How President Trump Is Turning the TV Industry Upside Down
The election of Trump will have major ramifications for television, including programming targeting Trumpsters, tweaked storylines, and even an election-themed ‘American Horror Story.’
What if I told that you could relive the 2016 presidential election all over again—only this time, as a Ryan Murphy-directed American Horror Story installment? I imagine your first question would be “why?” closely followed by “will Lady Gaga be involved?” Unfortunately, the man who gave us 1,000 mediocre seasons of Glee and one perfect Marcia Clark has been fairly tight-lipped about his latest televised endeavor. Murphy broke the news on Watch What Happens Live on Wednesday, confiding in host Andy Cohen that, “I don’t have a title, but the season that we begin shooting in June is going to be about the election that we just went through.” To hear Murphy tell it, “I was thinking of this other thing and I literally sat up in bed and said ‘That’s it!’” Imagine if you could shake yourself out of a waking Trump nightmare by getting Sarah Paulson on the phone and just making something happen. Mysteriously, the director offered that Trump himself may or may not get the TV treatment, leaving viewers to wonder if this will be a show about the two presidential candidates or just a deep dive into Ted Cruz’s dubious ties to the Zodiac Killer
Remarkably enough, this isn’t the first miniseries slated to take on the extended national nightmare that was 2016. Why lose yourself in scripted escapism when you could just never think about anything except Donald Trump ever again? Writer Mark Boal and producer Megan Ellison (Zero Dark Thirty) are collaborating on a political drama that will chronicle the very recent presidential election. They’re reportedly aiming to limit the series to eight to 10 hours. Good luck with that.
Wig-related challenges aside, it’s hard to overstate the difficulty of building a TV show around a narrative so nonsensical that it would be laughed out of a beginner’s writing workshop. But Ryan Murphy, just like the rest of us, is staring down the barrel of four years of DJT. And like those of us who have historically watched more CBS than C-SPAN, he’s contemplating the effects of 2016’s presidential election on the 2017 television landscape. Assuming that our iPhones, laptops, TVs, and houses haven’t been lost to fire and looting by the time fall rolls around, we’ll likely be contending with a barrage of reactionary content. Television and movies will be read in context, as liberal creators begin to resist through their art, and networks struggle to appeal to Trump voters through a more targeted approach. As Trump threatens to make America great again, executives will undoubtedly start to question if the correct response is even more Ryan Murphy. Moves are being made to give “the people” what they want—(white) crime shows, (white) sitcoms, and heartwarming stories of (white) working class families raising their (white) children in (white) middle America.
ABC’s entertainment president Channing Dungey has already contended that her network’s programming may very well be out of touch. “With our dramas, we have a lot of shows that feature very well-to-do, well-educated people, who are driving very nice cars and living in extremely nice places,” she told attendees at the 2016 Content London conference “But in recent history we haven’t paid enough attention to some of the true realities of what life is like for everyday Americans in our dramas.” According to a subsequent Salon article, ABC is taking pains to address these allegedly underrepresented viewers, starting with an untitled Reba McEntire drama about a local sheriff who teams up with an FBI agent “of Middle Eastern descent.” According to The Hollywood Reporter, the “Southern Gothic soap opera” is “set in motion after a suspected act of terrorism happens at a Fourth of July parade in the small town of Oxblood, KY.”
Unfortunately, according to a TMZ report, the untitled pilot is one of the many upcoming shows that “has Hollywood execs and actors freaking out” in the wake of president Trump’s attempted immigration ban. “Here’s the prob,” TMZ explains. “Casting agents rely heavily on people from the 7 countries on Trump’s ban list. One big casting agent says it’s always been difficult to cast these roles, but now it’s ‘super f***** up.’” Luckily, ABC didn’t put all of their eggs in one basket—they’re also investing in comedies like Libby & Malcolm, a wacky show about a couple of ideologically opposed political pundits.
Over at Fox, NBC, and CBS, we’re looking at a rise in military dramas and red state-pandering sitcoms. Of course, there’s always the risk of going too white and ending up in Klan territory. That’s what happened at A&E, where a “reality” show that chronicled the mundane trials and tribulations of Klansmen and their families was cancelled amidst revelations that cast members were paid to participate.
While executives attempt to find a happy medium between mainstream programming and neo-Nazi propaganda, some of the coastal elite’s favorite series have struggled to find their footing under the Trump administration. Apparently, Ryan Murphy wasn’t the only TV auteur whose writers’ room was rocked by The Donald’s win. Like many pundits, pollsters, and the entire island of Manhattan, some showrunners had already called the election for Hillary Clinton.
