Watching Trump Wreck the World, One TV Drama at a Time
HBO’s anxiety-inducing ‘Years and Years’ imagines an alarming future set in motion by Trump politics, joining a mini-resistance of shows attempting to parse MAGA frustration on TV.
What kind of TV do we want to watch while the world is burning?
TV shows that feature plots ripped from the headlines are nothing new—cue Law & Order’s “dunh dunh”—and neither are ones that mine the greater themes we’re grappling with as a nation for story, whether sometimes inelegantly (24), or with trailblazing flair (the Shonda Rhimes and Ryan Murphy universes).
But, as anyone alive will recognize, things just feel... different now. So, too, do the ways in which TV, the quickest medium we have to interact with cultural and political change, is addressing those feelings. It’s an almost impossible question, really, for those in TV land: How do you handle Donald Trump?
From The Good Fight to Orange Is the New Black to The Handmaid’s Tale and more, the approaches are as extreme, vast, and chaotic as a day in Trump’s world. They reflect the unhinged, exasperated feelings and facilitate catharsis; provide a cautionary tale for where we’re headed; lend a human face to inhuman policy; grapple with the sense of helplessness; mock the circus-show politics; or, in some cases, just give it to him directly.
The first episode aired last Monday, beginning with the birth of the newest addition to the Lyons family—as well as a collective panic about the state of the world he’s being welcomed into. What to worry about first: The Saudi banks? The corporations treating people like algorithms? Climate change? ISIS? Pick an immigration or humanitarian crisis?
“Then we’ve got America,” says Russell Tovey’s Daniel Lyons. “Never thought I’d be scared of America in a million years.” If the world is this bad now, what is it going to be like for this poor child?
In a thrilling sequence, the action fast-forwards to 2024, and we see the international implications of all the policies being enacted by Trump, not to mention the U.K.’s and other global leaders.
The show is nihilistic in its depiction of the future, of the inevitability of utter and complete shit.
It is harrowing and horrifying, in that the events of the show are completely recognizable. In many ways, we’ve already surrendered to them. Years and Years, then, becomes some amorphous nightmare combination of cautionary tale and harsh mirror.
By the end of the episode, we get a glimpse of the near-apocalyptic state of the international refugee crisis, xenophobia, political splintering and extremism, theft of privacy, and digital dependency. At the end of it all, Trump fires a nuclear missile.
This Monday starts a relentless series of episodes showing the impossible lengths a couple must go through when one is separated in order to be together again. It’s one of the most moving arcs I’ve seen this year, and it’s just about torture to watch.
In addition to Tovey, the series stars Rory Kinnear, Ruth Madeley, Maxim Baldry, and Emma Thompson as a magnetic, polarizing, rising political zealot hellbent on shaking up U.K. politics with radical policies and middle fingers to tradition and political correctness. (Sound familiar?)
There’s something heartening about the Lyons family bond, the almost utopian way they remain connected in the face of fears that developing technology will isolate us even further. And, of course, there is catharsis in the ways they refuse to stand for the injustice of what is happening, even if it’s dispiriting to witness their powerlessness to do anything about it.
The Lyons may not believe in the extreme policies that are passing, but these policies have infiltrated every aspect of their lives, implanting like a series of viruses, each multiplying so quickly and incurably it becomes impossible to diagnose which is the one responsible for a given familial catastrophe.
Relationships are strained and ruined, inextricably tied to decisions made because of outside forces. The systemic, societal darkness and depravity blankets their personal lives, making it impossible to escape. This is a feeling, I suspect, that many people can relate to.
It’s not entirely evident what viewing experience we’re meant to get from Years and Years, from watching a fictional reality in which your biggest concerns about the repercussions of the Trump administration decisions are validated. But there is something fascinating about the feelings that the series is tapping into: the paranoia, the frustration, the anger, and, maybe most of all, the notion of being trapped.
These are moments and narratives that burrow into your consciousness, stalking you, plaguing you with anxiety and sullenness. It’s a narrative reflection of real life.
There’s a certain power in applying a fictional narrative to a headline-dominating, real-world crisis. It can almost violently confront you with dramatic plot turns that make you sick to your stomach.
This happens at an upsetting pace on Years and Years. That’s also the case with a series like Orange Is the New Black, be it for its exposure of the injustice of the justice system, or, as we saw in the season six finale—which will continue to be explored in the Netflix drama’s final season—immigrant detention centers.
Nausea-via-television is a frequent affliction when watching the The Handmaid’s Tale. Sometimes the show’s cautionary tale elements are dystopian, like the most recent episode that revealed a Washington, D.C., overtaken by Gilead: The Lincoln Memorial with Abraham’s head crumbled off the statue, the Washington Monument altered into a looming crucifix, the local handmaids’ mouths sewn shut to keep them silent.
Other times, its depiction of how the rollback of women’s rights, reproductive rights, and LGBTQ rights triggered catastrophic change at alarming speed exposes just how quickly we may feel the reverberations of current policies. Things are no longer dystopian; they’re immediate. It’s no coincidence given the timing of the third season, airing now, that the major theme is resistance, what that takes, and what the cost of it truly is.
Immediacy is what The Good Fight reckons with so brilliantly. The CBS All Access show finished its third season earlier this year, and might be the most vicious in terms of eviscerating Trump, toxic masculinity, and the decline in civilized discourse set in motion by this administration. (The series’ first scene, reshot after Trump’s shocking election win, saw Christine Baranski’s Diane Lockhart watching in disgusted astonishment as he is sworn into office.)
The Good Fight embraces the surreality we all feel—in one season three episode, Diane delivers a monologue to a bruise that morphs into the face of Trump—but never loses its grip on the gravity of what is happening and how it makes us feel: Furious, frustrated, and emboldened into resistance. All of that is sprinkled with a dash of wish fulfillment: In the world of The Good Fight, the pee tape exists.
But the tortured ethos of Being Alive Today has also found its way into comedy. We’ve become fascinated with shows like The Good Place, Forever, and Russian Doll, which grant heady narrative space to ideas of ethics, morality, and their roles in determining what we may deserve in the afterlife.
Of any series that aired through both the Obama and Trump presidencies, perhaps Veep had the toughest challenge navigating the shift. How do you satirize Washington when the Oval Office is more outlandish than the comedy itself? The solution was to hone in more sharply on the lack of repercussions for its characters’ bad behavior in a way that was damning for the administration but to viewers, gratifying.
And on topical sitcoms like black-ish and especially One Day at a Time, the issues facing the marginalized and underrepresented are explored with depth through comedy, one of TV’s most powerful tools.
We talk about escapist TV all the time: your Real Housewives, your Great Britsh Bake-Offs, your family dramas, soap operas, and riotous sitcoms. But what about TV that engages with the realities of life that we find ourselves incapable of escaping?
There are people who scoff about getting enough of “all that” in the news and not wanting to see it in their primetime pleasures. But there’s also something to be said for seeking out ways to work through what’s going on through the fractured prism of TV.
If there’s one optimistic way at looking at all these disparate, warped visions, it’s that maybe, just maybe, they’ll give the rest of us some much-needed clarity.