Tag Archives: Madam Secretary

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.

Alec Baldwin lampoons Trump on Saturday Night Live
Alec Baldwin lampoons Trump on Saturday Night Live

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.

Homer squares up to George Bush Sr in The Simpsons
Homer squares up to George Bush Sr in The Simpsons

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.

The West Wing
The West Wing aired during George Bush Jr’s administration

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.

Graves
Graves, starring Nick Nolte as a former president, began airing in October

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.

Madam Secretary
How will shows like Madam Secretary react to Trump’s tenure?

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.

tagged in: , , , , , , , ,

The politics of TV writing

To mark Donald Trump’s shock victory over Hillary Clinton in the US presidential election, we look at the writers behind some of the country’s political TV drama series.

westwingThe West Wing: NBC’s inside view of the White House ran from 1999 to 2006, crossing over with the tail end of Bill Clinton’s time in office and most of George W Bush’s two terms. The show starred Martin Sheen as President Jed Bartlet and was created by Aaron Sorkin. It won three Golden Globes, 26 Emmys and was ranked at number 10 in The Writers Guild Of America’s 101 Best-Written Series list. Sorkin wrote or co-wrote 85 of the first 88 episodes and then side-shifted into movies, with films including Charlie Wilson’s War, The Social Network and Moneyball. He came back to TV with The Newsroom and then wrote the movie screenplay for Steve Jobs.

“Education is the silver bullet. Education is everything. We don’t need little changes. We need gigantic monumental changes.”
-Sam Seaborn (played by Rob Lowe)

veepVeep: The Boston Globe calls HBO’s Veep “a show for our time, a portrait of the narcissism, malignant self-interest, banality, media self-pleasuring and congressional paralysis that seem to afflict American politics more than ever.” The show was brilliantly created by Armando Iannucci, who also blessed the world with British political satire The Thick of It. It is set in the office of Selina Meyer, a fictional VP who subsequently becomes president, played superbly by Julia Louis-Dreyfus. The show has been nominated for Primetime Emmy Awards every year, winning a number of them in high-profile categories. The fifth season of Veep ended in June 2016 and a sixth has been ordered.

“If men got pregnant, you could get an abortion at an ATM.”
-Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus)

kevin-spacey-house-of-cards-netflixHouse of Cards: This acclaimed Netflix series is a US reimagining of a British series of the same name, which was written by Andrew Davies and Michael Dobbs (the author of the novel on which both are based). The first four seasons of the US version were written by Beau Willimon, who then handed over the reins to Melissa James Gibson and Frank Pugliese (who are writing season five). Originally a theatre writer, Willimon’s crossover into screenwriting came with the George Clooney movie Ides of March in 2011. There’s no news yet on Willimon’s plans after House of Cards.

“The road to power is paved with hypocrisy, and casualties.”
-Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey)

scandalScandal: This ABC drama, which debuted in 2012, sees Kerry Washington star as press aide Olivia Pope, a character reported to be based on George W Bush’s aide Judy Smith. Created by Shonda Rhimes, the show focuses on Pope’s crisis-management firm. A sixth season launches on January 19, 2017. Rhimes, of course, is a powerhouse who continues to enjoy success with series such as How To Get Away With Murder.

“You can’t change the choice you made. All you can do is not let it ruin you.”
-Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington)

madamsecretaryMadam Secretary: This CBS series sees Tea Leoni play Dr Elizabeth McCord, a secretary of state trying to balance her job with her family life. Launched in 2014, it is now up to three seasons and is rating fairly well (eight to nine million per episode). The show was created by Barbara Hall, whose previous credits include Judging Amy, Joan of Arcadia and Homeland (which she co-executive produced). She has also written a bunch of novels over the years. Apparently, Hillary Clinton is a fan and binge-watches with hubby Bill.

“I’m fully prepared to live with the consequences of my actions. What I couldn’t live with were the consequences of my inactions.”
-Dr Elizabeth McCord (Tea Leoni)

commander-in-chief-geena-davis-32520947-2291-1527Commander In Chief: This ABC show didn’t really take off but is worthy of a mention because it saw Geena Davis cast as the first female president of the US. Launched in 2005, it was created by Rod Lurie. However, he was replaced mid-run by Steven Bochco of NYPD Blue fame. This also didn’t work out, with Bochco replaced by Dee Johnson. Johnson wasn’t able to turn things round either – but it’s interesting to note she popped up as executive producer on The Good Wife and Boss, both of which feature below.

“So I say to the people of this nation: I am humbled by your greatness. I am humbled by the history being made here today, humbled by the notion that I am the first woman to hold this office. I’m humbled by the responsibilities that rest with me.”
-Mackenzie Allen (Geena Davis).

desingatedDesignated Survivor: Kiefer Sutherland (24) stars as a low-ranking cabinet member who unexpectedly becomes US president after an attack wipes out the administration. The show is currently in season one and, after a strong start, is slipping in the ratings for ABC. Episode five attracted 5.9 million, compared to the 10 million who tuned in for launch. Distributed globally by Entertainment One International, the show was created by David Guggenheim (Safe House) and hails from The Mark Gordon Company (Grey’s Anatomy, Ray Donovan, Quantico, Criminal Minds).

“Capitol’s been attacked. Congress, cabinet… Eagle is gone. Sir, you are now the president of the United States. “
-Mike Ritter (LaMonica Garrett)

cbs_good_wife_702_clean_image_thumb_masterThe Good Wife: CBS’s hit show was a legal/political drama about a woman who returns to a career in law after her husband is involved in a political corruption scandal. Created by Robert and Michelle King, the show was a big awards winner, securing five Emmys during its run. The Kings also made political satire Braindead for CBS but the show was cancelled after one season.

“When the door you’ve been knocking at finally swings open, you don’t ask why. You run through.”
-Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski)

jack-bobbyJack & Bobby: This was a WB Network series that ran for one season in 2004/2005. The show’s interesting premise centred on two brothers – one of whom would grow up to be president from 2041 to 2049. So it was a way of looking at their formative years, encouraging the audience to guess which one would turn out to have presidential credentials. The show was created by Greg Berlanti, Vanessa Taylor, Stecen Cohen and Brad Metzler. Berlanti, of course, has gone on to have a number of DC Comics-based superhero hits with The CW network.

“Grace used to say Jack and Bobby were like two sides of a coin. Without Bobby, Jack might never have learned compassion. Without Jack, Bobby might never have gained strength.”
-Future Courtney McCallister (Brenda Wehle)

boss-kelsey-grammerBoss: This Starz series starred Kelsey Grammer as a Chicago mayor struggling with dementia. Although it generated a good response from critics, low ratings meant it only lasted two seasons. Starz chief Chris Albrecht told The Hollywood Reporter that Boss “didn’t resonate enough with the two constituents that are important to us: our subscribers and our distributors.” The show was created by Farhad Safinia, an Iranian-American screenwriter whose other credits include the movie Apocalyto (written with Mel Gibson).

“Spectators stand on the sidelines shaking their heads, lacking the balls. You know what I mean? When Truman nuked Japan, when Lincoln sent boys out to kill their cousins… you think they gave a shit about their approval ratings? Fuck the spectators.”
-Tom Kane (Kelsey Grammer)

tagged in: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,