Ironically enough, Law & Order: SVU failed to predict the eventual triumph of the law and order candidate. In a ripped from the headlines episode originally set to air on October 26, Gary Cole played a seemingly Trump-inspired businessman running for office, only to be derailed by a slew of women with unsavory accusations. Titled “Unstoppable,” the episode was moved to November 16 before being unceremoniously removed from the NBC schedule. “The fact is, probably, I don’t know that anyone’s ever going to see this anyway,” Gary Cole told The Hollywood Reporter. “I don’t know that the outcome was expected. I think maybe the thinking was that the outcome was not going to be this outcome and they would show it at some point. But now you’re in a whole different ball game.” Addressing his un-aired star turn, the Veep actor added, “The background that this candidate has—a businessman with no virtual government experience, a real estate tycoon—you didn’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out where they’re getting this from.”
The Good Wife spinoff The Good Fight had already shot scenes that referenced a Hillary Clinton victory, and had to revamp their approach and reshoot in the wake of Trump’s triumphant turn. In a now-unusable plot line, Diane Lockhart was going to cite Clinton’s ascendancy as justification for her own retirement. Christine Baranski, who plays Lockhart, told The Daily Beast that, “They had even shot a scene in which Diane tells her partners that ‘it feels like the glass ceiling has finally been broken,’ and she leaves the field to go live gleefully in the South of France off her retirement funds.” So imagine Diane—and Baranski’s—shock and dismay when Trump pulled ahead. “I think we all sat there with jaws wide open,” Baranski added. The writers quickly replaced the outdated content with more relevant material, like the opening scene of Sunday’s episode, which finds Lockhart disapprovingly watching—and angrily turning off—the 45th president’s inauguration ceremony.
South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker were also subjected to a last minute re-write, resulting in a slightly less touching take on the many stages of post-election grief. Before election night, they announced their upcoming episode “The Very First Gentleman”—an obvious wink to a Clinton presidency. But once Trump’s win was announced, the South Park team had to turn things around very quickly for their Wednesday night slot. The resulting episode, now titled “Oh Jeez,” chronicles the unexpected election of the Giant Douche Mr. Garrison. Luckily, given their punishing deadline, Stone and Parker didn’t have to dig too deep for dialogue. “Definitely a bit of a surprise here,” an animated anchor remarks as he announces Douche’s win. “The world is in a bit of a shock. We’re sure this is for real, right?”
Even before Donald Trump took the White House, television wizard Shonda Rhimes was revisiting political plot lines that were all too prescient. On Scandal, ShondaLand’s take on D.C. drama, no narrative twist is too unrealistic to make it to air. So naturally, Rhimes was surprised when the 2016 presidential race began rivaling her over-the-top fiction. “What I find crazy is that I feel like the election has been mirroring the stuff that we’ve been writing,” Rhimes explained way back in April. “It’s stunning for us to have that and then to have to go back to the writers room and pull a story line because it already happened,” she added. “Next week we have a story line in our episode where I swear line for line it was said two or three days ago… I can’t believe it.”
Scandal’s sixth season kicked off with Senator Mellie Grant—a first lady turned presidential candidate—losing her bid for the White House. But according to Rhimes, the premiere was written and shot months before Clinton’s political demise. While Rhimes stood by her original first five episodes, she and her writers had to revisit some scenes that were set to air later in the season. “We literally had a storyline where the Russian government was trying to destabilize the United States government by messing with the election,” Rhimes told Entertainment Weekly. “We were building that into the storyline. The writer’s room was full of people staring at the board going, ‘Oh, my God.’ It comes from the fact that we all read all the papers, we’re all paying attention to the news. We try to stay up with everything both conservative and liberal and then try to extrapolate it to its most crazy degree. Unfortunately, reality is extrapolating itself to its most crazy degree right now.”
Elsewhere in TV land, Veep had to pull a pussy joke and Black-ish waited until a week before the inauguration to address the aftermath of Trump’s election. While these reaction episodes and reactionary rewrites are unavoidable, the reception to unsolicited election-themed projects (*cough cough* Ryan Murphy) and longer-term planning remains to be seen.
And for everything that divides us, Americans may not need party-specific programming. According to a July 2016 analysis by E-Poll Market Research, Democrats and Republicans have a remarkable overlap in “favorite” TV shows, with The Walking Dead, Supernatural, and The Big Bang Theory all reaching across the aisle. Americans may not have great taste, but at least we can all agree on something: Sheldon Cooper 2020?