- 13 Feb 17
The Terrible Tangerine has ascended to the White House - but how will his dystopian presidency impact on the small screen?
A Trump presidency seemed exceedingly fanciful when I sat down with Luke Cage creator Cheo Hodari Coker last October. The Netflix series refracts superhero cliches through a post-Black Lives Matter prism – Cage negotiates Harlem in a Travyon Martin-type hoodie – and I wondered if Coker could imagine Trump sitting down to an episode.
“I think he would [like it],” the producer responded. “Everyone loves Bob Marley even if they don’t necessarily know what the music is talking about.”
The question had drawn a chuckle. As well it might – who, after all, seriously imagined that not six months later a former reality television presenter would ascend to the most powerful office in global politics? But nobody is laughing now. Instead television both sides of the Atlantic is scrambling to process the new reality in which we find ourselves – one in which the divide between fact and fantasy is blurred and where the leader of the free world is apparently of the opinion that we live in a dystopian hell of “American carnage”.
Along with the rest of us, television executives appear to have been wrongfooted by the rise of Trump. In the returning CIA thriller Homeland, the security establishment is spooked by the election of a Hillary-esque new president (Elizabeth Marvel), determined to take the military down a peg or three.
Could it be the character was created while Hillary was high in the polls and intended to serve as a cipher for the presumed Commander in Chief? It’s tempting to conclude this was indeed the case. Homeland, it follows, has been caught flatfooted, its buttoned down Lady President almost comically out of kilter with the times. This is a rare misstep for a drama which, through its five previous seasons, has done a standup job channelling post-9/11 American anxieties.
In the case of the forthcoming Good Wife spin off The Good Fight, a Hillary presidency was likewise assumed to be a sure thing and had been woven into the script (Clinton was referenced frequently in the original series). Now it’s all hands to the tiller to change trajectory.
“It affects the world on every level,” producer Robert King said recently. “We’re not doing as many cases that would just be, say, a typical crime-of-the-week-type case. We’re not doing, ‘Here’s just a murder’. Things seem to be more politically freighted now.”
Further down the pipeline it appears television is well positioned to get a grip on recent upheavals. In the forthcoming BBC thriller SS-GB we will see what a Western nation under a facist jack-boot might look like. In this adaptation of the 1978 Len Deighton caper, the Nazis have conquered Britain and swastikas are as ubiquitous as ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ signs and discarded KFC wrappers.
Few have gone so far as to compare Trump directly to Hitler (though his inauguration speech didn’t lack for ‘blood and soil’ invective).
Nonetheless, SS-GB’s depiction of a UK in the death grip of fascism carries undeniable resonances.
“That question of what we’d do if the Nazis were outside our front door is one we’ve never had to answer,” writer Neal Purvis commented. “But it defines all other European politics – almost everyone else has had to deal with occupation of some sort. Some people collaborate, others don’t, and at the end the survivors have to pick up the pieces.”
The same will surely apply to Amazon’s forthcoming adaptation of the dystopian Margaret Atwood novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, in which America is under the yoke of a one-party government and women are reduced to mere breeding devices. Again, no direct parallels with Trump but plenty of echoes.
“The book has been out for 30 years. Any year that we could have made it, it would have been relevant,” star Samira Wiley said recently. “But I do think that this is the time that we are living in now, and I feel like it is our responsibility as artists to reflect the time that we are living in.”
Equally pointed is the forthcoming historical drama Underground, which tells of African-American slaves fleeing the Antebellum South. Given the racist component of Trump’s support, the drama will serve as a timely reminder that the racial question has never been satisfactorily answered in the United States. Over 150 years after the Civil War, Trump’s election to the Oval Office shows that powerful prejudices still hold sway in the land of the free.
“What we’re learning as we react to this election is that even when there’s progress, even when our main characters achieve freedom, that freedom is not guaranteed to stay in place,” said musician John Legend, who is the show’s producer. “And so we’re going through a period now where Donald Trump has promised to make us a less just and less free country, and those who believe in justice and freedom are going to have to stand up for it.”
But though television will undoubtedly come to grips with the new paradigm in America – assuming we don’t all perish in a nuclear conflagration before the end of pilot season – some in the industry fear a negative impact too.
“I think it’s possible that for companies who finance movies and TV, their willingness to take big creative risks will not expand – it’ll contract,” Brian Grazer, creator of the hit Empire, told the New York Times. “To get someone to say: ‘Okay, we are going to do a mainstream television show that is a nighttime soap opera that’s going to cost real money and it’s 90 percent African-Americans. And, by the way, they’re going to sing.’ People who make those decisions? Those might be harder choices.”
It is instructive to note that, in the aftermath of 9/11, we got 24, a viscerally jingoistic romp in which all-American tough guy Jack Bauer did whatever was required to take down the (usually Middle Eastern) bad guys. If George W Bush could bring us Jack Bauer waterboarding suspects – what televisual horrors might a President Trump unleash?
“Before the election we were like, ‘It’s so crazy, this can’t get crazier,’” Marti Noxon, producer of Unreal, told reporters in January. “And now cut to: crazier. The work has to reflect that.”
Homeland season six is on RTE 2 now, while SS-GB comes to BBC One in March and The Handmaid’s Tale airs on Amazon Prime in April.