Why Political TV Shows Could Barely Survive the Trump Era

It’s not easy being a television writer when fiction can’t compete with reality.

In the fifth season of Scandal, the show’s writers faced an existential problem. The ABC drama, which centered around the immaculately dressed political fixer Olivia Pope, her team of shady associates, and the president with whom she has an on-and-off affair, based its identity on creating outlandish plotlines clearly inspired by real-world headlines. Therefore, it came as no surprise that the arc of its fifth season, which came out in fall 2015, featured a Republican presidential primary that coincided with the actual Republican primary that Donald Trump had taken over. But for a show that dramatized deft political operators who stole elections, ran secret government agencies, and covered up murders, Trump’s ascension seemed too outlandish even within its fictive world.

So, in an unsubtle May 2016 episode titled “Trump Card,” the Scandal writing team promptly introduced and then disposed of their Trump-like figure—all in a neat 25 minutes. Hollis Doyle, who might as well have been wearing a red MAGA hat for his resemblance to the New York City huckster, begins leading the polls. After Pope’s team exposes his tax evasion, rape allegations, and KKK connections to no avail, Olivia secretly records a conversation with him in which he assures her that the racism he spews is a mere marketing tactic. He promises, then, to become more moderate once he reaches the general election and calls supporters “mouth-breathing morons.” Olivia subsequently publishes the video, Hollis’ support plummets, he drops out, and the show moves on.

In acceding to the notion that Trump did not believe in his rhetoric, or that he might eventually behave presidentially, Scandal inadvertently acknowledged what would become a new reality: Television writers were unable to craft storylines as captivating as the daily stories coming out of the campaign trail and, eventually, the Trump White House.

Indeed, while political drama was a hallmark of Bush and Obama-era television, it would essentially fade during Trump’s tenure. Scandal, like its counterparts House of Cards and Veep, began during the Obama years and ended early into Trump’s tenure. One might have thought that a scandalous administration with unprecedented levels of absurdity would be fodder for fictional political television. The opposite, however, turned out to be true. Political dramas sputtered because they couldn’t keep up.

That’s something of a cultural and historical rarity—for political dramatizations to subside during times of intense political turmoil. Since the Elizabethan era, society has relied on the dramatic arts to commentate on the politics of the day. Think of Shakespeare’s Richard III and Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds. In fact, Shakespearean tropes—such as political betrayal to the corrupting influence of power—have long guided and the genre and were fundamental components of Obama-era shows like Scandal and House of Cards. But during Trump’s presidency, the nuances of such narratives lost the resonance they once had. “Trump takes what’s inherent to Shakespeare’s plays, which is the smart and serious contention for power in politics—be it in a tragic or a comic mode—and he turns it utterly farcical,” Barbara Bono, a Shakespeare scholar at the State University of New York at Buffalo, told me.

With slimy characters like Sean Spicer and Rudy Giuliani dominating headlines, along with Trump himself, politics, as represented on television, may well have seemed too methodical and thought out, media critics have theorized—or at least, compared to the real life-nightmare in Washington, it became awfully tame. “It was hard for television writers,” Betty Kaklamanidou, a television history and theory professor at Aristotle University, told me, “because they couldn’t compete with reality.”

While the Obama years may have been the Golden Age for modern political TV dramas—not only was there ScandalHouse of Cards, Veep, but Homeland and even the beloved Parks and Recreation—they were a feature of the popular entertainment landscape before the rock-star president became a figure of mass intrigue.

The West Wing, which aired from 1999 to 2006, was the first verifiable political phenomenon on television. Aaron Sorkin’s idealist creation posited that the bright-eyed capabilities of Democratic technocrats could create positive—even bipartisan—change, so long as they were organized effectively. The show began amid the Lewinsky scandal and ended as George W. Bush’s Iraq invasion was descending into bloody chaos—and it was not shy to make heavy-handed political statements. The series revolved around a set of competent, talented characters who entered politics and government with a sense of nobility and purpose—precisely the kind of people the showrunners felt the Bush administration was lacking. In a way, it foresaw the optimism and vision of Obama-ism even before Obama himself emerged.

