t want the stench of the current administration on this show.”
Issa Rae, creator of ‘Insecure’

Macallan Rare Cask

2017’s most Trump-dedicated scripted program was American Horror Story: Cult which aired on FX from September to November. The seventh season of the horror anthology series takes place in the wake of the 2016 election, as one community emerges divided and beset by extremist groups and a gang of murderous clowns. An aspiring cult leader played by actor Evan Peters wears a mask made of Cheeto dust in the season premiere, an obvious reference to Trump’s radioactive tan. But as befitting a show that trafficks in cheap thrills, Cult relied on simplification, reducing the fears felt by millions in real life. “In its attempt to parody and comment upon the fear cruelty and paranoia of Trump's America, however, it instead becomes an artifact of it,” Rolling Stone’s Jenna Scherer wrote in a review.

The immediate threat posed by Trump is a relatively recent novelty to political order. Previous Republican presidents took office in less divided times, and carried a more genteel public image that, deserved or not, nonetheless helped deflate the widespread notion they were going to bring a bigoted hell upon the country. Even so, in early 2017 it was expected that showrunners, writers, and stars would inevitably have something to say about about our new political reality in their fictional ones. What, audiences wondered, would people who create their own worlds do with someone so contested, whose image and influence is so pervasive, in our own? It was a question every creator had to ask, regardless of how they left it.

"Trump" is censored as profanity throughout the "Witches" episode of Broad City.

Ilana sees a sex therapist to cure her Trump-related orgasmic dysfunction.

Ilana sees a sex therapist to cure her Trump-related orgasmic dysfunction.

"Trump" is censored as profanity throughout the "Witches" episode of Broad City.

Ilana sees a sex therapist to cure her Trump-related orgasmic dysfunction.

Not everyone shared the same amount of risk for speaking out. Both Issa Rae, creator of Insecure, and Aziz Ansari, creator of Master of None, intentionally left Trump out of the most recent seasons of their shows. In May, Variety reported that Ansari and his Master of None co-creator Alan Yang, who had already written the second season of their show when Trump was elected, ultimately decided against rewriting an episode to address the updated events. “I liked what we wrote and I didn’t want to have him be a part of it,” Ansari told the crowd at May's Season 2 premiere in May. (This, despite Ansari’s very public scrutiny of Trump in other venues.) In August, Rae told The Guardian: “I don’t want the stench of the current administration on this show.” As young creators of color, they certainly were bigger targets — more than one commentator has noticed how Trump specifically seems to revel in calling out black people who criticize him, getting in petty feuds with figures like Colin Kaepernick, Steph Curry, and LaVar Ball.

Black-ish creator Kenya Barris went the opposite route. In a November 2016 interview with NPR Weekend Edition host Rachel Martin, Barris said he felt the election had suddenly changed his show, heightening the cast and crew’s responsibility to encourage open dialogue among viewers. “We have to dig in deeper and stay later and have more real conversations and argue amongst ourselves more and really bring our emotions to the surface and really say things that people want to hear,” he said.

The election happened a quarter of the way into the show’s third season, but remarkably nine weeks later, Black-ish was one of the first shows to address Trump in its January 11 episode. In it, the Johnson family experiences the heartbreak and confusion many felt after the election, each member coping in their own way. Bow, the mother in the family, takes to donating to a number of progressive non-profits, decorating herself in the swag they send as thanks. The two older children prepare for a ceremony at their school to encourage thoughtfulness and harmony after students tell a teacher that she will be deported. Meanwhile, Dre, the father of the family, deals with a workplace that has descended into unproductive chaos as pro- and anti-Trump coworkers argue for days on end.

“I'd imagine that some writers feel that you [shouldn’t] ‘feed the troll.’”
Jonathan Gray, a professor of Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison

The resolution comes when Dre, after an impassioned speech about what it means to be black in America, encourages both sides to listen to one another and understand each other. As a sitcom episode, it ended with a resolve few had at the start of this administration. The episode was well-received, and indeed it crystallized the confusion of the moment. Looking back at it — after a year of xenophobic executive orders, incendiary tweets targeting individual citizens, and Charlottesville — it seems almost quaint to imagine a moment when the cessation in hostilities seemed possible. Later episodes did not deal as extensively with Trump as “Lemons” did, though the president does come up every so often. In the season four episode “Advance to Go (Collect $200)”, daughter Diane accuses Dre of being Donald Trump when he is particularly ruthless during a game of Monopoly. “I am Donald Trump,” Dre replies with an evil laugh. Later, as he is losing, he realizes “Oh my god, I am Donald Trump.” and smashes the board against the table while yelling about Hillary Clinton and her emails.

Jonathan Gray, a professor of Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, agreed that shows were shying away from Trump. “Classically, a lot of TV shows didn't really talk about the presidency anyway,” he said. “You’ve now got a whole sort of ecosystem of satire, between [late night satire shows] and SNL and so forth. I wonder if some writers just feel like that's being taken care of elsewhere. I'd imagine that some writers feel that you [shouldn’t] ‘feed the troll,’ because he's everywhere, and when we find somewhere where he's not, we wonder why he's not there.”

Meanwhile, Professor David Craig of USC Annenberg’s School for Communication and Journalism pointed to shows like Veep and Designated Survivor that exist as a commentary on politics, if not Trump specifically. “I feel oversaturated,” Craig told The Outline. “It's impossible for me to keep up with the amount of commentary happening around Trump and Washington D.C. and across all these shows.”

The only comparable period to now, Craig added, was in the ‘70s when talent shows like Laugh-In and scripted shows like M.A.S.H. were the go-to programs for cultural commentary — though citizens back then were able to turn on the nightly news and not be greeted with a partisan hellscape. “Political news has become more entertainment and a really dissatisfying space for actually understanding the key issues and topics and concerns and more importantly how we ought to feel about these things,” he said. With the lines between entertainment and news so blurred, it’s no wonder people turn to creators for help on interpreting the political situation. The role isn’t always so easily adopted — no less a fiery commentator than Jon Stewart once claimed he was just a comedian.

Those who do adopt the role have a daunting task ahead of them. An ideal show that well-reflects the spirit of these times is hard to imagine, because never before have a political situation like the current one intersected with a television landscape as vast as the one that exists today. All in the Family and The Jeffersons stand out as examples of shows that came closest to capturing the spirit of the ’70s and early ’80s.The Wire was television’s cultural/political commentary triumph of the early 2000s. But even then, as Craig pointed out it’s not so easy to compare cultural products from such different times. But whatever the ideal looks like, it would need to somehow capture the teeter-tottering feeling of instability that seems to characterize life in the Trump administration — where entire days can be interrupted by the revelation of some new bullshit, like another last-minute attempt to repeal health care, or the president tweeting a wave of anti-Muslim videos.

Last year, it was reported that Law and Order: SVU was planning an episode about a businessman-turned presidential candidate who is accused of sexual misconduct. Eventually, the episode was spiked. As castmember Ice-T revealed in March, the show felt the expisode (which ultimately exonerates the Trump-inspired character played by Gary Cole) fell short in accurately capturing the feeling of the time when the joke of Trump as president was bizarrely coming true. With a new year and the first anniversary of Trump’s inauguration approaching, it seems that Great Show of the Trump era, despite this year’s attempts, might still be ahead of us.