A year after the Election That Shocked The World, Donald Trump has permeated almost every ounce of popular culture — especially television. Just about everything on the small screen these days ends up being interpreted through a political lens. Even things that once weren’t politicized have now been thrust into that world.
That’s probably not surprising, given that the President of the United States is someone who has been obsessed with ratings, and winning an Emmy, over the years. He’s someone who spends all day consuming — and tweeting about — cable TV news, and often treats big announcements like he’s revealing the winner on “The Apprentice.” And that’s led to real-life storylines that would be dismissed as too outlandish or unbelievable if they were actually written on the page.
“This election happens and you have to reevaluate everything,” “Royal Pains” executive producer Michael Rauch said this summer at an ATX TV Festival panel about writing and producing in the age of Trump. “There’s a reset that happens… it forces us to evaluate what the meaning of truth is.”
Trump and his policies (if he has any beyond simply making himself wealthier) have turned the apolitical — like NFL games and Jimmy Kimmel — into the political. But he’s especially had an impact, just a year in, on television storytelling.
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Just days after the election last year, “Empire” executive producer Ilene Chaiken was fired up: “It necessitates our doubling down on our convictions. We were already telling those stories. [But] a lot of us feel more rage. It’s probably going to come out in some of what we write. We still want to tell great stories, we want to be entertaining. But if I had an agenda before, I sure as hell have an agenda now.”
A “Will & Grace” revival may not have happened, or would have struck a very different tone, had Trump not been a candidate, and ultimately elected to office. A recent episode that took on anti-gay “conversion” camps, for example, included a visual reference of Vice President Mike Pence.
The episode would have been very different, and not have the same urgency, under a Hillary Clinton administration, noted executive producer Max Mutchnick. “I think it’s great that we got to make that episode, but it’s unbelievable that probably two years ago, we felt like we were almost done with [gay discrimination] as a story in America.”
Several shows changed storylines along the way in the wake of Trump; on “The Originals,” executive producer Julie Plec killed a love story that also involved a female character getting beaten up. Plec said it felt even more inappropriate in the wake of Trump’s boastful claims that he sexually assaulted women.
“Your conscious can’t advocate that kind of violence and lean into that,” she said at the ATX panel.
The shock that Trump could be heard saying those things and still get elected president may have ironically played a role in finally exposing the rampant cases of sexual harassment and assault in Hollywood — as more victims felt the strength to come forward.
The changed environment may have even had an impact on the Emmy Awards, where “The Handmaid’s Tale” — brimming with even more timely relevance — sweeped the major categories.
“I watch it and think if Hilary were president this would be a very entertaining and intelligent show,” Plec said. Instead, “it is so harrowing in the context of the reality we live in. The speculative fiction feels so presently of today in a way that it absolutely wouldn’t have if Hillary were president.”
If they do try to find a silver lining, it’s the amount of content that the world under Trump is now inspiring. “There’s a strong possibility that great art can come out of this and we can all be okay,” said Javier Grillo-Marxuach (“The Middleman”) at ATX. “The only way we survive is being the most honest version of ourselves and tell the world to go f— itself if they don’t like it.”
Below, a roundup of how the new president has triggered a world where there is no precedence.
Television shows with scripted narratives have diverged on how it handles addressing the political climate post-election. On one hand, a handful of shows have tackled it head-on. “American Horror Story’s” latest season, “Cult,” opens on Election Night and offers up a drawn-out analogy of being ruled by fear, seen as clowns here, but clearly representing Trump. CBS All Access’ “The Good Fight” also opens on Election Night, and the real-life surprise results actually caused a scramble to rewrite the pilot. Protagonist Diane (Christine Baranski) had been a longtime Hillary supporter, and Trump taking office put more emphasis on the “fight” aspect of the show’s title. Meanwhile, Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer specifically wrote their episode “Witches” to address how women have reacted to but should not be cowed by the Misogynist in Chief, and even the return of “Will & Grace” included a plot in which Karen is buddies with the Trumps.
On the other hand, some networks have used a much stealthier approach to storytelling that ignores all politics and instead offers a haven. Such counter-programming has been a balm for those who are filled with anxiety from the non-stop news and social media cycle of national infighting. The Hallmark Channel has been enjoying an uptick in viewers thanks to its uplifting programming, and ABC’s surprise hit medical drama “The Good Doctor” is an example of the “Warm Bath TV” that has been appealed to viewers seeking comfort and feel-good fare. Based on a South Korean program, the series centers on a doctor with autism and offers up an optimistic and ordered view of the world.
And then there are series like “South Park,” that engaged, changed, and fled: The long-running Comedy Central satire had been digging into serialized narratives over its most recent seasons, shifting from the episodic structure it began with to more thoroughly eviscerate big targets — like Donald Trump — over longer periods of time. Airing new episodes during the election, Season 20 was thrown completely off-kilter when Trump won, and the series not only shifted back to more traditional one-off stories in Season 21, creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone said they weren’t going to focus on Trump at all. The election didn’t just change the show. It changed how the creators approached the show.
The programming genre that many believe made a Donald Trump presidency possible certainly didn’t go unaffected by his victory. Unlike plenty of scripted series, it’s not that reality shows had to scramble to alter their plans: After all, if this is the genre that birthed President Trump, why would it need to shift course during his reign?