At the same time, American television was evolving. Audiences were gravitating toward newly introduced antiheroes, such as The Sopranos’ Tony Soprano, Breaking Bad’s Walter White, and Mad Men’s Don Draper. One thing was clear: The viewing public liked bad guys—a lot. By the time Obama took office, it made sense that political television writers would find inventive ways to combine politics and mendacious protagonists.

Netflix’s House of Cards, which ran from 2013 to 2018, amalgamated all the facets of those prior shows—the antihero’s journey toward power for the sake of power, intertwined with deeply competent characters who both enable him and stand in his way. The villainous Frank Underwood bore hardly any resemblance to Obama—in fact, he’s more a constellation from several Shakespeare tragedies—but he offered some eerily prescient predictions about what would become of American politics. In its fourth season, released in March 2016, the ruthless Underwood attempts to orchestrate a circus-like Democratic Convention. “Politics is no longer just theatre,” he says. “It’s show business. So let’s put on the best show in town.”

But then, the problem for political TV writers was that when show businesses actually came to town, their characters no longer seemed to have any place in it.

Consider Veep, the HBO comedy that aired from 2012 to 2019. Taking the opposite approach from The West Wing, Veep thrived precisely due to its portrayal of incompetence in government. Although when the Trump administration proved how far incompetence could take a politician in real life, it made Veep seem trite and kitschy in comparison.

To be sure, each of these political shows ended for their own reasons; House of Cards, for example, was plagued by sexual assault allegations against its lead actor, Kevin Spacey. But what’s noteworthy is that no new political dramas replaced them.

Why? It may be because the concept of the presidency became significantly less appealing to a public that no longer believed in the “idealized prestige,” as Kaklamanidou put it, of America’s highest office. When the norms associated with the presidency—esteem, dignity, stateliness—died with Trump, the shows operating around those norms lost relevancy, too.

Meanwhile, satire filled the vacuum. As a dramatic character, Trump’s lack of nuance or complexity made him a poor study. But satirical representations had the better potential to fulfill Jonathan Swift’s vision of satire: that you could make fun of something with the implication that there’s a better way elsewhere. In other words, satire, at its best, comes with a deliberate reform instinct, which may be precisely what many Americans needed after being thrust into a crisis of American democracy. In the Trump years, late-night television and Saturday Night Live surged in popularity, creating some of the most memorable caricatures of the last twenty years, including Alec Baldwin’s Trump and Melissa McCarthy’s Spicer.

Of course, there were shows over the last four years that effectively commented on the Trump era—but notably, they were not the modern political dramas to which audiences had become accustomed. Like the novels Nineteen Eight-Four and It Can’t Happen Here, which spiked in sales after Trump’s election, they were fully dystopian. The Handmaid’s Tale, which serialized Margaret Atwood’s novel of a totalitarian patriarchal government, premiered in April 2017.

Succession, which first in 2018, draws inspiration from the Murdoch family. The HBO show offers biting critiques of the current media ecosystem, the uber-rich, and a closed-loop system of power cultivating systemic dysfunction. And as a depiction of a new-money dynasty, the parallels between the fictional Roys and Trump’s children are implied but never overt. The success of Succession, therefore, suggests that those seeking political dramaturgy over the last four years were more inclined toward Shakespearean villains in corporate settings. In other words, the producers believed, accurately, that sophisticated audiences were actually more interested in the nuances of what enabled a Trump-like figure to rise to power rather than a Trump-like figure himself.

Of course, with Trump’s presidency having come to an inglorious end, it’s unclear whether the Biden administration, or the deranged right-wing reaction to it, will spur a newfound interest in political dramas on television. If anything, the malevolent, conniving forces in opposition to Biden, or the grassroots-level energy on the left, could galvanize more fodder for such shows than the return of competent, mundane governance.

Either way, we’re clearly heading into a new era for both Washington and American television. It’s unlikely that TV writers will face the same problem that Scandal’s did in 2015—at least, not for now.

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Gabby Birenbaum

Gabby Birenbaum, a Washington Monthly intern, is a senior at Northwestern University studying journalism and political science.