Stranger than fiction?
As Donald Trump prepares to move into the White House, Stephen Arnell questions the future of political dramas under the new president.
It’s no understatement to say the election of Donald Trump (pictured above in The Apprentice) as the 45th president of the US has had reverberations around the world.
Although hardly on a scale with the anxieties related to areas of such importance as global security, the world economy and climate change, Trump’s elevation has caused an almost immediate effect on US political drama.
After being repeatedly being delayed before the November 8 election, Unstoppable – an episode of Law & Order: SVU starring Gary Cole (The West Wing, Veep, The Good Wife) as a Trump-like presidential candidate who faces damaging sexual allegations – may now have been scrapped for good, or at least been kicked down the road for the foreseeable future.
Is this a worrying sign of self-censorship on the part of broadcaster NBC, or the simple recognition that the network can’t afford to alienate those who elected Trump, despite Hilary Clinton winning the popular vote?
After all, Alec Baldwin’s parody of Trump on NBC’s Saturday Night Live (SNL) already earned a tweeted rebuke from the then candidate: “Watched Saturday Night Live hit job on me. Time to retire the boring and unfunny show. Alec Baldwin portrayal stinks. Media rigging election!”
This past weekend, the president-elect renewed his attacks on SNL and opened up a new front on the cast of the popular stage musical Hamilton.
So there appears to be a delicate balance for NBC and other network broadcasters in the US. Is it time to tread lightly?
Previous experiences under Republican presidents such as Richard Nixon and the Bushes have shown they or their surrogates have not been not afraid to push back against the media.
Nixon, of course, was a hater par excellence, whose notorious ‘enemies list’ included actors Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, Jane Fonda, Tony Randall and Gregory Peck.
He frequently criticised the broadcast media, so it must have been with some satisfaction that ABC adapted Nixon henchman John Ehrlichman’s novel The Company as the scathing Washington: Behind Closed Doors in 1977.
A thinly veiled portrait of Nixon’s administration, the miniseries was notable for the magnificent performance of Jason Robards in the role of the paranoid, hard-drinking President Richard Monkton, which gained him a Primetime Emmy nomination.
Back in 1992, then-POTUS George Bush Snr said: “We are going to keep on trying to strengthen the American family, to make American families a lot more like the Waltons and a lot less like the Simpsons.”
This prompted The Simpsons’ writers to goad the elder Bush in several episodes.
George Bush Jr had his critics too, and for the first six years of his presidency liberals had the comfort blanket of Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing, where Martin Sheen’s President Bartlett (Bill Clinton without the scandals) presided over an idealised version of a Democratic presidency, in a world where even the occasional Republican was portrayed sympathetically, most notably Alan Alda as Senator Arnold Vinick.
At the pre-9/11 dawn of George W’s presidency in 2001, the South Park team of Trey Parker and Matt Stone created Comedy Central’s short-lived sitcom That’s My Bush, which gently lampooned the president, being more of a spoof of sitcom conventions than a biting satire.
Wisely, Bush Jr preferred to outsource his attacks on broadcasters to the likes of Fox News, rather than engage directly – with some success, as evidenced when CBS was forced to drop biopic The Reagans back in 2003.
Rather more seriously, prior to this month’s election, Trump was also firing shots across the bows of Amazon/Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos for perceived bias against him.
Bezos, who had heavily criticised Trump, has unsurprisingly become more conciliatory after the Apprentice star became president-elect, as evidenced by a recent tweet: “Congratulations to @realDonaldTrump. I for one give him my most open mind and wish him great success in his service to the country.”
Trump has also laid into the proposed AT&T/Warner merger, saying before the election that he would block the deal. He has accused Comcast-NBCUniversal of “trying to poison the mind of the American voter” and has stated that he would not have allowed the companies to combine if he had been in charge.
The election of such an overshadowing character as Trump has presented TV’s creative community with a host of dilemmas, both in terms of shows already on air and those in development.
Trump’s sheer outlandishness, unpredictability and cartoonish persona have seemingly rendered much, if not all, of current US political drama obsolete.
Recently, Robert De Niro likened the president-elect to the character of General Jack D Ripper from Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove. Needless to say, this was not a flattering comparison.
Some have seen echoes of other fictional characters in Trump, including Martin Sheen’s unhinged presidential candidate Greg Stillson in The Dead Zone (1983) and Barry Morse’s Reagan-esque president Johnny Cyclops in the UK comedy series Whoops Apocalypse (1982).
The sheer volume of coverage of the US political scene may make viewers averse to watching a fictionalised version at the end of their working day.
This must be particularly dispiriting to new shows such as Graves (Epix) and Designated Survivor (ABC).
Graves, which began in October, stars Nick Nolte as a guilt-ridden former POTUS seeking to right the wrongs of his terms in office, reminiscent in some ways of the Starz comedy Blunt Talk (starring Patrick Stewart).
Peppered with political cameos from the likes of Barney Frank, Rudy Giuliani and Michael Steele, the show has earned only mediocre reviews, while the idea of a conscience-stricken president seems quaint in an age when Trump has publicly stated that he has never felt any need to ask God for forgiveness.
Designated Survivor’s premise of a low-ranking, soon-to-be-sacked cabinet member becoming commander-in-chief after virtually all branches of government are wiped out at the State of the Union address is a strong one, but audiences have tailed off since the show debuted on ABC, with live ratings falling from 10 million for episode one to 5.6 million for episode six.
Despite the star power of Kiefer Sutherland in the role of president Tom Kirkman, some clunky dialogue and a very conventional approach may be in part responsible for this decline, in addition to possible general fatigue with all things political in the US.
It will be interesting to see how established shows such as House of Cards (Netflix), Veep (HBO) and Madam Secretary (CBS) will cope with the Trump presidency. Do they up the ante to reflect the new political orthodoxy, or pivot, West Wing style, to an alternate reality?
It’s unlikely House of Cards can do much other than weave in some Trump-esque references before season five debuts early in 2017.
Producers and writers with new political dramas in production or development in the US such as HBO’s Capitol Hill (Washington graft) and TNT’s Civil (conflict after a hotly contested US election) are presumably in a state of some anxiety – what could possibly be more dramatic than real-life events?
All things considered, it’s probably safer to stick to reboots of familiar franchises such as MacGyver, Magnum PI and Lethal Weapon.