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How TV might change in the Trump age

‘This is a wake-up call,’ insists writer-producer Howard Gordon

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Illustration by Brian Stauffer

Political (and pop culture) pundits optimistically dubbed it the Obama Effect — the hope that, with the 2008 election of President Barack Obama, we’d witness a narrowing of the race gap, leading to better representation and an increased number of roles for black actors in Hollywood. And though it took almost four years after the inauguration for Kerry Washington to get things handled as Scandal‘s Olivia Pope — becoming the first black woman to lead a broadcast-TV drama since Teresa Graves on the 1974-75 drama Get Christie Love! — hope, at least for the Big Four networks, became reality.

ABC’s Scandal begat How to Get Away With Murder starring Viola Davis, and Shonda Rhimes became one of TV’s most influential showrunners. Fox’s Empire now ties the mostly white Big Bang Theory as TV’s No. 1 series in the 18-49 demo. And black-ish has proved that people are still hungry for diverse comedies. Broadcast TV has a ways to go (here’s looking at you, CBS), but there’s no doubt the president had a profound effect on what we see on TV. So if Obama could inspire such change, does that mean President-elect Donald Trump will too?

Many insiders say yes, though not in the way his liberal opposition may expect (or fear). No one’s suggesting that TV will normalize Trump’s divisive rhetoric about women and minorities, but they do think it’s time to better understand his constituency. “Hollywood will respond creatively,” insists writer-producer Howard Gordon (Homeland, 24). “This is a wake-up call that the divide is deeper and wider than anyone imagined. The responsible thing for storytellers to do is to try to reimagine things. There’s an audience out there who rallied behind Donald Trump for many different reasons.”

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And that will likely mean more shows that speak directly to the approximately 60 million people who voted for him. “There is a disenfranchised chunk of the population that feels left behind,” argues Kevin Falls, an executive producer of Fox’s Pitch. “Personally, I’d rather write a show that gives meaning and understanding to why the other side thinks and acts the way they do. Entertainment is already too much like how people watch their news now…. People are only getting news that reinforces what they want to believe.” But let’s be clear: Liberal-leaning TV isn’t disappearing. Creators aren’t planning to pander in an effort to appear more inclusive. “We need realistic stories about what’s going on in terms of racism, xenophobia, and homophobia, not agitprop shows telling people what to believe,” says longtime drama writer Neal Baer (Law & Order: SVU, ER). “We need stories that will show the complexities of why we are in the place we are in now.”

Two shows are already in the works that could do just that. Former CBS chairman Nina Tassler and Chris Gerolmo (Mississippi Burning) are developing a drama about the rise of militias for WGN America called Pledge of Allegiance. The story follows one family that’s involved in a massive plot by several Texas militias to secede from the union. Meanwhile, black-ish creator Kenya Barris and his coexecutive producer Vijal Patel are developing a comedy for ABC about a married pair of politically divided pundits, one of whom is black and the other white. Felicity Huffman is currently attached to star. “One thing I do believe is my mission is that I want to make sure we start communicating as a country,” says Barris. “As a people and as a culture, we have to stop the smugness and contention between each side. Everyone can’t be crazy. We have to find some common ground where we start a conversation. If that starts in entertainment and provokes healing moments, then it’s great. That’s what our job is.”