But like the rest of television, its viewers were still changed. Perception, need, and framing all shifted post-election, and suddenly people weren’t mindlessly watching trash TV; they’re taking a much-needed break from reality. Reality television became a necessary escapism, much like certain scripted shows.
Like the aforementioned success of “The Good Doctor,” the same logic that applies to seeing a good man do good things in a medical drama can apply to inspiring reality shows like A&E’s “Born This Way” or NBC’s “The Voice.” People need something to feel good about, and they’ll seek it out any way they can.
And yet Trump’s shadow can cast a pall over even the most disconnected escapism. So much of his celebrity and familiarity was built on “The Apprentice”: Who’s to say it won’t happen again? What reality star that you’re watching to escape the current cultural turmoil will be the cause of the next? With everyone from Dwayne Johnson to Kid Rock being pitched as political candidates, and an “anything is possible” attitude toward taking every celebrity candidate seriously post-Trump, it’s hard to see reality TV the same way today.
Late Night TV
For years, we’ve looked to late night television as a voice of sanity in insane times; while once upon a time, Walter Cronkite was the soothing voice telling America bad news, now we have Seth Meyers, Jimmy Kimmel, Trevor Noah, John Oliver, Samantha Bee, and Stephen Colbert not necessarily reporting on the events of the day, but helping Americans process what happened. And they’re benefiting from ratings increases as a result.
How have things changed in the last year? Well, it’s hard to imagine Walter Cronkite calling his sitting President the sorts of names that Seth Meyers uses on a semi-regular basis. It’s hard to imagine really anything that’s happened in the last year, but perhaps the best way to find a positive in this is that our talk show hosts — they really talk now. They talk about the tragedies we face, they seek actively to engage with the conversations that America wants to have. Even the politically adverse Jimmy Fallon, in the aftermath of yet another mass shooting, felt inspired to speak out.
And most prominent in the scene, unexpectedly, is a man whose most notable credit prior to his current long-running gig was “The Man Show.” Jimmy Kimmel has been credited with directly influencing the discussion around American health care, tackling to the ground efforts to dismantle the Affordable Care Act with the force of his infant son, Billy. Well, really, the story of Billy’s difficult medical history, but the weight of that story was enough to take down legislative efforts aimed at taking health care away from millions of Americans.
It’s been a depressing year, but we’ve lived it with the hosts of late night, who (to varying degrees) have stepped up to the challenge of contextualizing this madness for their viewers. 2017 has made huge demands on these shows, but we’re grateful for their service.
A year ago, the cable news networks were preparing for life after the election. CNN had already been bolstering its entertainment coverage, for example, to fill the void when the campaign news died down and interest in Washington and politics was set to wane.
Then Trump won. And the roller coaster didn’t stop. It’s been a big year for all news operations, which have seen their fortunes grow as audiences tune in to see, well, whether the world is still standing. Natural disasters and terrorism (including mass shootings) have both fueled viewership, but it’s really the daily barrage of unbelievable headlines coming out of the White House that is keeping news on top. Fox News Channel continues to dominate, but MSNBC (led by Rachel Maddow) and CNN are also enjoying hefty year-to-year increases. In October, Fox News was the No. 1 cable network in total day viewership (1.5 million), while MSNBC was fourth (904,000) and CNN was seventh (726,000).
Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean audiences are being informed. Fox News, for example, is taking lumps for overly praising Trump, particularly during his favorite program, “Fox & Friends.” When former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort turned himself into the FBI, Fox News spent much of the day focusing on Hillary Clinton.
But don’t just blame Fox News; all of the networks have fallen into their old bad habits. When Trump decided to threaten the planet’s health and torpedo the United States’ status as the leader of the free world by recklessly pulling out of the Paris climate agreement, it should have been noted that network TV news had failed in their job to properly educate the public on climate change (or even discuss it at all during the 2016 campaign). And even when they do cover issues like that, they do it the way they always do – via yelling pundits treating it all like a chess game, rather than bothering to ask scientists what’s really going on.
“Sunday Night Football” has been the biggest show on TV since 2011, but this past year saw its market share steadily diminish. For years, the NFL has been besieged by waves of new research around the sport’s relationship to head trauma, restrictive player rights in relation to other major sports, and a decline in on-field quality of play.
But the increasingly politicized nature of the league threw into stark relief the biggest problem that the league hadn’t yet reckoned with: oversaturation. By diluting the power that the NFL held over its Sunday/Monday cultural stranglehold, their recent expansion into Thursday nights was a short-term cash-in with long-term negative effects. Having the NFL be a pop culture battleground not just once, but three nights a week, exacerbated chiefly by the current occupant of the Oval Office, only made it harder for casual fans to sweep aside the issues that have made football a problematic pastime for the better part of this decade.
The result is a slightly more even landscape in the sports world. Baseball’s World Series topped Sunday Night Football in viewership for the second straight year, while this year’s NBA Finals smashed its ratings record. As the President targets the NFL (whether he, concussions, protests, or sloppy play is the ultimate culprit will be debated ad nauseum in the ESPN/FS1 Hot Take Industrial Complex), the stage is set for a necessary and overdue redistribution of American sports attention. Basketball’s biggest stars have been some of the most vocal athletes in this newly politicized age. If NBA viewership continues to rise in the coming calendar year, it’ll be a signal that speaking out doesn’t necessarily mean that audiences will turn away.