How Trump is changing TV

President Trump's influence on primetime TV explored in new CNN special.

Posted: Jul 20, 2018 7:33 PM
Updated: Jul 20, 2018 7:53 PM

The so-called "resistance" to President Trump takes many forms. In Hollywood, writers and producers are using the tools of their trade -- jokes and dramatizations -- to make statements about Trump and the dangers of demagoguery more broadly.

"I think the times are so dramatic and it's just difficult to exist in the world without somehow commenting," "Homeland" co-creator Alex Gansa told CNN in a recent interview.

"Commenting" often takes the form of critiquing Trump's policies, mocking his looks or imagining his removal from office. Trump and Trump-like characters pop up on sitcoms and dramas all the time -- a big change from the Obama years.

But showrunners from "Homeland" to "The Handmaid's Tale" say entertaining the audience comes first. Producers reject the idea that they're just trying to lecture the audience and tilt the playing field in the Democrats' favor. Provoking political conversations and civics lessons might be a source of pride, but it is not the top priority.

For CNN's new documentary, "The Trump Show: TV's New Reality," we spoke with a cross-section of the entertainment industry's top producers and critics.

They described several ways that Trump has changed prime time. Chief among them: It's hard for fictionalized shows to top the real life drama in Washington.

Michelle King, co-creator of "The Good Fight," said the administration's characters and controversies are sometimes so unrealistic they wouldn't fly in Hollywood: "If you put them on the page you'd say, no, tone it down."

There's also the fact that Trump is a product of TV.

"Trump is different because he comes from entertainment," King's husband and co-creator Robert said. "We have a bit in 'Good Fight' where Christine Baranski's watching the TV at night. And on every channel, Trump has affected a different part of culture. So it's even like animated cartoons are talking about it."

That's not a joke. Animated comedies like "Family Guy" and "The Simpsons" have repeatedly taken jabs at Trump.

In our interviews for the documentary, producers talked about Trump as a colleague of sorts, citing his long history as an NBC reality star. Many in Hollywood view him as a producer-in-chief.

"You know, Trump never won an Emmy for 'The Apprentice,' but he should win one now because the television is riveting," Gansa remarked.

Gansa's colleague, "Homeland" co-creator Howard Gordon, pointed out that "TV has been good for Trump."

And Ilene Chaiken, the former showrunner for Fox's "Empire," commented that Americans are now living in one big reality show.

"I think this is less a presidency and more a performance," she said, arguing that Trump "has no knowledge, no grasp of issues; he just is a performer who has an instinct for what people respond to, what gets a rise, what moves the conversation."

A producer-in-chief, indeed.

1. 'You can't stay ahead' of the non-stop news cycle

Many shows that dramatize or satirize politics exist in a parallel world, where someone else is the president. (Think "Veep" or "Scandal.")

But there are a handful of series that make reference to Trump directly, like "Will & Grace" and "Broad City" (where his name is bleeped for comic effect).

And some shows take Trump head on, like "The Good Fight," the spin-off of "The Good Wife" that streams on the CBS All Access service. There's even been an episode of that show riffing on the idea that Russia has a salacious, compromising tape of Trump.

For series that want to reflect real world issues and debates, like CBS's "Madam Secretary," staying ahead of the news has become harder.

"You can't anticipate, you can't stay ahead of it. Everything is happening so fast," showrunner Barbara Hall said. "Whereas I feel like politics used to move a little more slowly, and so you could create the sort of fictional futuristic world, it's really difficult to do that these days."

In January "Madam" had uncanny timing: An episode exploring the removal of the show's fictional president through the 25th Amendment aired on the same week that Michael Wolff's book "Fire and Fury" sparked a national discussion of Trump's fitness for office.

Of course, the episode had been in the can for weeks. It was inspired in part by a surge in Google searches about the 25th Amendment.

"We did the research and we thought, 'Wow, this is fascinating. Let's dramatize this,'" Hall said.

Trying to tie into current events can be worthwhile, but difficult. King and her husband Robert, who created "The Good Fight," said they taped an episode with a reference to Stormy Daniels that was rendered obsolete before the episode ever premiered.

The script had Margo Martindale's character saying that Daniels was just a "flash in the pan." But the scandal deepened after the episode was taped, so the dialogue was adjusted.

Overall, Trump's election "focused the show," Michelle King said. Since Baranski's character Diane Lockhart is an avowed liberal, it would have been odd for her NOT to react to Trump's election.

"Any feelings in the writers' room could easily be channeled through her through that character," King said.

2. Shows are trying to help Americans process what's going on in Washington

"In a callowly entertaining way, it's hard to imagine that anything you write fictionally is going to be as interesting, as compelling and as crazy as the stuff we're seeing in real life," Gordon said.

