Political fantasy can’t compete in the Age of Trump
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I recently ran into a friend on the New York-to-Washington Acela, the obnoxiously incestuous, preferred method of transport for media and political folks who don’t mind a clamorous soundtrack of gossip and deal-making echoing through their train car.
He’s an Obama White House alum who now consults on a popular political television show about a fictional presidency. I asked him what, if anything, had changed about the job since President Trump’s election.
He told me that, after the first few unprecedented and chaotic months, he warned the scriptwriters not to base plot lines on Trump’s White House, because no one would believe them.
“We would have rejected scripts like this,” he said, of the daily real-life goings-on in Trumpland.
With Season 5 of another political series, “House of Cards,” having just launched on Netflix, one has to wonder how writing in the age of Trump will change our favorite political shows. My hope? Not much.
The political series that came out of the Obama years, from “House of Cards” and “Veep” to “Scandal” and “Homeland,” were an over-the-top kind of escapism that contrasted with the fairly ho-hum nature of President Barack Obama’s White House. “No Drama Obama” wasn’t necessarily the stuff of good comedy, satire or drama, so here were a diabolical Frank Underwood, a hapless Selina Meyer, a scandalous Olivia Pope and a crazy Carrie Mathison to entertain us.
Against the aloof, contained and insular Obama administration, plot lines where the president is having a steamy affair, a climbing congressman throws a reporter in front of a subway train, or a drug-addled CIA agent sleeps with her target — and keeps her job — seemed absurd, but in the best possible way.
But now, as my friend pointed out, how is fiction supposed to compete with the real-life plot lines too ridiculous to believe if we weren’t watching them with our own two eyes? And, if we escaped boring with crazy under Obama, will we want to escape crazy with boring under Trump?
That’s the danger.
David Mandel, executive producer of “Veep,” is grateful for his prescient decision, before Trump took office, to take Selina Meyer out of the White House and focus on her life postpresidency.
“I’m not sure you want to see Trump in the White House doing stupid things and then also Selina in the White House doing stupid things,” he told The Huffington Post. “There’s no scene of (press secretary) Mike McLintock that I could write doing a press conference that’s funnier than Sean Spicer apologizing about his Hitler references, you know what I mean?”
As for “House of Cards,” where Frank and Claire Underwood are now husband-and-wife running mates, the Underwoods’ insane fictional Washington no longer seems that insane. As Robin Wright, who plays Claire, put it, “Trump has stolen all of our ideas.” The Season 5 trailer seemed to indicate Frank Underwood would be a Democratic Trump, reviled, beloved and feared.
But Kevin Spacey, who plays Frank, is already distancing the show from the current Washington. “That was never our intention to play into the real world of politics. We wanted to be an alternative universe.”
In fact, in gearing up for the new season, “House of Cards” looked not to our last election but to one in Mexico to tap into a viral meme, biting off a much-mocked hashtag effort by a fringe gubernatorial candidate whose campaign has been dubbed the “worst in history.”
But whether these series reflect our current politics or escape from it, good writing trumps all of that. Hollywood shouldn’t forget that as it assembles a new class of political shows for our edification.
Nor should writers wrestle too hard with what is believable in the era of Trump and what isn’t. That isn’t the point. As Aaron Sorkin, writer of “The Newsroom” and “The West Wing,” told me a few years ago, “If the goal was to make it as real as possible, then the result would end up looking a lot like a security camera tape.”
And perhaps especially in the era of Trump, who would want to watch that?
Contact Cupp at thesecupp.com.