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If the presidential election of 1960 was the first in which TV played a crucial role—giving the edge in the Nixon-Kennedy debates to the telegenic junior senator from Massachusetts—the 2016 contest was the first in which one of the candidates was truly a product of the medium. Donald Trump’s public image was forged on the small screen as Ronald Reagan’s was on celluloid. The Apprentice, which premiered in 2004, extended the real estate mogul’s celebrity beyond the New York tabloids and demonstrated his instinct for drama. As the news media has learned, Trump’s caustic, unpredictable style makes him, if nothing else, irresistibly “good TV.” The relationship is symbiotic: Trump’s predilection for Twitter only reveals his deeper obsession with television, given as he is to tweet about any show that might mention him, from Morning Joe to Saturday Night Live to the latest iteration of The Apprentice, of which he is still executive producer. He may no longer be an entertainer, but Nielsen ratings remain his standard of success.
When it looked like Trump was on track to lose the presidency, several reports suggested his real endgame was to establish his own news network to kindle the heat of his fired-up base. TNN will have to wait at least four years, if it happens at all. But Trump’s arrival in the White House will nonetheless shake up the television landscape in ways obvious and subtle. Production cycles being what they are, Obama’s America will persist a little while longer on screen. That will begin to change as TV executives make overtures to the demographic segments credited with boosting Trump to victory, green-lighting more series set in flyover states and blue-collar homes. ABC Entertainment president Channing Dungey said as much at a summit in late November. “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 acknowledged. “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.”
Though Dungey framed the strategy in economic terms, it wasn’t lost on the crowd that the network that did as much as any to promote diversity—through sitcoms like Modern Family and black-ish, and producer Shonda Rhimes’s rainbow-colored Thursday night lineup—was announcing a course correction. We can indeed expect more programs about the rural, white working class, like Duck Dynasty without the subtextual condescension. The long-awaited return of David Lynch’s brilliantly sordid small-town mystery series Twin Peaks, on Showtime later this year, couldn’t be better timed.
The election results surprised TV writers as much as pollsters. The creators of The Good Fight, a legal drama spun off from The Good Wife, had to rewrite the show’s first scene to splice in the main character’s shell-shocked reaction to Trump’s inauguration. The addition ended up bolstering a key theme of the show, intended in part as a satire of liberal pieties.
Not every new show will play to Trump’s base—some will instead reflect liberal anxieties. A friend who works in the writer’s room for a socially conscious crime series coming soon to a major streaming network says that one of the show’s main characters was going to be a subtly racist cop, but that in light of the racial resentment stirred up by the election, the writers decided to make the cop’s bigotry far more overt.
Trump’s ascendance will lend allegorical overtones to any show about the acquisition and retention of power. And if you remember your Foucault, that means pretty much every show, from Game of Thrones to The Walking Dead. Take The Young Pope, in which a brash new pontiff asserts his authority by overturning centuries-old traditions. Jude Law’s Pius XIII was likely written as a dark mirror image of Pope Francis, but the parallels with our new head of state are hard to miss: his outer-borough background, his narrow election victory, his distaste for established norms, his taste for gilded festoonery.
The impact will be most apparent in series set on Capitol Hill, which will have to maintain relevance in an uncertain political climate. House of Cards has so far proved remarkably prescient in its cynicism, but its dark Clintonian machinations will likely struggle to keep up with the pace of change under the new regime. In her Emmy acceptance speech last year, Julia Louis-Dreyfus hinted at the challenges her sitcom Veep will confront when she said, “Our show started out as a political satire, but it now feels more like a sobering documentary.” And will it be possible to watch Designated Survivor, in which an explosion wipes out the entire presidential line of succession ahead of the secretary of housing and urban development, without recognizing that such a scenario in real life would put Ben Carson in the Oval Office?
Once you start down that road, it soon becomes clear no show will mean quite the same thing it did in 2016. The Americans, about undercover Soviet agents in the ’80s, can’t help bringing to mind reports of Russian meddling in the election. The producers of the geopolitical thriller Homeland couldn’t have known when they shot its current season in New York that POTUS would operate out of Trump Tower. (They wisely hedged their bets and made the incoming president a hybrid of Trump and Clinton; a female commander in chief who’s skeptical of intelligence briefings.) The Man in the High Castle, set in a counterfactual world where the Axis powers won the war, summons images of Richard Spencer’s alt-right acolytes gathering just steps from the White House. Master of None’s touching comedy about second-generation Americans will strike a more rueful tone in the wake of Trump’s rhetoric on immigration, whether it means to or not. Transparent will feel ever more like a window into an out-of-touch liberal elite. Viewers seeking less contingent plotlines may find refuge in escapist period pieces like Victoria and Stranger Things, or in futuristic dystopias like Westworld. But as Mad Men and Black Mirror demonstrate, the best shows about yesterday or tomorrow are really shows about today. There is no escape.
However representative our democracy may be, we recognize ourselves more in TV characters than in our elected officials. In Trump, we have a president who is a bit of both, the producer and star of the ultimate reality show. And the only certainty is that he will be watching.