So the "Homeland" team tries to deconstruct and reconstruct the world, allowing viewers to "almost process it more deeply and to think about it differently," he said.

Shows like "One Day at a Time" on Netflix and "Black-ish" on ABC do the same thing.

Other series walk a fine line, reflecting Trump-era anxieties without ever mentioning him by name. "The Handmaid's Tale" comes to mind immediately.

Although Hulu ordered the series before election day, the series has won acclaim for portraying a dystopian future that some Trump critics believe is all too close to becoming real.

"I would be very happy if my show became irrelevant as quickly as possible," said Bruce Miller, the creator and showrunner of "The Handmaid's Tale."

He has taken pains not to invoke Trump in the series about a fictional future where the United States has been overthrown by a totalitarian regime. Case in point, there was a line of dialogue in a Season 1 episode of "Handmaid's" that sounded a lot like "Make America Great Again." It was excised.

"We had to go back and change that," he said. "Who knew?"

3. Jokes and jabs are telling Trump critics 'you are not alone'

For Trump's detractors, jokes at his expense are validation of their point of view. The cracks can also be cathartic.

The reboot of NBC's "Will & Grace" came out swinging when it premiered last fall. Vanity Fair called it an "anti-Trump call to arms," but pointed out the sitcom was also about a lot more than that.

"Our thinking initially was, well, to avoid it would be like foolish. It would be insane. How do you avoid, literally, the elephant in the room?" co-creator David Kohan said.

One memorable joke in the premiere compared Trump's skin tone to a Cheetos bag.

Early on in the reboot, "we did it a lot," Kohan said. "Over time we began to temper it." Looking forward, he said, the show's comments and condemnations of Trump have to be clever and considered.

"The digs have to be worth it," he said. "You want it to be clever. You don't want it to be cheap. You don't want to be too easy."

Kohan's disdain for Trump runs very, very deep. He said he does not believe Trump was elected "legitimately," partly due to Russia's efforts to damage Hillary Clinton during the campaign. But when it comes to the show, he said "there isn't really an agenda other than to entertain."

Other producers echoed that sentiment.

The election also stirred talk about whether conservatives and Trump voters are underrepresented both in Hollywood and on screen.

Chaiken said the election result has "made some of us feel more activated, more radicalized, more determined to tell our stories," while at the same time, some networks are making a new effort to "appeal to the people that voted for Trump and the political currents and social currents that put him in office."

Example No. 1 is the reboot of "Roseanne," which was canceled after one season due to Roseanne Barr's racist and bizarre tweets. ABC is now banking on a spin-off called "The Conners," without Barr, which will premiere in the fall. Time will tell whether "The Conners" addresses political debates in the same way "Roseanne did."

4. Creating an escape from the norm

While many shows have leaned into politics, others have gone in the opposite direction. Barack Obama was "practically a character" on "Empire," because he was frequently referenced by the show's largely African-American cast, Chaiken said.

But not Trump. Why?

"Partly just because it was too dark and depressing, and I think in large part because nobody wanted to give him any more currency, I mean, he's everywhere," she said. "He dominates every conversation. Do we really have to contribute to that?"

Escapism is sometimes a winning strategy. But numerous producers said their writers and staffers are more tuned in, more aware of the news cycle, than they were a few years ago.

"People who are writing and making television are living in the same world as everyone else" -- and feeling "disoriented" by the presidency, Gordon said. "Everything is up for grabs and no one is, you know, untweetable."

Gordon said the opportunity with "Homeland" is to "have our characters wrestle with the same things we're all wrestling with."

The most recent season featured storylines about Russian interference and "fake news," giving the show a "ripped from the headlines" feel.

His co-creator Alex Gansa said he's been addicted to cable news in the Trump age.

Trump has been, too. He is a voracious consumer of cable news, but he's not known to watch much prime time or late night TV. He primarily hears about sitcoms and dramas secondhand, when a talk show like "Fox & Friends" covers a supposed controversy.

That's a big change from Obama, who publicly eschewed cable news and preferred ESPN, "Game of Thrones" and "Homeland."

When asked if he thought Trump should pick up on Obama's "Homeland" habit and learn from the show, Gansa said, "I doubt he'd learn a thing. I really don't. I think for me, he looks like a President who refuses to be educated about anything."

Gansa and Gordon are now working on the seventh and final season of "Homeland."

Miller is working on season three of "Handmaid's." He said viewers are "just beginning" to see how TV is reacting to the Trump age, "because we're just starting to see the first crop of things that were thought of and executed, you know, after the election."

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